a ‘collective portrait of james baldwin’ as art exhibit

February 1, 2019
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There are two distinct spaces in God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin, a group exhibit at Manhattan’s David Zwirner Gallery, where quotes from Baldwin (1924-1987) and commentary from the show’s curator, writer/critic Hilton Als, punctuate the installation.

Richard Avedon, James Baldwin, writer, Harlem, New York, 1945
© The Richard Avedon Foundation
Courtesy David Zwirner

The first includes an audio recording of Baldwin singing “Precious Lord” playing on a loop, imbuing the atmosphere with the oceanic presence of Black American endurance and struggle. In a powerful act of curation, three small black and white, vintage photographs show white men prepping a Black man for lynching. They precede a display case that showcases a letter Baldwin wrote while in his early thirties to Orilla “Bill” Winfield, his elementary school teacher, a white woman who shared a meaningful, informative relationship with the writer throughout his life. The nuanced juxtaposition of whiteness and Blackness found in the two works — placed side-by-side — shocks, hurts and consoles in succession.

James Baldwin, Evan and Orilla (“Bill”) Winfield with James Baldwin, Los Angeles, November 1976
Reproduction of a photograph taken during a visit by Baldwin to the Manzanita Street home of the Winfields

That initial part of the exhibition, titled “A Walker in the City”, functions in some ways as a the opening of a narrative. Photos introduce Baldwin’s parents. Beauford Delaney, “the first walking, living proof, for me, that a Black man could be an artist,” is acknowledged. A 1955 copy of his breakthrough book, Notes of a Native Son, features a photograph of young Baldwin. And, a series of portraits by Marlene Dumas situates Baldwin among 14 men, including Als, as part of the artist’s Great Men series.

Beauford Delaney, Dark Rapture (James Baldwin), 1941
Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY and David Zwirner

The second space. titled “Colonialism,” is made up of two adjoining rooms and has a more contemporary feel. It is organized around Baldwin’s relationship to fame; acquired with the cult status of his book The Fire Next Time (1963). A striking pair of black and white photographs — Michael Jackson at 21 (1980) by Anthony Barboza, and A Young Negro Boy, Washington Square Park, N.Y.C. (1965) by Diane Arbus — lays out Als’ intention to explore fame as a colonizing force. Wall text quotes Baldwin from his piece “Here Be Dragons,” originally published in Playboy as “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood” in 1985.

Diane Arbus, A young Negro boy, Washington Square Park, N.Y.C. 1965, 1965
© The Estate of Diane Arbus

On an adjacent wall, a large-scale single channel video by John Edmonds, Shotgun (2014), alluringly teases viewers with the potential of a kiss. Two black male heads face each other, silhouetted and in profile. A blue light overlays their exchange while they shotgun a joint. Their lips linger near enough to generate anticipation or discomfort, depending on who’s looking. Nearby, a slide show of snapshots of Baldwin traveling, hanging out with friends and enjoying life and love, offers a stunning display of Baldwin’s personhood. Here, Als seems to question racialized fame, Black queer identity, visibility/invisibility, and sheer humanness. These themes are further illuminated by Glenn Ligon on Black masculinities; Kara Walker on colonialism; and, Alvin Baltrop’s pre-AIDS crisis photographs that capture the dilapidated Hudson River piers and gay men during the 1970s and ‘80s.

Kara Walker, 8 Possible Beginnings or: The Creation of African-America, A Moving Picture, 2005 [still]
Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York and David Zwirner

Details, anecdotes and cause for contemplation are quietly housed in every corner of the exhibition, taking curation to the level of art in and of itself. Ultimately, Baldwin’s tender yet decisive depth is unmistakable within Als’ perfectly alchemized creation of a collective portrait.

Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Nyado: The Thing Around Her Neck, 2011
© Njideka Akunyili Crosby
Courtesy the artist, Victoria Miro, and David Zwirner

God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin is at the David Zwirner Gallery, New York until February 16th