Hilton Als on James Baldwin and Letting the Ghosts Roam
The writer and critic speaks about his new group exhibition at David Zwirner, which ably depicts the "eccentricities of his mind."
Jane Evelyn Atwood, James Baldwin with the bust of his head by American artist, Lawrence Wolhandler in his hotel room, rue des Grands Augustins, Paris, France. 1975. © Jane Evelyn Atwood, courtesy David Zwirner
In Hilton Als’s new show “God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin,” Baldwin himself gazes out at us through Richard Avedon’s camera lens, with eyes that look so clear-sighted it’s no surprise to find he surveyed nothing less than America itself with that depth of clarity in books like Notes of a Native Son (1955) or The Fire Next Time (1963).
The author maintains a presence even across artworks where he doesn’t appear. Instead, the show creates a web of intimate associations, ringing true to the curator’s own style, whose writing can weave in and around both the personal, the first person, and the structural forces of the world around him, or collapse those distinctions altogether. Here, Als discusses treating the weighted legacy of Baldwin with a light touch, and considers Baldwin’s critical relevance to the present.
GARAGE: I actually wanted to start by talking about the season of exhibitions you curated for The Artist’s Institute at Hunter College in spring and summer of 2016. The second show you did there was titled “James Baldwin/Jim Brown and the Children.” How does this new show follow from that exhibition, and what sorts of ideas did you want to continue to explore with Baldwin in terms of visual form? In both shows for instance, the 1945 Richard Avedon portrait of him appears, but also the Larry Wolhandler bronze bust of him from 1975.
Hilton Als: When I did those shows at The Artist’s Institute they were really sort of autobiographical in some way; meaning that what prompted me was at the time I was losing my sister, the sibling that I’m closest to. What I loved about doing the shows uptown was that there was a great sense of urgency in the material. The James Baldwin section of it was really broader in terms of its discussion of black masculinity. The show at Zwirner is much more specific, and it plays more into this idea of Baldwin’s specific queerness, as opposed to a general queerness of black men.
GARAGE: At the preview of the show, I believe you said something about how you wanted to give Baldwin his body back.
Als: Yes, I think that one of the things that has happened to Baldwin, specifically, is that he has sadly been drained of his meaning as a maverick. He’s been taken up as a person who is a prophet, during a time when language is a very difficult and dangerous thing. Kids that we’ve raised now are policing gender, race, and so on. The conversation about any number of those things is being so policed that it’s difficult to have a conversation where you don’t feel that you’re being surveilled in some way. And so, the right and the left have a lot to answer for. And I think that in times of deep confusion, and also puritanism, we tend to look to people who have articulated something about that in the past and interestingly, I noticed that they almost never pick women to do that, to be the voice of that. At this moment in time, I’d be quoting Jane Jacobs just as much as I would be quoting James Baldwin. It was very important to me his inconsistencies and the eccentricities of his mind be represented. It was very difficult to figure out how to do that visually, which is why I really had to work on it with a year of research, because I had to really get into knowing him, and feeling him, in order to understand him, and so that I would be able to be free and be able to improvise with the art.
GARAGE: You’ve had a long history with Baldwin’s work. You’ve noted before that when you were a teenager your mentor, the writer Owen Dodson, had given you a book of his essays, Nobody Knows My Name (1961).
Als: Yes. And some of the essays still remain a kind of mystery to me, like, his essay called “Princes and Powers,” it’s very dense and I find that I can’t really determine what he’s saying all in a sitting. Some of his pieces and fiction takes a number of years to understand.
GARAGE: What kind of works and artists came to mind as you were thinking about how you wanted to visually represent this kind of mystery or complexity that you see in his work?
Als: James Welling was the first person that I thought of because of his experiments with color and paper. And that reminded me very much of certain aspects of Baldwin’s work, i.e. his interest in color and what it meant politically and emotionally, and how we treated each other based on blackness and whiteness. I wanted something beautiful and abstract to break down the argument, because people tend to think of race in terms of bodies only, whereas, I really wanted to broaden the argument to include abstractions, to take it away from the literal and bring it back to the mind.
GARAGE: With the inclusion of the Alvin Baltrop photographs of men cruising on the old west side piers in Manhattan in the 1970s and 80s, were those used, in a way, to gesture at Baldwin’s sexuality, an aspect of his identity that he didn’t write about directly until the end of his life, as you said?
Als: He was one of the singular people of color living in Greenwich Village during his time, and those piers didn’t really exist in that way then. Originally, I had wanted to include some of Peter Hujar’s works, but they really were sort of less tender, in a funny way, than Baltrop, who was working from the inside as a man of color, paying attention to other people of color. I wanted to give Baldwin that home, in a way that would have been so advantageous in real life, not only for him but for all those guys on the piers. He was writing from France by then about the America that he remembered. How amazing would it have been if he had been in New York during that time? I think it would have given a whole new energy to his writing.
GARAGE: There are also photos of Baldwin here at parties—images that kind of look like snapshots, it’s an intimate view of him. How did you think about including images that show him along with ones that don’t? There are other iconic images too, like Anthony Barboza’s portrait of Michael Jackson at twenty-one years old, as if they’re part of an extended portrait of Baldwin?
Als: Isn’t that picture amazing? It’s his real face. With Baldwin, I really was very, very careful not to literalize him. There was another set of photographs, not by Avedon, but amazing pictures of him on the piers that were taken in the 1940s. And I really wanted them, but they just didn’t add to this feeling that I wanted to generate, of bringing him back to feelings, of textures and thoughts and touch, and to make it more visceral. A standard exhibition would have been monitors with him giving speeches and pictures of him on a timeline and that would have been it. There was just too much poetic space that I wanted to fill, as opposed to literal space. The show is funnily more akin to writing; in that, unless you’re a doctoral student, you want to make work that really connotes the person, as opposed to pinning them down in some heavy academic bog, and I found that as I was going through making the show that there was a touch that I wanted, it’s the only way to describe it, that was much lighter than what we’ve brought to him. If you’ve watched him walking in films, he had a very light walk. And I also wanted to have him walk through the gallery that way. The last book he published was called The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985), which I think is an extraordinary title, one of his great Biblical titles, and the show is a kind of evidence of things not seen. There’s a lot of ghostly imagery, there are the letters from his teacher, Orilla Miller, to him. I think that it’s wrong when curators try to solidify those ghosts; I think we need to let them roam.
GARAGE: At the preview, you also spoke about how you have been disturbed by a largely heteronormative conversation around this writer’s work, “that plunges the white and privileged into a very comforting, cold bath laced with guilt and remorse. These are reflexes, not thoughts.” And that’s such a beautiful statement, so I don’t want to ask you to explain it, but I wondered if you could say more about the flaws you find in the legacy that white people, or perhaps a white literary establishment, has tried to create for him.
Als: I think that one of the things that has been packaged about Baldwin is the stuff that’s supposed to make white people feel badly. And he really wasn’t a racist. You only work that hard at integration if you’re an integrationist at heart, and his experience of love had been changed by his teacher, Bill Miller. And I don’t think you ever forget that. And so, he felt that there was a chance or hope. That’s what’s heartbreaking about him.
GARAGE: With one of his novels now adopted into a film by Barry Jenkins, If Beale Street Could Talk, I wonder what do you think people should try and see in his writing, now, if there’s a renewed attention on him?
Als: I’m hoping that people see the enormous need for love and the enormous need to give love. I think he lived in a constant feeling of despair about how we deny ourselves a fundamental need, which is to connect to other people.
“God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin” is now on view at David Zwirner Gallery’s location on 525 and 533 West 19th Street.