In the essay accompanying cultural critic Hilton Als’ new exhibition James Baldwin/Jim Brown and the Children at The Artist’s Institute, the writer explains why he often turns to curating and artmaking. “The experience of making visual things, or creating an environment in which artists get to speak, is a part of life I prefer not to crowd with words.” Als writes, “Words are my job,” and “visual work can take on many points of view at once as it rearranges so-called ‘reality.’” The exhibition features works of video, photography, sculpture, sound, and text that explore the ways America and Als came to know James Baldwin—black, gay, proud, defiant, cool, and ultimately out-of-vogue. In the show, the public image of the famous Harlem writer competes with Als’ own long-running study of the author.
In James Baldwin/Jim Brown and the Children, Als is both curator and artist. He writes in the show’s essay that the exhibition is kind of like the work he made in the early 1990s with photographer Darryl Turner. He cheekily refers to his early art as, “Fluxus with a sense of humor.” In this exhibition, Als creates an apartment sized site-specific work that is populated with smaller objects that seem to present James Baldwin as a mirror of Als, the people he loved and grieved, and those who show him affection now. He terms these people, “the children.” They include the gay black writers Gary Fisher, Jesse Murry, and Julius Eastman, and artists John Edmonds, Jennie C. Jones, Darryl Turner, Troy Michie, and Paul Mpagi Sepuya, who all have work in the exhibition.
As curation goes, Als’ exhibition can be described as a “Letter from a Region in My Mind,” like Baldwin’s seminal 1962 essay, which appeared later in his book, The Fire This Time. The experience is personal. It appears to take the shape of a private shrine, and at times it’s hard to make out the show’s contours. Als’ portrait, Jim Brown #1, for instance, of the former professional football player and actor naked pulled from a September 1974 issue of Playgirl, only resonates considering Brown was the first image of a nude black male Als had ever seen. (In his exhibition essay Als writes, “I never saw my father naked.”) Yet, one sees connections to "all that Baldwin asked for,” in the varying thickness of the black lines that make up abstractionist Jennie C. Jones' Score for Sustained Blackness Set 2, and photographer Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s Model Study, of an interracial couple tenderly touching.
As artist, Als presents a single installation that defines the perimeters, in the artist’s mind, of who Baldwin’s heirs are. The figures present in the layered Homage to Gary Fisher with Friends (the other Baldwin) are performer and editor Tavi Gevinson and painter Lynette Yiadim-Boakye striking poses in self-portraits, surrounded by dental molds that signify the AIDS crisis and the death of several of Baldwin’s children to the virus. The work also includes several Carl Van Vechten portraits of James Baldwin and Diana Sands, Dorothy Dean's wallpaper, famous Harlem photographer James Van Der Zee’s Untitled, and various still and video works by Eve Sedgwick. Throughout the gallery are works by Als that seem to signal a desire for the writer to be considered a Baldwin child, too. Als art largely adapts the form of appropriation. There is a Catherine Opie portrait of Als, for example, made into a new work called Myself Wrapped in Plastic. “Plastic is a prophylactic against ‘illness’ and the pain I feel, now and forever, about AIDS,” Als writes in his roadmap of an exhibition essay. “And about smiling through.”
In the essay and exhibition, Als also draws a line between Baldwin and those who he thinks are not Baldwin’s children:
James Baldwin didn’t write about his sexuality directly until toward the end of his life… Gary [Fischer] wrote more about that story. He was Baldwin’s child, his rightful heir, not a certain heterosexual writer who stole from Baldwin to make a career for himself filled with glittering false prizes; an expatriate life made cushy by white attention, guilt and money. Baldwin was queer. Gary was queer. They talked about a queer world. I want to celebrate them both—the father (Baldwin), and one of his sons (Gary). And all the sons and daughters who followed.
Here, Als seems to allude to the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent success. The heterosexual Coates, it seems, in overwhelmingly centering around the experiences of black straight men in both his book-length letter, Between the World and Me, and his 2008 memoir, The Beautiful Struggle: A Fatherm Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, disqualifies himself as a Baldwin child. Als, in drawing distinction between Baldwin and Coates, evokes how in the black imagination, the clarity and intensity with which Baldwin characterized black life led to fame that, still often separates Baldwin, the man, from his lived experiences.
The various portraits of Baldwin that hang in the show, like those of James Baldwin, Nina Simone, and the one taken by Baldwin’s high school friend, Richard Avedon, are tied deeply to the man who once wrote that he “tip-toed” out of the black church, into the world to claim himself, and survived. Als' representation of Baldwin can be seen, in part, as a celebration of what Als termed “Negro Faggotry” in his 1989 essay on another eminent black, gay, Harlem writer, Langston Hughes. How, then, could author Toni Morrison, upon reading an advance copy of Between the World and Me, consider Coates the writer "who might fill the intellectual void" following Baldwin?
The snippet of the interview that appears in For Darryl and the Others begins at 0:32
In a dark room in the gallery, Als’ four-channel video, For Darryl and the Others, covered in plastic, runs alternately. On one TV, a reporter comes on screen and asks Baldwin, “When you were starting out as a writer, you were black, impoverished, and homosexual. You must of said to yourself, 'Gee, how disadvantaged can I get?'” Baldwin smirks and coolly responds, “No, I thought I had hit the jackpot. It was so outrageous, you couldn’t go any further, and you had to find a way to use it.” This is the Baldwin that towers in Als’ imagination and exhibition.
James Baldwin/Jim Brown and the Children continues through August 7 at The Artist’s Institute. For more information, click here.