By BOB CLYATT February, 2019
If you search on YouTube you can find the beautiful short clip of James Baldwin singing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”, which plays in the first gallery of “God Made My Face” at David Zwirner, 19th St. It was the perfect thing to play again at home while I reflected on this exhibition, a museum-like gem curated for us by Hilton Als, filled with letters and texts and artists’ work which illuminate and respond to the legacy of James Baldwin.
It is a commonplace that James Baldwin is urgent reading and on-point again for any understanding of race in America, yet this was not foreordained. When I sat with “Jimmy” on his veranda in St Paul de Vence in the summer and fall of 1980, through dinners and long evenings of discussions laced with cigarettes and Johnny Walker, he was a lion in winter, glad to have a young white artist fresh from Berkeley to educate and enthrall. America by and large had moved on from its love affair with Baldwin and he felt it. Race was America’s great problem of the Civil Rights Era, the thinking went, and now we were all getting along and integrating and believing we’d done the necessary work. This frustrated Jimmy no end, and what I saw in him in those years was a sort of revolving focus of lashing out and leaning in and wandering off. It took another 35 years for us to be ready to listen again, perhaps more ready than ever before to try to absorb the diagnoses and prescriptions he wrote out for us.
Walking through “God Made My Face” is to walk through Baldwin’s ideas alive in the works and images of other artists, a powerful tribute. In the 533 Gallery we confront Ja’Tovia Gary’s film “An Ecstatic Experience” which mixes performance clips of a 1950s black theater group with documentary footage of rioting in Ferguson and Baltimore. A large collage by Njideka Akunyili Crosby comforts the worn or wounded. Diane Arbus’ 1965 image of a vulnerable young black man in Washington Square Park pairs with Anthony Barboza’s image of an unfamiliar 22-year-old Michael Jackson in a season of transition. Kara Walker’s “Colonialism” in the corner plays a magic lantern of silhouetted travesty. Nearby Glenn Ligon’s huge, thickly built-up black-on-black oil stick painting of Baldwin’s text invites engagement with the impenetrable.
In the 525 Gallery we get the man himself- personal, corporeal, seen through his relationships with friends and artists and evidence of ways they shared and influenced each other during his life. First among them is Beauford Delaney, whose colorful nude portrait of Baldwin as a teen marks the beginning of their long, difficult relationship which would last until the painter’s death in Paris in 1979. Next is Richard Avedon, friends on the school magazine at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx whose images of a 21-year-old Baldwin might have been taken yesterday. Avedon’s contact sheets from an afternoon in the early 60’s with Baldwin and his mother are a rare treat, the first images I had seen of Jimmy and his Mama, after years of hearing and reading about this foundational relationship and source of strength in his life.
A long vitrine holds a surprisingly candid and pained series of letters between Baldwin and Orilla “Bill” Miller, his school teacher and mentor, who responded to his early promise by inviting him into her and her husband Evan’s life, bringing him down to Greenwich Village, taking him to films, showing him a world outside his family and Harlem that he could find a place in. This deep transformative relationship, echoed in others, seems to have been fundamental to Baldwin’s development as an artist and as a human being.
What we arrive at, which I feel Hilton Als has by design opened up for us, is the way Baldwin’s life was created out of these relationships with other artists and with the deeply wise or feeling people he drew into his life and influenced. This was simply what mattered most to him, his way of being in the world. We can start to understand his queerness, which was never in itself an agenda for him, as foremost about relationship and love. Baldwin I believe understood relationship as the essential material through which change would work itself out and history would be bent in new directions.
In the hallway between the two big rooms, outside the offices, a modest shelf holds a few chunks of limestone, worn smooth on one side. These fragments from the terrace of Jimmy’s old farmhouse were given to Hilton Als when he went there a few years back trying to see if the home might be saved from developers. The stones spoke to me. I had many times sat and walked and even, after a late night, slept on them, tucked in on the couch, awakening to look to the patio below and see Baldwin, pen and pad in hand at dawn, having written through the night. One more relationship, one more artist influenced by this great and loving man. WM
Bob Clyatt is a sculptor and writer living on Hen Island, New York.view all articles from this author