James Baldwin / Jim Brown and the Children, by Hilton Als
There is too much to say and I don’t want to say it.
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. Words are my job. Words pile in on one another and involve various qualifications, elisions, the disaster and tension inherent in being stuck in one point of view.
Visual work can take on many points of view at once as it rearranges so-called “reality.” Look at Andy Warhol’s Ethel Scull 36 Times (1963). Those thirty-six perspectives would take many words to even approximate, and then you’d have to add all those colors. How would you do that with words?
Words always argue for facts—for the fact of the word. A word is only itself and nothing else until the writer makes it something else, a poem, say. But even then it is still a poem. You can rearrange reality through words, for sure, but there is always the limiting power of the word—that which cannot be changed. Rearranged, yes, but never changed. “Cat” is cat and “sky” is sky—flat facts.
Because words are limited they limit my body, whereas visual work takes my body, absorbs me in a painting, a film, a sculpture, and makes me something else. The visual artist’s job is to make reality unrecognizable, and am I not part of reality?
Just as artists have changed the world right before my eyes, they have also changed me. I have often fallen in love with visual artists, or those who have some relationship to the visual arts. For instance, photographers. They make work out of the real, but they push aspects of the real out of their frames so as to better to concentrate on an aspect of the world that no one would see without them.
Is my mind like a camera when I look at art? For when I am in the presence of visual material that absorbs me, forces me to feel, to look, my mind closes against that which can be spoken, rather like an aperture. Leaving a gallery or museum, my mind drifts; words come later. Then I am a body whose possibilities are maximized by the eye’s imagination, and by that which didn’t exist before some artist—brave soul!—said yes to life.
I think the trick is to say yes to life, James Baldwin said, and who wouldn’t agree with that once you know the opposite of life is death? The things we lose in the gamble of living?
If you say yes to life you are, to some degree, saying yes to various realities that didn’t include you before you turned up and trusted the experience. Imagine!
For a long time before now I didn’t want to turn up. I didn’t want words even though I put them down. I am only using words now so as to introduce you to the artists in this show, all of whom I love because in changing reality, they’ve changed me. They’ve changed my sadness and my long period of not looking. Changed, too, my vexed and vexing relationship to words.
Years ago, before now, I looked a lot.
I did this with two photographer friends, Darryl Turner and Judy Linn. It was Judy who taught me to look up at the sky—an aspect of reality that most people didn’t think about, much let alone look at properly. The sky was the sky but it was also an opportunity to dream.
That was a profound lesson in photography: the thing was the thing, but it was also a real thing that could be reimagined through your thinking eyes.
Years ago, for roughly three years at the end of the nineteen-eighties and early nineteen-nineties, I worked with the photographer Darryl Turner on a series of installations that we showed at Feature, the Simon Watson gallery, and others. We did not have a game plan, other than making things. Like when the actor Morgan Freeman said—bless him—that he didn’t play black, he was black, our work incorporated all that we were; we didn’t capitalize on our race or erotic history. We looked at things, and were moved, and tried to figure out—often without talking—how to incorporate them into a piece.
We were lucky because the people who were interested in us left us alone, curious to see what we might invent out of our most valuable asset: our shared imagination.
Making things together was a joy. And part of the joy was in the making, not in the language about it. When some writers hovered around us with “meaning”—those boxing gloves in that vitrine are there because you’re black, etc.—we laughed. Nothing could spoil our pleasure, not even critics.
Life went on. Things changed. AIDS. I stopped connecting to so many things, including the work required to find people who were interested in our work. So little of it was for sale; it was ephemeral, Fluxus with a sense of humor. And so much of what was for sale—ideological, thin—said that its point, despite difference, was to be commodified. I can’t speak for Darryl, but that added to my depression.
It wasn’t until the artist Peter Doig asked me to co-curate a show at Werner Vernaklasen in 2010 that my depression began to lift, in part because the show was comprised, for the most part, of little-known artists and students. During that time I began to think about working in this way again. Trusting in this way again.
“James Baldwin/Jim Brown, and the Children,” is, in part, about the kind of work I used to do with Darryl. That work was permanent and ephemeral all at once, and looking back, it was about how much we loved one another. Two colored men together, which, apparently, is still a rather upsetting prospect (let alone reality) because in the art world One is Often Enough. It takes and then moves on to the next.
I don’t want to talk about this show too much but I’ve been asked to, and in order to survive in a culture of explanation, one must explain. But how to explain the heart? A sensibility? Love? I love all the artists in this show. The friends who contributed their time to making it work. And what I learned from them. There is no point in making things if you don’t learn something about the world, oneself. What did I learn putting this together? That I am in love, still, with sharing my enthusiasms, those artists and writers who changed me.
When I first started putting this together I began thinking about black queer writers and composers who were not as famous as James Baldwin but who were, nevertheless, his children.
Julius Eastman (1940–1990)
Jesse Murry (1948–1993)
Gary Fisher (1962–1994)
My most intense relationship was to Gary. Years ago a friend of mine turned me on to his writing, which had been collected by his great friend and mentor, Eve Sedgwick. Gary in Your Pocket is one of the most seminal books about black gay life in America that I have ever read.
Gary took the complications that came about because of his race, and from growing up in largely white worlds—he was an army brat—and made them the nexus of his sexuality. He wanted to be a black slave to a white master. He wrote letters about this and kept a journal and wrote stories. Gary in Your Pocket blew the top of my head off, made me uncomfortable, made me want to scream. Here was America. Certainly, in my pocket, my queer America.
James Baldwin didn’t write about his sexuality directly until towards the end of his life. His essay, “Here Be Dragons,” describes, with amazement, being loved by a Puerto Rican street character when he was sixteen. I wanted to know more about that story. Gary 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 wanted to celebrate them both—the father (Baldwin), and one of his sons (Gary). And all the sons and daughters who followed.
The main wall in the library at The Artist’s Institute is a party for Gary populated by the kids who would love him, just as the kids in those photo strips love Baldwin. Gary is sealed off because of his Karposi. Plastic is a prophylactic against “illness” and the pain I feel, now and forever, about AIDS. And about smiling through.
Teeth help make a smile—and are here to gnash—but they will also be the last evidence that we’ve been here at all. As a body. Gary was a body, Betty Carter was a body, my friends in the photo strips are bodies, but we will no longer be here one day. Like Gary. Eve Sedgwick is no longer here but she is still here, in a video about Gary. Two of his sisters read his work and so does Eve. I don’t know his sisters, and I never met Eve, but I have met her partner, Hal. He is here with her, with the things she left behind, including her love of her friend, Gary.
Baldwin, the colored queer father, looks at his children and we look at him. I also wanted Baldwin to meet the new children he would love. For instance, even though the poet Ronaldo V. Wilson is not in the show, he is Gary Fisher’s rightful son and thus Baldwin’s. His book, Narrative of the Life of the Brown Boy and the White Man (2008) shares Gary’s obsessiveness about power and making love a kind of theater, and about how the queer black body can be a playing field for love and hate, especially in relation to its presumed opposite—the older white male body. Divided into short chapters, Wilson’s book begins this way:
Our house is red, up on a red mountain. The house is windowless and cold. In the garage of the red house is a car and in that car is a red button. This button does nothing. The car is silver and has four black wheels with silver rims, one covered in dirt. The dirt is not from the mountain.
In the red house are a brown boy and a white man. They hate each other. It smells clean. Live is the smell of their hate. The brown boy in the red house imagines murdering the white man. Cutting up a body is a concern of the brown boy, but never of the white man, who is big and strong and innocent of such a thought…
The brown boy brings home clear shelves to hold newspapers and glossy cutouts of more brown people.
Not unlike Ronaldo Wilson, I build shelves here, in this gallery, to hold more brown people. And some white people, too. They sit on shelves, looking at Baldwin, the world, and time—mortality, that which will make their faces different next week and the year after that. Still, for now, there is the party. Party faces are like the faces we put on for photography—and just as real.
Words always argue for reality, even when they’re philosophical. Ideas are just as real as anything else and memories are just as real as the rest of it once you start handling the work of the dead (Murry, Fisher, Sedgwick) and the living (John Edmonds, Jennie C. Jones, Troy Michie, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Lawrence Wolhandler). They all shimmer with the energy of bodies, not artifacts. They live in their efforts to rearrange reality; so doing, they rearrange me. In “To The Dead,” Frank Bidart wrote:
What I hope (when I hope) is that we’ll
See each other again,—
…and again reach the VEIN
in which we loved each other…
It existed. It existed….
we searched the walls, the intricately carved
for a button, lever, latch
that unlocks a secret door that
reveals at last the secret chambers
CORRIDORS within WALLS…
That is the HOUSE within the HOUSE…
The love I’ve known is the love of
two people staring
not at each other, but in the same direction.
Another yes to life!
Bringing me back to life!
And here we are together, in “James Baldwin/Jim Brown, and the Children,” unlocking secret doors where a house has been built within a house, us together, staring not at each other, but in the same direction—the direction of the art. Jim Brown’s hand unlocks one of the doors. His hand is big, rough from sports, a dream hand.
Jim Brown’s hand is attached to his naked body.
He was the first colored man I ever saw naked. (I never saw my father naked.)
I was thirteen. I stole my cousin’s issue of Playgirl featuring Jim Brown and poured over the pictures.
I was thirteen. I was ashamed and amazed.
I fell in love with boys before then, of course. Boys I wanted to take care of. One guy was named Arnold. He had the biggest Afro on the block. Arnold was silent in the face of my admiration. Once, as he slept, I knelt down next to his sleeping face and didn’t imagine anything other than the reality of his beautiful sleeping face. He was a photograph in my mind—real and imagined—right then. And right then I determined I would take care of Arnold, even if he didn’t like me.
I didn’t have to take care of Jim Brown, or negotiate my love for him. He was just there, bigger than me, a presence.
Jim Brown was big, silent, and had hands that looked as though they could carry me. I wasn’t interested in football, or the bad movies he appeared in. What interested me was his silence and apparent strength and the possibility that he might take me, and in taking me, make me feel less ashamed about everything. Jim Brown was not Gary Fisher’s ideal but I had Gary-like fantasies about Jim. That I would be his son. That he would take those enormous hands and make my body different.
Part of what’s great about making things is that you live for a time in a world of intense associations.
I would not have remembered that incredible moment of stealing Jim Brown—stealing his hands and silence—if I did not think about James Baldwin, Jesse Murry, Gary Fisher, and the queens I love so much in my video piece, For Darryl and the Others. There, one meets a world of queer colored men who are not all gay. I could never get them out of my mind, just as I shall never have Darryl far from my mind.
I love them because the men on those monitors—James Baldwin, the artist John Edmonds and his friend, Charles Keith, a black queen doing Bette Davis impersonations and so on—are less “me” than a wonderful feeling of being, and being connected, once again, to James Baldwin, Jim Brown, Gary Fisher, Darryl, and others.
I am alive because they want me to be. I am looking at them because they want me to see them, which is an act of love, among the more profound, and I am looking at the artists in this show and introducing them to you through words because it is all that is left to me here. Look at them and look at the love I have for them, individually and collectively. See how they make the world different, my living babies, Baldwin’s living children:
Troy Michie (1985–)
Paul Mpagi Sepuya (1982–)
Jennie C. Jones (1968–)
John Edmonds (1989–)
Darryl Turner (1961–)
And the guests at our party:
Mitch Batch, Jared Buckhiester, Durga Chew-Bose, Michael Ferrante, Tavi Gevinson, Clay Hapaz, Georgie Hopton, Peter LaBier, Uzoamaka Maduka, Maggie Nelson, Carissa Rodriguez, Rachel Weisz, Lynette Yiadim-Boakye.
Looking at these various faces and the various faces the artists have made that now hang on these gallery walls, one sees all that Baldwin asked for, and all that I ask for now, too, in my living: an unqualified yes to life.
The Making and Unmaking of James Baldwin