How Artists Portrayed The Great James Baldwin

January 24, 2019

Among the most important writers and social critics of the 1950s and 1960s was definitely James Baldwin. Throughout his career, this distinct figure devotedly explored racial, sexual, and class issues in Western societies, especially in mid-20th-century America. The core of his narratives was embedded in his personal experience as a gay man and a person of color, so in order to understand his oeuvre properly, it is mandatory to underline the historical context in which he produced some of his most important works.

Namely, post-war America was embedded in racial conflicts meaning that in a majority of the states the segregation of Black community was practiced. In 1955, Rosa Parks was among the first rebels who stood up to confront the Supreme Court's ban on segregation of the city's buses when she set the front of the bus reserved for white passengers. That event marked the awakening of the Civil Rights movement and increased the fight for abolishing of repressive laws.

On the other hand, homosexuality was perceived as an ultimate shame during the same period, marked as the pre-Stonewall era. Queer people were practically legally prosecuted, publicly exposed, and there was a sort of a social hysteria concerning homosexuality; it even became institutionalized in 1952 when the American Psychiatric Association listed homosexuality as a mental disorder.

Due to this unbearable atmosphere of constant repression, at the age of twenty-four, Baldwin left the United States and moved to Paris. His first literary work was a collection of essays titled Notes of a Native Son published in 1955, and the following year Giovanni's Room, a controversial novel due to its explicit homoerotic content. In 1957, the author returned to the States, however, for the rest of his life, he lived mostly in France. Baldwin wrote a couple of more relevant titles and was an avid social activist and a prominent figure in the Civil Rights Movement.

In order to honor his deeds and the influence he made on the upcoming generations, David Zwirner gallery in New York currently hosts an exhibition of portraits of the distinguished author made by celebrated artists, titled God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin.

Jane Evelyn Atwood - James Baldwin with the bust of his head by American artist
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

The Picture of James Baldwin

Two decades ago, the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and curator Hilton Als wrote a provocative profile of the great James Baldwin which was published in The New Yorker. Als insists on writer ’s multifaceted activity by emphasizing that he was more than that — a political philosopher, international flâneur, screenwriter. Therefore, the current exhibition curated by Als himself encapsulates the intense interest in Baldwin’s life and legacy in a contemporary moment.

The works of Beauford Delaney, Richard Avedon, Marlene Dumas, Glenn Ligon, Kara Walker, and others show the significance of Baldwins continues engagement in art and life. The curator explains that the revival of interest in Baldwin, which has been particularly intense during our current epoch, can be attributed to "his ability to analyze and articulate how power abuses through cunning and force and why, in the end, it's up to the people to topple kingdoms."

As a galvanizing humanitarian force, Baldwin is now being claimed as a kind of oracle. But by claiming him as such, much gets erased about the great artist in the process, specifically his sexuality and aestheticism, both of which informed his politics.

Left Njideka Akunyili Crosby - The Thing Right Marlene Dumas - James Baldwin
Left: Njideka Akunyili Crosby - Nyado: The Thing Around Her Neck, 2011 © Njideka Akunyili Crosby. Courtesy the artist, Victoria Miro, London / Venice, and David Zwirner / Right: Marlene Dumas - James Baldwin, 2014 from the series Great Men, 2014–present © Marlene Dumas. Courtesy David Zwirner

The Selection Of Works

The installment is divided into two parts called A Walker in the City and Colonialism. The idea was to visualize all the aspects of Baldwin’s struggle to distinguish himself for any form of social labeling and repression and to deal with the feeling of isolation.

The first part of the exhibition shows the journey of the young Baldwin, a Harlem-born wanderer, stuck between Paris and New York. The selection of the writers’ letters and manuscripts are followed with the works by the legendary painter Beauford Delaney, photographers Richard Avedon and Karl Bissinger, who were inspired by Baldwin. The author was practically treated as a muse, an object of fascination and love; Baldwin met Delaney as a teenager in SoHo, where he posed for him. Years later Baldwin wrote a catalog essay for Delaney’s 1978 retrospective at The Studio Museum in Harlem. Around the same time, he collaborated with Avedon on their high school magazine, The Magpie. The two became great friends and continued collaborating (a good example is a 1964 book Nothing Personal).

The second part of the exhibition shows the themes which seem to obsess Baldwin in a period of his post–Fire Next Time (1963) fame such as the psychological and economic effects of colonialism, miscegenation, the complicated legacy of civil rights and black men loving one another. A film made by Kara Walker anticipates what kind of a filmmaker Baldwin would be, which is related to the profile of Ingmar Bergman the writer published in 1960. The pieces of Glenn Ligon question the black masculinity and an array of racial stereotypes which go along with it.

Alvin Baltrop - Exterior four figures
Alvin Baltrop - The Piers (exterior with four figures), 1975-1986. Courtesy David Zwirner

James Baldwin at David Zwirner

Finally, this important exhibition should be perceived in regards to the contemporary moment. Baldwin’s poignant style did address primarily the horridness of racism which was and apparently still is the social plague of not only the American society, but the rest of the world as well. Although the writer did not expose his sexuality directly for a long time because of a distinctly heteronormative discourse of the Civil Rights Movement, Baldwin lived openly as a gay man and in his 1985 essay Here Be Dragons he dealt with his country’s relationship to masculinity.

The exhibition God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin will be on display at David Zwirner in New York until February 16th, 2019.

Featured images: Installation view, God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin, David Zwirner, New York, 2019. Courtesy David Zwirner

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