God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin
David Zwirner will present a group exhibition curated by Hilton Als, which will feature works by Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Alvin Baltrop, Beauford Delaney, Marlene Dumas, Ja'Tovia Gary, Glenn Ligon, Alice Neel, Cameron Rowland, Kara Walker, and James Welling, among other artists.
Image: Installation view, God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin, David Zwirner, New York, 2019
"For much of his life and career, the Harlem-born essayist, novelist, and playwright James Baldwin (1924–1987) had a powerful interest in and relationship to the visual arts. Writing in 1955, the author confessed to a ‘morbid desire to own a sixteen-millimeter camera and make experimental films.’ While that longing was never realized, the desire never dissipated; indeed, Baldwin channeled his celluloid dreams into other medium, including movie scripts (for instance, he occasionally adapted his own work for the screen, such as his 1968 novel Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone—a project he hoped to direct), profiling or reviewing filmmakers he admired, and, over the years, by becoming a kind of visual object himself."
"By this time [the mid-1930s], I had been taken in hand by a young white schoolteacher, a beautiful woman, very important to me.… She gave me books to read and talked to me about the books, and about the world: about Spain, for example, and Ethiopia, and Italy, and the German Third Reich; and took me to see plays and films, plays and films to which no one else would have dreamed of taking a ten-year-old boy. I loved her, of course, and absolutely, with a child’s love; didn’t understand half of what she said, but remembered it; and it stood me in good stead later. It is certainly partly because of her … that I never really managed to hate white people.… But Bill Miller—her name was Orilla, we called her Bill—was not white for me in the way, for example, that Joan Crawford was white, in the way that the landlords and the storekeepers and the cops and most of my teachers were white. She didn’t baffle me that way and she never frightened me and she never lied to me."
—James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work, 1976
"While still in his teens, Baldwin met and sat for the painter Beauford Delaney; during that time he also worked on his high school magazine with photographer and future collaborator Richard Avedon. In looking at Baldwin, these and other men gave him himself—or an image that was different than the self his stepfather described as ‘the ugliest boy he had ever seen.’ While he may not have entirely jettisoned that judgment, Baldwin challenged its precepts when he agreed to be memorialized by men who thought otherwise. Indeed, Baldwin challenged and sometimes made sport of those who saw his life as a series of easily defined categories, which is another form of judgment." —Hilton Als
"Beauford was the first walking, living proof, for me, that a black man could be an artist. In a warmer time, a less blasphemous place, he would have been recognized as my Master and I as his Pupil. He became, for me, an example of courage and integrity, humility and passion. An absolute integrity: I saw him shaken many times and I lived to see him broken but I never saw him bow."
—James Baldwin in his introduction to The Price of the Ticket, 1985
"While a student at PS 139 (Frederick Douglass Junior High School) in Harlem, Baldwin studied French with Countee Cullen, a leading poet of the Harlem Renaissance. Baldwin’s interest in France and its culture was further cemented by his obsession with A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens’s tale of the French Revolution."
"Nearly half a century before the then twenty-four-year-old Baldwin emigrated to Paris, in 1948, Eugène Atget (1857–1927) had spent years photographing aspects of nineteenth-century Parisian life as the city gave way to the twentieth century. Indeed, Baldwin was to spend a great deal of time writing and living in cafes and hotels situated on avenues and streets Atget had visited with his camera, including the rue Vieille du Temple, in the Marais, a neighborhood that figures in the author’s second novel, Giovanni’s Room (1956). Some years before, while still living in New York, Baldwin and his high school classmate, the photographer Richard Avedon, thought to collaborate on a book called Harlem Doorways, a project that was never fully realized, but evoked Atget’s interest in doorways, arches, and arcades."
"I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually. I think all theories are suspect, that the finest principles may have to be modified, or may even be pulverized by the demands of life, and that one must find, therefore, one’s own moral center and move through the world hoping that this center will guide one aright. I consider that I have many responsibilities, but none greater than this: to last, as Hemingway says, and get my work done."
—James Baldwin, "Autobiographical Notes," in Notes of a Native Son, 1955
"With the publication of The Fire Next Time (1963), his seminal text on racism, violence, and oppression as redoubtable facts of American life, Baldwin became an international celebrity. The works exhibited in this exhibition exist in conversation with Baldwin and the themes that became more and more urgent in his post–Fire Next Time writing—themes he realized on the page, but not as the filmmaker he hoped to be: the complicated legacy of civil rights; the psychological and economic effects of colonialism; miscegenation; black men loving one another."
"I do and do not know the world Richard Avedon and James Baldwin put together in their 1964 collaboration, Nothing Personal, which brought together four aspects of American life and culture—civil rights, the rise of black nationalism, our mental-health system, and the old Hollywood guard giving way to rock and roll—in a collection of Avedon’s photographs accompanied by Baldwin’s text. … What Avedon and Baldwin shared from the start, as creators, … was an imagination that was not so much informed by reality as inseparable from it: they saw the exceptional in the real."
—Hilton Als in a New Yorker review of Nothing Personal
"In 1985, Baldwin published his last long essay, ‘Here Be Dragons,’ an exploration of his country’s relationship to masculinity. In it, the author describes his early life in Manhattan—a sexual hall of mirrors. Baldwin writes: ‘I knew that I was in the hall … but the mirrors threw back only brief and distorted fragments of myself.’ In this exhibition, those fragments are not necessarily made whole but further explored and seen as a source of inspiration by artists such as Glenn Ligon, who challenges the idea of a black masculinity that does not include our myriad racial, sexual, and emotional selves, just as Baldwin sought to bring those selves to light as well in art."
"The Michael Jackson cacophony is fascinating in that it is not about Jackson at all. I hope he has the good sense to know it and the good fortune to snatch his life out of the jaws of a carnivorous success. He will not swiftly be forgiven for having turned so many tables, for he damn sure grabbed the brass ring, and the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo has nothing on Michael. All that noise is about America, as the dishonest custodian of black life and wealth; the blacks, especially males, in America; and the burning, buried American guilt; and sex and sexual roles and sexual panic; money, success, and despair—to all of which may now be added the bitter need to find a head on which to place the crown of Miss America."
—James Baldwin, “Here Be Dragons," originally published as "Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood" in Playboy, January 1985
"Since his death, Baldwin himself has been ‘used’—claimed, during these troubling times, as a prophet, a prescient thinker. What gets lost in that presumed elevation is his body: as a black queer person one generation removed from the ‘old country’—the Jim Crow South his parents had been raised in—and who, from an early age, loved French culture. The weight of racism weighed on Baldwin from boyhood and yet it did not erode his aestheticism, or self-conferred role as a kind of latter-day flaneur cruising the streets of Paris, capital of the nineteenth century, and his native Manhattan, capital of the twentieth century, seeking out those artists and scenes and exchanges that helped make him the artist he always longed to be."