Delving into the life and work of the monumental American writer James Baldwin, Hilton Als has taken another turn as a curator at David Zwirner Gallery, mounting an exhibition that both explores and critiques the artist’s career, and his complicated relationship to the political landscape and social conflicts of the United States. The show, following up on Als’s exploration of the work of Alice Neel, is a nuanced review of Baldwin’s connections between Paris and New York and its diverse art scenes, in conjunction with his own aesthetic longings beyond that of his writing.
The first part of the exhibition, “A Walker in the City,” explores Baldwin-as-flaneur, wandering downtown from Harlem into SoHo and his connections between the two thriving artistic communities of the metropolis during the period. He sat for painter Beauford Delaney, and worked closely with photographer Richard Avedon on their high school magazine, each branching out into their own fields of aesthetic and career successes while maintaining close ties to the artist. The works on view are a testimony to those connections, with Baldwin’s portraits by Delaney hung alongside shots by Avedon, each exploring the connections Baldwin formed through his life in New York, and in his adventures through Paris during the era.
Yet the show equally brings Baldwin’s encounters with America into starker focus, exploring both his critiques of the racist history and social inequities of his era with the complicated nature of his relationship to the country. The second part of the show, titled “Colonialism,” shows how Baldwin was gradually colonized by his post–Fire Next Time (1963) fame, while it celebrates the kind of work he would be doing if he had been given permission to be the complete artist he longed to be. It explores an artist working at the top of his field, yet forced, in some sense, to abandon some of the more revolutionary and stark critiques of the world which now sustains him.
This note is paralleled with the inclusion of works and concepts that seemed to float into Baldwin’s field of interest, various modes of visual culture, notes of struggle and identity, concepts twisting around Baldwin’s writing on the legacy of the Civil Right movement, the psychological and economic effects of colonialism; miscegenation; black men loving one another. Yet all of these concepts, and the works around them, on view at David Zwirner, paint a portrait of an artist more a man than a legend, a brilliant mind working to push forward his people, and simultaneously to understand himself. If there’s a triumph of the show, its Als’s ability to understand, and dive ever deeper, into this perceived conflict of states.
The show closes February 16th.
— C. Reinhardt
God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin [David Zwirner]