Hilton Als
March 2 – August 7, 2016

Hilton Als talks about the next six months at The Artist’s Institute as an emotional retrospective. For more than thirty years, Als has archived his feelings about those he’s encountered intimately and from a distance in two books of essays and in publications like The Village Voice and The New Yorker. Art, he says, has remained a relief from language; expression he has sought variously as a photo editor, graphic designer, curator, and visual artist.

Still, Als continues to seek creative positions where these distinctions matter less, using photographs, sound, and installation to sustain his mix of memoir, portraiture, and criticism. He speaks of photographs specifically as “concrete shadows” but this might apply to all his work in the coming months at the Institute—something that has happened out there, recast as feeling from within.

 

One Man Show: Holly, Candy, Bobbie and the Rest, March 2 – April 24, 2016

Several months ago the great star Holly Woodlawn died in Los Angeles, a far place, temperamentally and architecturally, from her hometown of Miami. Of course, that fact had been made famous by her friend, Lou Reed, in his iconic song “Walk on the Wild Side,” which I love because of all the people he remembers in it, including Holly’s sister, Candy Darling, who appears in “Candy Says,” Reed’s aching beauty of an ode. Reed, of course, lived for a time with Rachel, a third transgender star, and Rachel always reminds me, somehow, of Marsha P. Johnson. Johnson, poor and black, did not have the art world behind her (or the music world, which Sylvester had behind him) but when Holly died I started thinking about all these people again, as they were such an important part of my growing up and living, albeit from a distance, and it has taken me many years to understand how deep my feelings are about these various personages who lived in a pre-Transparent, pre-Caitlyn, pre-anything world. … Read more

Several months ago the great star Holly Woodlawn died in Los Angeles, a far place, temperamentally and architecturally, from her hometown of Miami. Of course, that fact had been made famous by her friend, Lou Reed, in his iconic song “Walk on the Wild Side,” which I love because of all the people he remembers in it, including Holly’s sister, Candy Darling, who appears in “Candy Says,” Reed’s aching beauty of an ode. Reed, of course, lived for a time with Rachel, a third transgender star, and Rachel always reminds me, somehow, of Marsha P. Johnson. Johnson, poor and black, did not have the art world behind her (or the music world, which Sylvester had behind him) but when Holly died I started thinking about all these people again, as they were such an important part of my growing up and living, albeit from a distance, and it has taken me many years to understand how deep my feelings are about these various personages who lived in a pre-Transparent, pre-Caitlyn, pre-anything world. (Of the Candy-Holly-Jackie Curtis trinity I only met Jackie, and that was once, before her death in 1985. I was working as a busboy, she was getting out of a car near the restaurant where I worked, spilling glitter and costumes and other aspects of her artistry in the street as she exited her yellow limousine. I’m still happy that I got to tell her how much I loved her work.) In the seventies and eighties these stars, mostly unknown, were making themselves up as the world tried to cope with their difference, or any difference at all. Because Holly and the rest identified as different (which is to say, not as anything that could really be defined) I loved them all the more; their fluidity around naming—that is, out of being a self free of presuppositions, I suppose, while making a performance out of that self. This resonated greatly to me when I was growing up, he who was from Brooklyn but knew he would not and could not be limited by those or any pre-determining “facts.” I think Warhol described the world Candy and Jackie and Holly came from (or, more accurately, the system that helped produce them) very accurately in his book, Popism (1980) when he wrote:

As late as ‘67 drag queens still weren’t accepted in the mainstream freak circles. They were still hanging around where they’d always hung around—on the fringes, around the big cities, usually in crummy little hotels, sticking to their own circles—outcasts with bad teeth and body odor and cheap makeup and creepy clothes. But then, just like drugs had come into the average person’s life, sexual blurs did, too, and people began identifying a little more with drag queens, seeing them more as “sexual radicals” … In the sixties, average types started having sex-identity problems, and some people saw a lot of their own questions about themselves being acted out by the drag queens…. With the new attitude of mind-before-matter/where-your-head-is-at/do-your-own-thing, the drags had the Thing of Things going for them…. Candy referred to his penis as “my flaw.” There was always that question of what to call the drags—“him” or “her” or a little bit of both. You usually just did it intuitively.

Of course naming is a self-determining thing, and always should be, but it would be foolish not to acknowledge that social language is defined by its times. “Trans” replaces “drag,” etc. But what I love in the Warhol quote is his slight admonishment of those “average” types who claimed trans people to represent them as opposed to being who they were for themselves. Does the status quo always have to confer legitimacy on the marginal—i.e., transforming the creepy into “sexual radicals”—in order to see them? When Holly died I wanted her to be seen as herself, or, more precisely, as what she was in relation to how I felt about her and Candy and Jackie and Marsha and Storme and all those people who, by being who they were, helped articulate who I was, too. This show is an accumulation of absences, of people who no longer exist because times no longer exist—there is only the present. But by excavating the past we learn so much about the present; I know nothing much about the upper-middle-class world Transparent, represents, say, but it’s important to remember that Holly didn’t come from that world, nor did the people I saw at GG’s Barnum Room, one of the few safe places for “drags” and their admirers. The main motif of the place was a trapeze—how appropriate a metaphor was that?—suspended above the dance floor; trans artists would do little high wire acts while the disco boomed. There metaphor met reality, and that’s what I wanted this show to be, too, a meeting of two, which is at least one definition of photography. The trans artists seen here are not necessarily recognizable because many are not famous; it was important that they have pride of place in this show, and thus be remembered, because they resist what Warhol sneers at—the “average” person’s idea of what made a man or what made a woman or a living work of art. Bobbie is one of those figures. I met Bobbie through a friend, and was so struck by his beauty and intelligence and social radicalism (he often didn’t pay rent, let alone worry about it) that he made a lot of other people feel, as one person said, “corny.” How did he live so freely in a world that wanted to keep him in a “crummy” hotel room, if they could? My art has always been other people, and this exhibition is about those “other” people and, hopefully, what they so generously gave us, which amounts to another idea of the self, the option to ask: Who will I be now?

— Hilton Als

Do It.

Hilton Als

 

Mrs. Vreeland called. What time do you get off work? Let’s go out. A phrase that meant many things, including the reordering of one’s expectations—the immense solitude of a book—for the immense solidarity of her company. Mrs. Vreeland, in a fit of pique with a lover: Let’s go out. The US being not HIM or HER but US. Mrs. Vreeland in Tribeca, on the Lower East Side, incandescent with expectation and no expectation. There are our hands, up in the air! Bohannon! Come on and do it! Do it! Do it! We lived for the bridges in “Let’s Start The Dance,” the best disco song ever. What’s Elaine doing? Elaine on the phone (remember them?): I’m working. I’m at Mr. Chow’s. Mrs. Vreeland: We’re going out. Elaine knows what “we,” means. Elaine: It’s funny, Michael Chow doesn’t like non-colored people. It’s weird. Mrs. Vreeland: We’re going out! Elaine: Why not come here first. It’s early. What is it? 11? 12? Uptown or down (depending on where we’re living; it’s 1980 or 1983, and no one wants to live in New York). Anyway, we’re on our way to Mr. Chow’s, Mrs. Vreeland skinny and hungry, immaculate and made up to meet the fantasy that is New York, with its various Holly Golightlys, and any number of writers. Let’s split the cab, or not pay for it at all. The driver is cute. Let him know he’s cute, and we won’t have to pay for the cab. In the door at Mr. Chow’s. Art deco everything. Our hands are up in the air! Do it! Do it! Do it! A ringside seat at Mr. Chow’s. There’s Emily, there’s John D looking at Emily in her party dress. That was hilarious, Emily describing herself in her party dress on the pole at Boots and Saddle. Do it. And then there’s Elaine, chasing Emily. Oh, yes, that’s the way it is, and the way everything should be. Do it. Mrs. Vreeland: a little trip to the powder room. She returns; suddenly, she’s above it all. Her vodka gimlet, untouched. But there’s Bohannon, making us feel things. Do it! Do it! Do it! Bohannon speaks/sings: “It’s not a question of getting down, but actually of how low you can go. Make it funky.” Can we make it funky? Mrs. Vreeland’s red lips, and then a sentence: What did you do last night? HA: I went to a party. Mrs. Vreeland: And? HA: Well, it was a black party, so, there was lots of Lanolin and coconut oil. Mrs. Vreeland: I know those smells! Do it! Do it! Do it! Mrs. Vreeland, a cloud of perfection in her cloud of what she calls “dummy face powder,” and European manners. A little chicken now for our little supper, maybe a little fish? She wants the rituals of “normalcy”—dinner with a companion—but she doesn’t want to observe those rituals when she doesn’t feel like it. Why should we pay for this… There’s a man, he likes us, oh! Don’t be like that, old man! Suddenly Mrs. Vreeland is Louise Brooks, black hair helmeted and careless in the twentieth-century way, which is to say everything matters to her, and some things don’t. The older Professor is someone HA knows from Amsterdam, a city he loved for a time, a city of hope. Canals. Hilton, hi hi hi! says the Professor, not taking his eyes off Mrs. Vreeland, HA’s companion; she’ll take his call in the morning. Hi! Oh, can’t we do it?! Do it?! Do it?! Bohannon: “The deeper you go, the more you know.” Back in the cab, Elaine on the jump seat (remember those?): down to Save the Robots, down to see Darryl. We’re going out! What’s Akure doing? And Wanda? Oh, let’s just do it! Do it! Do it! our bodies say as Bohannon tells us what to do, the remnants of Mrs. Vreeland’s dummy face powder crystalizing in what we haven’t swallowed of the just left New York nighttime air. Speaking of face powder there’s Bobbie across the street from me, in my first apartment in Manhattan on East 3rd Street, the Hell’s Angel’s block. It’s 1983 or so, and the apartment on East 3rd Street used to be Mrs. Vreeland’s, she lived there with Brigitte who works as a receptionist in a whorehouse; there, she wears Chanel, which she keeps wrapped in plastic in the back of a closet in my bedroom, my first apartment since leaving home.

Just do it. I’m doing it: Leaving that apartment in the dead of summer and then the dead of winter and then summer again to cross Second Avenue to get a little shopping done at the frowsy supermarket. A little chicken in the cart. Just do it. Sometimes, while walking around that neighborhood filled with so many bodies I will know I spot a body I will know, one I fell in love with because someone I knew and was in love with was in love with him. He has blonde hair parted in the middle and tied in a ponytail. He is wearing an oversized trench coat; it reminds me of Suzy Parker’s trench coat in the Best of Everything, it swallows his thin frame up like that, and he has the most beautiful eye makeup, black eyeliner and not much else against his pale skin except the elements. It’s spring, and there’s water in the air even if it hasn’t rained, and I follow him through those ruined streets because I fell in love with him even before I saw him there, in photographs the guy I loved once had of him, an extraordinary being filled with blonde light, sporting blonde hair. The same man who had photographs of the person I’m following now, the one with the fine features and hair of the prettiest girl ever and who walks with the determination of the most willful girl or man, took me to the movies a lot in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and one movie he loved was called Homicidal, a William Castle flick. In it, there was a blonde “lady” who was also her brother—a man. I did not know why this movie mattered to my friend until he told me gently and sort of looking down about Bobbie. He did not tell me about Bobbie all at once but over a period of a year, during long walks, during long nights sitting in his automobile where we did not throw our hands up. Eros bound us, just as not consummating our love bound us, too. A big part of our eros then was the talk—prompted by me—of his former lovers, and Bobbie was among them. Still, he did not want this known. To be seen as the lover of a boy who was a girl was among the many stigmas this person was frightened of, his ostensible heterosexuality not only individuated him from the rest of the people we hung out with then, it was a lure, too—he was different within difference. This person lived in a room filled with a past he could not give up and which took forever for him to admit to. Photographs embodied both those strains because photographs are concrete shadows, a fact and the fiction of fact, all at the same time. In my friend’s room there was a record player where he sometimes spun old childhood 45s, and a small boy’s bed that could not contain his grown body: he did not wish to grow—he did not wish his voice to grow. But one thing he could control, though, was his voice: he sounded like a peevish nasal-sounding child just returned from fresh hurt. The world had hurt him in ways the world would not even recognize as such. And when he spoke about Bobbie all of these things came into play: my friend’s distance as a “real” straight man, and his amusement when he imitated Bobbie’s “feminine” nature. All of this increased my longing—not only for my friend—but for Bobbie, too: why was I not him, kissed, and held, and belittled? Perhaps it had something to do with what I looked like—not like Bobbie—or perhaps it had something to do with my sexuality: outwardly I did not live in male space and female space, all at once, but inside I knew I did, but how to express it? One way I could and did was by befriending Bobbie. It didn’t take long for us to become friends. Once I introduced myself to him on the street and managed to work past his defensiveness—and why wouldn’t he be defensive? Lovers, friends and enemies had not been so kind—I discovered that he lived across from me on East 3rd Street, and asked to be invited up. His apartment was at the end of a long hallway, and faced a graveyard. There were two rooms but it was hard to figure out which room he actually slept in; each was a jumble of clothes and books and pictures. We spent a lot of time around his television set, howling with laughter as he taped and played and replayed audio from Valley of the Dolls, and other films that would never exhaust their camp value. And the more I visited the more Bobbie became dependent on me—on the small amounts of money I was able to give to him (he could not work. And what would he work as? Anti-discrimination laws were not much in effect in the early 1980s) and as an audience: I was in love with his difference as I had been his former lovers. I was not in love with Bobbie per se, but, rather, his androgyny, and his bohemianism and the self he revealed in this journal entry, written in 1977 when he was not yet sixteen:

 

 

STEVEN

 

Dear Diary,

I am lonely. So lonely and depressed. Not only from being alone but because of Steven.

I talked to Abby today and she told me he asked for my address but when she asked him if he wanted my phone number he said no. He must not want to continue any relationship with me.

Oh Steven, Steven I love you so much. Maybe it’s only an infatuation but it’s a strong one. When you’re infatuated you’re infatuated. There’s nothing you can do to feel differently or be sensible about it.

That bitch Abby saying those things to me.

She always manages to upset me. Perhaps not intentionally but she tells me everything everybody else says. I can’t help it if she’s attracted to me “sometimes” or whatever the hell it is.

God why me? Why was I born a misfit?

I’ve reached an age where dolls and clothes can’t make me happy. I need more than that. I need a relationship. A deep personal relationship with one special person.

And Steven’s the person I want.

I hate him as much as I love him and I hate myself for reacting and being a typical female.

Right now I am all alone. Completely alone. Watching Channel 13. Desperately alone.

I’m going to call Abby now but I’m scared to bring up Steven to her for fear she’ll say something to Steven about what I told her. Oh God please give me a break. You laid such a heavy one on me when I was born.

12 April 1977

 

I remember, once, him talking to his mother on the phone and exclaiming: “But mother, I haven’t paid rent in ten months! You should be proud of me!” And I was in love with the writing he did, day after day, but would never show me because he could not finish what he wanted to achieve, a novel that had something to do with Alexei, Nicholas’ hemophiliac son, and the movie Johnny Apollo. Was it a script? Bobbie had gone to NYU film school, and loved movies as much as he loved girls; he slept with men and women and surrounded himself with female company, perhaps they were his audience, or perhaps they were him. Eventually Bobbie left our street in New York without a goodbye, and then the next thing I knew he was in Los Angeles working as a phone solicitor at a place where celebrities could rent limos, and it was in Los Angeles where Bobbie met Elaine, who used to work at Mr. Chow’s and who used to go out with us and put her hands up in the air, too. It was because of Elaine that Bobbie and I reconnected, and I learned that in between New York and LA he’d lived in Boston at a place that rated chronic pain sufferers—he’d had trouble with his shoulders and back for years—and while there he’d had an affair with a fellow sufferer, the photographer David Armstrong. During those years he continued writing in his diary sporadically, and here is another note about his different self and body. The body was Bobbie’s primary subject, and maybe he didn’t even know that:

 

1520 FRANKLIN

 

CPU

15 February

Wednesday, 1:30 – 3 PM

Fontenoy

 

David Napper

What grossed me out more than anything else about David Napper was all the ways he handled his desire to be fucked specially when he was angry at not being fucked. When he lay naked the next day after hours on speed with his back to me staring out the window and turning to see if I was looking but not looking into my eyes. Like one of those fat nude ladies at their bath in those fifteenth-century paintings. Why don’t those paintings have any of this psychology in their bodies? All this crap that people do and why does everyone fixate on the Mona Lisa’s little smile? I am not saying they should not. I just wonder at something so simple and enigmatic getting to so many people. How self-contained she is! That must be why she gets to people. She is not an absolute meaning imposed on her by the artist and you know how people insist on that with art because they are so threatened—so judged by art and perceiving and relating to it. They do not trust or know themselves and this hysteria is revealed in responding to art and to others responding to art. It’s like I am seeing my dialectical in my friendships with Mel, Bastiaan and David Armstrong and the like. It was just one more of those things that sickened me as a very young person yet I did not know why or see why and I had my hysteria and was intimidated by narrative forms. Oh it’s such a bore! I could not let out my truth and have it not be Herman Wouk or Tom Clancy or Margaret Mitchell. It’s the characters. What a goddam bore. I could never sit there and conceive a whole plot to make a point like Ayn Rand did. I can see now why it was so hard for her to plot that book and how she had to push her intelligence to do it. I do not care. She pushed it into twisted forms. Like me trying to use words to push them into rigid autonomous self-evident utterances. Into poses. Bad statues of anger that do not be the anger but defend and comment on it self-evasively in projections. This was a big lesson on waking a few mornings back before David Napper who has wiped all out the way Russ did in 1988. Something about me and words and this dream said, “Fuck all the words forever and the negative fixation on usage of words inculcated into me or how I interjected movie constructed to be organic words I heard but that were not that. It’s too complicated for me right now. I’m pissed. It was on this morning going to breakfast with Ted and Grandma’s kitchen last week. Oh who gives a fuck.

He was a bad lover. Totally selfish. Like me in the worst way. I want this and I want it now and this is how I want it. I want to use you for this satisfaction I want. I do not want to make love.

Making love you want to give pleasure to others. You get off on it. This was not there at all. As it was not with Stefan when he wanted me to suck on his thumb. I did not like Stefan. I would have been irritated at David if he had asked me to do something in a voice that cringed with its own hostility at having to ask and expecting the worst from you. I have written a lot about having the worst expected of people. In my family. Am I just speaking of myself I wondered? Beneath my hopes and fantasies I expect the worst yet I lie to myself about it and so it stays bad. They are really cringing at themselves for wanting some satisfaction from a person they do not like and do not trust. “You please me and I’ll please you.” Were living that attitude always so direct as that line out of Paul Newman’s mouth.

I guess David Napper just really did not like me as a person any more than I liked him. He did not want to please me. He only sucked my dick when very high on speed to so I would fuck him. In his fits and paranoia the next day he would not touch my body. I can see me at twenty-eight being like he was on Monday. Age does change things. Youth is intolerant in America.

Now I know an erection is not just needing to shoot that load piled up in your balls or blood flow into the penis building pressure as described in science texts by grotesque people who want to control all beauty with this sort of physiological information they separate from feeling and individuality. It is about the psyche and emotions. When I told David to sit on me because after hours of speed I had finally gotten a hard-on and he got very angry and his eyes looked so bratty and mean and ugly my erection dropped in a second. He did not want to sit on my dick. He wanted to lie on his back and play with those inches long nipples of his and get fucked like that without moving. As he approached orgasm his eyes would go batty and his tongue would stick out of his mouth at me in a convulsive way like a fish in a bowl—in profile there was something grotesquely amphibian about him—not just his features and that tongue thing but his countenance had the nervy blind quality of a fish pirating dangerous waters in constant defense and distrust—and he was totally by himself in this and so then he met another person’s eyes and had to deal with a feeling being—any person but it was me—had the look of a rat or a squirrel at the end of a gun—some peevish enclosed scared little ferret animal. Ferret face. Ferret eyes. I cannot describe how those eyes grossed me out.

About five minutes later I again got hard and again he got nasty, “Whenever you get near my ass you withdraw” or something like this. I do not think he used the word withdraw. Again my dick dropped like a noodle. I was dying to say something angry to him. That he was blocking getting the fucking he wanted so badly. He himself was ruining it with his ugly fetish selfish disposition. It did not seem worth it. Too many hours with this lope eared piece of gay white trash from Alabama. I only wanted to get him off and get him the hell out of my house and get this over with.

What if we had fucked and he had really liked it and wanted to meet again soon? Would I not have seen this ugly little shit inside him? I probably would have but then I am very glad we did not. That we were hours together without coming and having gotten off became a tremendous growth experience. That sexual frisson I got into after he had left and I started thinking about how he was now Buzz Young’s CNA. Just like with Russ and Jim I got terribly excited by seeing me become fucked by Buzz by hearing David was with him just as Jim fucking Russ kept my jerking off going for four years! So I brought the poppers yesterday and snorted a ton of them trying to prove I could get off by myself without anyone and it got more and more pathetic and took forever and I dug into my asshole so roughly and deeply with one then two then three fingers pushing against the walls this way and that and realizing there is this one spot, one wall on the bottom of the rectum that is a guy’s G spot for the very first time—all this writing because I could not deal with my body and it controlled me!—there were bumps on the inside lining of my rectum and then terrible pain that did not fade when I went upstairs to talk to Louie and it shocked me. That’s never happened before.

As I lay in the dark about 7 PM jerking off I had visions of those gross old gay men with masks on their face hooked up to Ammo dispensers like Jerrit described to me—the man who moved into the Ozzie and Harriet house—I wanted to puke. These men who had never made love and who turned all humans in objects of this or that type or beauty or role-player and whose use of ammo and cock rings and paraphernalia gets more desperate as they get older. I shuddered! I felt I had killed all sexual desire. It felt good. It was “Paralytic” by Sylvia Plath. I described that poem to Louie and she was like “Wow.” I was living the same thing! I just was not as economical and linear in describing my experience as my take on what is going on in “Paralytic” was. These “Wow” awe people like Jim and Louie have over the form and human content of a poem by a dead person—they are obfuscating the one they are with—ME!—enrages and disgusts me as much today as it did with Phillip Shelly in high school. Which must be why I was bringing all of that shit up with Louie as we got into a furious row over her obsession with Vogue and Tatiana, the model Bobby S. used to date and this beautiful model apparently fucked him over and used him and is one of these beautiful people who hates those who desire her which I can understand and Bobby deserved it for fearing it and imbuing her with something that is not simple humanity just like Ted Otis. They all make me sick—all of them. Dragging me down with their swaggering and philosophizing and pursuit of wisdom! I do want to express that and have it be clear but enjoy saying it like Vivien Leigh.

At some point B has to say that he just always wanted to say “That” in some situation. He says that and then shit comes out of his mouth from his toxic self-divided body and we cannot be sure what is effect and performance and what is real feeling in his words because the two fuse into meant lies in him. That whole real-fake thing is so confusing and I guess it must stay confusing. The O.J. trial was helping to make it clear with its very formal forum of arguing a reality so grounded in forensic science, time, sounds, corpses. It makes me sick. The million dollar drama queen lawyers are playing the games of a civilization the forms and procedures of which no longer has anything to do with the love-fear pathology of its citizens. To understand O.J. Simpson’s pathology seems to be all that matters in this trial and that is not happening and on speed I decided and said out loud to David that I was no longer watching Melrose Place or following the O.J. Simpson trial. Both David and Louie were glad to hear I would no longer follow the trial obsessively. That puzzles me.

David did not like my K-Joy and on the speed every song sounded so good! Was such a pleasure! I wanted to stop the sex to sing along occasionally and he was getting really irritated and feeling devalued and separated from and he just wanted my dick up his ass so bad. He was no fun!

Finally I agreed to turn the radio off. I said, “Only hear the sound of our own breathing” and he was like “Yeah” but he seemed to think I would concentrate on his hole if I was not enjoying the music. He really miscalculated.  I kept saying “Oh I love this song!”

I was amazed the next day coming down from the speed which went on and on to look at my books and recall and feel the impulse in me to read aloud to someone—to perform, to be special, to share other people’s texts that I “loved” instead of just myself who loved them and to quash it and not give into it but to feel this thing in my historic body so clearly. Sitting next to David by the window. I hated his comments on stuff in my apartment. Yet I rather liked sitting there on speed and noting a person’s room and its particulars and details like never before. As Ted focuses on the details of his Beth drama imbuing them with desperate meaning and desperate love and desperate psychological visibility and “I am here on this earth and a player who affects others.” If God is in the details bodiless people are desperate novelists about these details. It is so like me and Russ, Ted and Beth, that I could not listen to it and have been screaming at him every time I see him. I do not care. I am not worrying. I am not calling to make sure he is not mad at me and that I am holding onto him today after his near-tears with me in his truck yesterday. After his showing some genuine feeling instead of many stupid abstractions to reach a “higher plateau” for the first fucking time with me ever. I just cannot be bothered. I am not a bit sorry. He makes me sick.

Truth is the anxiety and anger over desire for this or that act between repressed gays who refuse to connect to feeling with David and I was so like Russ and me that the memory of Russ has finally ceased to overwhelm me. Finally David Napper has snapped the Ted Otis cord in me that obsessed in hell on details, utterances interactive with Russ and me and what they “meant” about what!? So I bought poppers and wanted to have the greatest onanistic(?) sex experience with self ever. It’s like I got over my own asshole and the thrill of a cock up my ass. It’s like I have been writing circles around the desires of my male cunt and my refusal of love and connecting my asshole to feeling for one special person or myself. Reconciling my hungry male hole with my self-loathing. On that sofa the movie ad line, “He has tried every high but love” came to me. How pathetic I shovel me into a Sunset poster board single utterance—a narrative hook—reducing the mystery of a body’s pathology to utterance as hook to other people—what hungry people? Ugh! That my loathing of David Napper, the mirror of my worst self in intimacy that he was—freed me to love. Coming back from that awful walk at 8 PM or so—no 7 PM? Monday night with David.

“Do you want to walk me to my bus stop?”

I equivocated over this—showing uncertainty, no enthusiasm to see him off before finally doing it. The way he said, “See ya” on the street was awful.

You see the encounter of twenty hours or so ends with me watching him make furtive odd trips into my kitchen over and over and I would feel suspicious every time and wanted to ask what in fuck he was doing in there? What did he have his eye on he wanted to steal? The piles of loose change I have everywhere in this apartment? Ten hours before I’m saying “Whatever you want! David I’ve never said this to another person but this is the most incredible night I’ve ever had with anyone. I have to say it.” This stuff was the agony. On speed and just having to confess these realizations I was having. I knew how much this annoys another person, how agonizing it is to deal with a body convulsively helplessly opening until you are drowning in their shit and not being related to. His response is to refuse to relate to me softly but to relate to me with provocative poses in the nude and not be nice or talk or be soft and refuse to meet my eyes. That was Russ all over. I am so fucking glad I had this encounter.

I felt walking back from Vine where I left him—we were dressed and he’d finally gotten off and I give him a hug and the hug was total insecurity and just trying to fake to each other that everything was OK and that the whole thing had ended unsatisfactorily for both of us and we just wanted to get away from each other now and he chooses that moment to say, “Do you have a couple of dollars you could lend me?” I wanted to puke.

“No David. I don’t. Why? Do you need bus fare?”

“No I have a few bus tokens. It’s just my mouth is so dry and I need a Coke or something on the long way home.”

I wanted to puke! So white trash. So Malachi. Putting these bodily concerns before relating. “I need it man.” The guy who was begging me for a sip of the beer in a paper bag I had just brought and was taking home to my apartment to have. Trying to reason with me. Give me a body narrative of his current state to persuade me into giving something I did not want to give or have to give. The logic of it. Who do they think they are talking to? As I was raging at Russ last week on waking recalling how he snapped at me in rage over sexual frustration but could not just say he was sexually frustrated or just a little fetishist user. They get furious when you will not allow yourself to be used by them as they plan and wish and act like they expect?! What mentality is this? I have been enclosed with sex but I have never been like this! I think David’s grotesqueness has freed me. I am not a piece of shit.

From Vine.

In fact I am so fucking glad I had this encounter that I am not in the least afraid to go to work. I do not want to sit by fucking Stan tonight who I wish was dead and would gladly smother with a pillow. I am all in favor of euthanasia. It’s like a Stan is a symbol of false sentimentality, guilt and fear in America on all sorts of Lina and Russ levels because he is useless and should be dead. We find ways to pour apple juice down his throat because he is too fucking weak to suck through a straw any longer which we well people never think do involve the stomach muscles in a major way and Stan does not have those muscles any longer. It’s something to do with his spleen. His spleen has blown up and sticking out hard and pointy in his stomach flesh. I had the speed-fuck encounter I needed to have to free myself to pathological distortions about myself. I do not care what Jerrit thinks or knows or anybody else. Fuck ‘em all! Or fuck me for fearing what they think or see. Oh hell I do not know.

I was terrified of having a sick relationship with someone like David Napper and disappearing into its convict circles and never finding out who I was. I was so afraid of that as I walking home from Vine. He is looking for a Bank of America. So he has a Versateller card and money in his account and asks me for a few bucks but wants to save his and take mine. In addition he called his client to get directions and then just sat down and did not move and never went to the shift. On speed I did not want him to. It would have been better for us both if he had. Timing and such have such great and long consequence for how we will connect or be affected in a way that will alienate us. If the self-relationship is firm in truth this will not happen. In fact that person will please himself and take action and tell David to leave or ask how he feels and say “Well I’m feeling this way so I’m going to do this. Do you want to do this? You don’t? OK. Well, I gotta do stuff.” I did not do any stuff asserting myself because of my self-relation interacting with his trip.

So now I was not afraid. I feared that desperately Monday night. Then last night, Tuesday, I push this fear by trying to get satisfaction from my own hand, fantasies and amyl nitrate and it got pathetic. The courage to love was the only thing. Fat old sneery Buzz degrading me with this playful “You’re a stupid cunt” talk as he loosened up my hole to fuck me became not exciting in the least but just a bore. Yet it had been exciting. Monday night I am not through. I go to extremes telling myself about speed, “Never again,” and yet I go hunt down the plate David had made lines on to rub my finger tip on it looking for any crumb of crystal meth on it, finding a few good size ones, crushing it into dust with one finger nail and then jerking off two or three times and getting tremendous excitement over Buzz fucking me and this continued the next day going to West Hollywood to get my taxi license. The snotty little clean boy who works there who decided I was too old for him noted my being there with this pleased little glow in his eyes that was shut off from any softness and was just vanity. “Oh here’s that guy too old for me to date who admired me last time and wants me.” Well, what can you do about your age? Nothing. Do you run and hide and stop living? So I bolstered myself. Here I look youthfully cute still but am not a boy’s age. Fuck it. It still scares me but that fear is so boring and awful.

I gotta go to work soon and call Michael at Celebrity Cab and tell him what is up. I will reread this. I need not rush all out. I am letting my real self out. God it feels good.

I never have to put myself through this “degradation” again to find out it’s not all I get out of being alive and experience with other people. Something easy and unchallenging about street trash and the price is being used and ripped off but you want to be so you can let go of the shit you cling to—your money, your illusions about—oh man. I will figure it out. I will articulate it but it’s not important now—a cogent articulation—rather only my experience of it as I am now will reveal it to me.

15 February 1995

 

Bobbie never fucked me, but I stole a photograph from him once. It was of him dressed as a girl. It was from a show—he was performing in “Night of the Iguana.” How did he have the courage to so be himself at such an early age? He just did it. He was protected by money a bit (his father was a successful businessman) and a deeply understanding mother, but, looking past that, how did he become himself? He just did it. Do it. I still want to do it. I fetishized that stolen black-and-white photograph, it meant the world to me—a world I could never inhabit but I could admire it as much as I admired anything, such as my mother’s incredible strength and kindness, or my childhood friend Theresa earning a living as a go-go dancer, or the many Bobbies I saw, eventually, at GG Barnum’s, a club frequented by trans people and their admirers, one of the only places in the city where men and women and everyone in between could be safe when they threw up their hands in something resembling freedom, and joy.

List of Works

Works listed left to right

Library

Bill Bernstein, GG’s Barnum Room, 1979, 2016, 31 3/4 × 23 1/2 inches, archival pigment print. Courtesy the artist

David Wise, Sylvester, June, 1970, 17 × 14 1/2 inches (framed), digital C-print. Courtesy the San Fransisco Public Library

Hilton Als, Portrait of Myself, But As Which One? (for EMJ), Polaroid photographs and books; Diana Davies, Unknown Attendee at Gay Liberation Front Meeting, 1968–75, 18 3/4 × 16 inches (framed). Courtesy Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library and the artist

Hilton Als, Smile and Relax (for Brent Sikkema and Kenneth E. Silver), 2016, 91 × 38 inches, mdf with embedded frame and lettering; Richard Avedon, John Martin of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, New York, March 15, 1975, 14 × 16 1/2 inches (framed), gelatin silver print. Courtesy the artist and Richard Avedon Foundation

Hilton Als, Bobbie, 2016, projected slides. Courtesy the artist

Fred McDarrah, Holly Woodlawn on David Susskind with Andy and camera, December 7, 1970, 1971, 15 1/2 × 12 1/2 inches (framed), gelatin silver print. Courtesy The Estate of Fred W. McDarrah and Steven Kasher Gallery

 

Stair

Hilton Als, Dirt Nap/Disco Nap, 2016, dimensions variable, slide projector, black velvet rope with stanchions, GG’s Barnum Poster. Projected slides: Bill Bernstein, 2001 Odyssey, Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, 1979; GG’s Barnum Room, Disco Bats on Net, 1979; GG’s Barnum Room, Disco Bats on Net #2, 1979; GG’s Barnum Room, Exterior, 1979; GG’s Barnum Room, “Ava”, 1979; GG’s Barnum Room, Table, 1979. Courtesy the artists

 

Study

Judy Linn, Ethyl Eichelberger, 1990, 21 × 16 inches, gelatin silver print. Courtesy Susanne Hilberry Gallery

Films: Werner Schroeter, Der Tod der Maria Malibran (The Death of Maria Malibran), 1971, 108 min., digital transfer of 16mm film; Darryl Turner starring Anna Kohler, D’Arc-Ness, 1999–2016, digital transfer of 8mm and 16mm film and hi definition video; Darryl Turner, She/Chevalier, 1999–2016, digital transfer of 8mm and 16mm film and hi definition video.

Judy Linn, Ethyl Eichelberger, tattoo drawn by Ken Tisa, 1990, 24 × 19 1/2 inches, gelatin silver print. Courtesy Susanne Hilberry Gallery

Sunroom

Richard Avedon, Jackie Curtis, Holly Woodlawn, and Candy Darling, New York, March 3, 1972. Gelatin silver print, 16 × 20 inches. Courtesy The Richard Avedon Foundation

Hilton Als, Silver Candy, 2016, screen print on cellophane. Courtesy the artist

Fred McDarrah, Candy Darling and Tom Eyen, May 8, 1972, 18 1/2 × 14 1/2 inches (framed), gelatin silver print. Courtesy The Estate of Fred W. McDarrah and Steven Kasher Gallery

Hilton Als, Stormé, Bobbie, and the Rest, 2016, dimensions variable, overhead projector with transparency of Bobbie Derecktor; Diane Arbus, Stormé standing in the park with a cigarette, nyc, 1961, 14 × 11 inches, gelatin silver print. Courtesy the artist

Hilton Als, Mx Justin Vivian Bond as Jackie Curtis, New York, 2009, digital photographic print. Courtesy the artist

Hilton Als, Mx Justin Vivian Bond as Mx Justin Vivian Bond, New York, 2008–9, digital photographic print. Courtesy the artist

Hilton Als, Candy, 2016, screen print on cellophane. Courtesy the artist

Reduce text

James Baldwin/Jim Brown and the Children, May 2 – June 18, 2016

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.… Read more

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
impenetrable paneling

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.

Yes!
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

Hilton Als

 

Years ago, when I was a teenager still, I was given James Baldwin’s second collection of essays, Nobody Knows My Name (1961), by his friend and my mentor, the writer Owen Dodson, who was one of the more ebullient survivors of the Harlem Renaissance. The dust jacket of the book featured a photograph of Baldwin wearing a white T-shirt and standing in a pile of rubble in a vacant lot. It was this photograph that compelled me to read the book. I had never seen an image of a black boy like me—Baldwin looked as if he could have been posing in my old neighborhood, in East New York—gracing anything as impressive as a collection of essays. In fact, shortly after Owen gave me the book I began to pretend that the photograph of Baldwin was of me, or the writer I meant to be, and that the book’s contents were my spiritual autobiography, or a record of the life I longed to lead. I was living in a roach-infested apartment in Crown Heights, along with my mother, my older sister, my younger brother, and the wearying fear that I would never escape from it. Baldwin, though, had grown up in circumstances not so different from my own, and he had gone on to become one of the most eminent writers America had ever produced. In the book, there was Baldwin in Paris attending a conference at the Sorbonne, Baldwin in Sweden interviewing Ingmar Bergman, Baldwin grappling with the exigencies of the life of the writer. And there was Baldwin realizing that, no matter how hard he tried to separate himself from that black boy picking his way through the rubble of Harlem, he would always be regarded by some as a “nigger.”

I didn’t believe that I was a nigger, but I was certainly viewed with contempt by friends and family whenever my differences—which took the form of reading and writing, and hanging out with boys who called one another “girlfriend”—declared themselves. In reading Baldwin, then, I was listening to my secret voice, the voice of someone who wasn’t afraid to describe who he was and where he’d come from and what he’d seen. Baldwin was also able to convey, in his labyrinthine, emotional prose, the persistent guilt that I felt toward my family—the family I would need to leave in order to become myself. And what compounded the guilt was the vague suspicion that in leaving them behind I would be leaving my blackness behind as well, to join the white world—a world that more often than not hurt and baffled my mother and siblings. Baldwin understood these things, because he’d survived them.

During the following year, I spent many hours in the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, hunched over bound volumes of old magazines featuring stories about Baldwin. I was struck, in some photographs, by his enormous eyes, like dark poppies in bloom, raised in mock or serious consternation; in others, by his enormous grin, with the “liar’s space” between the two front teeth. And then there were the interviews, during which he spoke with great candor and wit:

JOURNALIST: When you were starting out as a writer, you were black, impoverished, and homosexual. You must have said to yourself, “Gee, how disadvantaged can I get?”

BALDWIN: No, I thought I had hit the jackpot. It was
so outrageous, you had to find a way to use it.

When I was older, and had become a writer myself, my feelings about Baldwin grew ambivalent. I have never been comfortable being identified as a black writer, particularly when that description comes from a white audience, which knows nothing of the limitations imposed by the term. Nor have I ever been comfortable with the presumed fraternity of black writers, academics, and intellectuals: I have spent my entire life trying to come to grips with my feelings for my own family, and had little interest in being adopted by another—one with its own provincialism, competitiveness, and misapprehensions. Baldwin, at one point in his life, felt the same. In 1959, when he was thirty-five, he wrote from his self-imposed exile in Europe that he had left America because he wanted to prevent himself from becoming merely “a Negro writer.” He went on to become exactly that: the greatest Negro writer of his generation. Perhaps none of us escape the whipping post we’ve carved our names on. But Baldwin’s career became a cautionary tale for me, a warning as well as an inspiration.

I recently returned to Baldwin, prompted by the Library of America’s just-published two-volume selection of his novels, short stories, and essays, edited by Toni Morison. And I found that what I identified with in his work—the high-faggot style of his voice, the gripping narrative of his ascent from teen evangelist to cultural icon—had not changed for me since the days when I devoured his books like “some weird food” (as Baldwin once described his own early love of reading). My admiration for the way in which he alchemized the singularity of his perspective into art had not diminished. Neither had my discomfort with the way he had finally compromised that perspective. But I came to recognize something I’d missed during both my early infatuation and my later disaffection: no matter how much I tried to resist my identification with Baldwin, we were uneasy members of the same tribe.

 

 

James Baldwin was disenfranchised from the start. Born James Arthur Jones, in Harlem Hospital, on August 2, 1924, he was the illegitimate child of Emma Berths Jones, who worked as a cleaning woman to support herself and her son. He never knew his biological father. In 1927, his mother married a Baptist preacher named David Baldwin; together, they reared eight other children in a series of Harlem tenements. “My mother’s strength was only to be called on in a desperate emergency,” Baldwin wrote in 1972 in No Name in the Street. Her eldest child soon learned that his mother “scarcely belonged to us: she was always in the hospital, having another baby.” His stepfather was an unforgiving man with a terrible temper, who eventually lost his mind: “Between [the] children, who were terrified of him, the pregnancies, the births, the rats, the murders on Lenox Avenue, the whores who lived down-stairs, his job on Long Island—to which he went every morning, wearing a Derby or a Homburg, in a black suit, white shirt, dark tie, looking like the preacher he was, and with his black lunchbox in his hand—and his unreciprocated love for the Great God Almighty, it is no wonder our father went mad.”

In the midst of the anger and chaos of this household, the young Baldwin developed an insatiable appetite for literature. He writes in the introductory “Autobiographical Notes” to his first collection of essays, entitled Notes of a Native Son and published in 1955, “I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and A Tale of Two Cities, over and over and over… In fact, I read just about everything I could get my hands on—except the Bible, probably because it was the only book I was encouraged to read.” And, reading in the larger world of books, Baldwin began to see the smallness of the world in which he lived, and to devise ways of escaping. “I knew I was black, of course, but I also knew I was smart,” he once said. “I didn’t know how I would use my mind … but I was going to get whatever I wanted that way, and I was going to get my revenge that way.”

Escape was intimately bound up with issues of race. In Notes of a Native Son Baldwin recalls that when he was nine or ten he wrote a play that was directed by a young white schoolteacher—“a woman, who then took an interest in me, and gave me books to read, and, in order to corroborate my theatrical bent, decided to take me to see what she somewhat tactlessly referred to as ‘real’ plays.” He goes on, “Theater-going was forbidden in our house, but, with the really cruel intuitiveness of a child, I suspected that the color of this woman’s skin would carry the day for me.” And it did. David Baldwin could not object to Jimmy’s education, because he could not contradict the power that the white woman’s skin held in his imagination:

He would have refused permission if he dared. The fact that he did not dare caused me to despise him…. In later years, particularly when it began to be clear that this “education” of mine was going to lead me to perdition, he became more explicit and warned me that my white friends in high school were not really my friends and that I would see, when I was older, how white people would do anything to keep a Negro down…. The best thing was to have as little to do with them as possible. I did not feel this way and I was certain, in my innocence, that I never would.

And so his stepfather’s resistance proved a goad to his ambition, spurring him to reconfigure his world by turning difference into strength.

During Baldwin’s years at Frederick Douglass Junior High School—from 1935 to 1938—his early ambitions were encouraged by one of the teachers there, the black homosexual writer Countee Cullen, who had enjoyed a vogue during the Harlem Renaissance. Baldwin went on to De Witt Clinton High School, a distinguished—and racially integrated—public school in the Bronx. Among his classmates were the future writer Emile Capouya, the future editor Sol Stein, and the future photographer Richard Avedon, with whom Baldwin coedited the school magazine, The Magpie. And as Baldwin began to venture—both literally and metaphorically—out of the neighborhood, some of his stepfather’s forebodings began to be realized. Avedon remembers bringing Baldwin home to his family’s apartment on the Upper East Side: “The elevator man looked at Jimmy and said, ‘You have to go up the back stairs.’ ”

But even as Baldwin was traveling beyond the boundaries of the black community he was also trying to find his place in it. He underwent a religious conversion when he turned fourteen, began preaching shortly afterward, and proved to be good at it. In the small world of Harlem’s Pentecostal churches, he had his first experience of fame, but he took little pleasure in it. “At this time of my life, Emile was the only friend I had who knew to what extent my ministry tormented me,” Baldwin wrote many years later, in The Devil Finds Work (1976). Capouya believed that his friend remained in the church out of cowardice:

Therefore, on the coming Sunday, he would buy two tickets to a Broadway matinee and meet me on the steps of the 42nd Street Library, at two o’clock in the afternoon. He knew that I spent all day Sunday in church—the point, precisely, of the challenge… I had hoped for a reprieve, hoped, on the marked Sunday, to get away unnoticed: but I was the “young” Brother Baldwin, and I sat in the front row, and the pastor did not begin his sermon until about a quarter past one. Well. At one-thirty, I tiptoed out…. That was how I left the church.

He was seventeen. Shortly afterward, he left home, but he continued to help support his large family, working first at a defense plant in New Jersey, and then at a meatpacking plant in Manhattan. The racism he encountered during this period was debilitating in its unthinking brutality: twelve years later, he described the visceral response it evoked as being like “some dread, chronic disease, the unfailing symptom of which is a kind of blind fever, a pounding in the skull and fire in the bowels,” and he added, “It can wreck more important things than race relations. There is not a Negro alive who does not have this rage in his blood.”

 

 

David Baldwin died in 1943, several days before his adopted son’s nineteenth birthday. Baldwin buried his stepfather, moved to Greenwich Village, and embarked on a new life as a bohemian. A year later, he met Richard Wright, who championed Baldwin’s early efforts at fiction, recommending him to an editor at Harper & Brothers. It was Wright who first gave voice to Baldwin’s experience of racism. “He was the greatest black writer in the world for me,” Baldwin later recalled, in “Alas, Poor Richard.” “In Uncle Tom’s Children, in Native Son, and, above all, in Black Boy, I found expressed, for the first time in my life, the sorrow, the rage, and the murderous bitterness which was eating up my life…. His work was an immense liberation and revelation for me.”

Through Eugene Worth, a black friend who committed suicide in 1946 (and who inspired the character of Rufus in Baldwin’s 1962 novel, Another Country), Baldwin was introduced to leftist politics, and in short order the nineteen-year-old writer was a card-carrying Trotskyist, but he didn’t remain one long. (“It was useful in that I learned that it may be impossible to indoctrinate me,” he wrote in the introduction to his collection of pieces The Price of the Ticket.) Still, during that time he became acquainted with the intellectuals who would greatly influence the beginning of his career as a writer: Saul Levitas, of The New Leader; Randall Jarrell, of The Nation; Elliott Cohen and Robert Warshow, of Commentary; and Philip Rally, of The Partisan Review. These editors supported Baldwin’s growth as a critic and allowed him access to the social world of New York intellectuals, but their patronage was not without its restrictions: as a black, he was expected and encouraged to review black books. “As for the books I reviewed—well, no one, I suppose, will ever read them again,” Baldwin mused. “It was after the war, and Americans were on one of their monotonous conscience ‘trips’: be kind to niggers, for Christ’s sake, be kind to Jews!”

To some extent, Baldwin used his blackness as a kind of surrogate Jewishness: it was his “difference” that sold, and the Jewish intellectuals who knew persecution first hand could understand racism as persecution of a different hue. Baldwin described the connection himself, in his essay “The Harlem Ghetto,” which was published in 1948:

Though the notion of suffering … is based on the image of the wandering, exiled Jew, the context changes imperceptibly, to become a fairly obvious reminder of the trials of the Negro…. At this point, the Negro identifies himself almost wholly with the Jew. The more devout Negro considers that he is a Jew, in bondage to a hard taskmaster and waiting for Moses to lead him out of Egypt.

 

It is likely that this connection in suffering was dear to him as a citizen of Harlem, where the Jew was stigmatized for his whiteness, just as blacks were marked in the larger world for their blackness. But such observations must have also strengthened his sense of belonging to his new intellectual community.

Certainly this community helped to redefine Baldwin. By 1948, he was no longer the ugliest boy his father had ever seen but a promising young writer who was considered “very smart” by the older editors he worked for. And nothing is more necessary to a writer than attention. “Though it may have cost Saul Levitas nothing to hurl a book at a black boy to see if he could read it and be articulate concerning what he had read, I took it as a vote of confidence. And I loved him… and I think … that he was proud of me, and that he loved me, too.” It is a touchingly vulnerable statement.

The reviews and essays Baldwin wrote for The Nation and other magazines are models of linguistic precision and critical acuity. In them he laid the groundwork for the themes he would explore and develop in his later essays: the tensions between blacks and Jews; black stereotypes in film; the effect of poverty on everyday life. At the same time, he was developing a style as a writer—a style that blended a full-throated preacherly cadence with the astringent obliquities of a semi-​closeted queen.

Baldwin was also struggling to embrace a wider racial vision. At the end of his review of a biography of Frederick Douglass—a review published in The Nation in 1947, when Baldwin was only twenty-two—he wrote, “Relations between Negroes and whites, like any other province of human experience, demand honesty and insight; they must be based on the assumption that there is one race and that we are all part of it.” At the same time, however, he wasn’t trying to “transcend” his race: he was assuming the role of its spokesperson. In a review of Chester Himes’s novel The Lonely Crusade Baldwin states, “On the low ground where Negroes live something is happening: something which can be measured in decades and generations and which may spell our doom as a republic and almost certainly implies a cataclysm.”

In November, 1948, Baldwin decided to leave the country. Unwilling to end up like his stepfather, “sitting at the window, locked up in his terrors,” he used the money from a literary fellowship he’d won to book passage to Paris.

He arrived with just over forty dollars to his name and few contacts other than Richard Wright, who had arrived there two years earlier. But postwar Paris proved to be a refuge for a number of black Americans. And the Parisians, as Baldwin’s friend Maya Angelou has said, were delighted with them: they were neither les miserables nor Algerians. “France was not without its race prejudices,” she recalled in an interview. “It simply didn’t have any guilt vis-à-vis black Americans. And black Americans who went there, from Richard Wright to Sidney Bechet, were so colorful, and so talented, and so marvelous, and so exotic. Who wouldn’t want them?”

In Paris, Baldwin lived in a variety of hotels, some “ludicrously grim,” and he supported himself in a variety of ways. His first summer, he worked as a clerk for a lawyer and he wrote pieces for French and American periodicals. And, for the first time in his life, he borrowed from friends and acquaintances. To live off the largesse of friends takes charm, but that was one resource he had in abundance. “He was able to really charm you, and entertain you, and beguile you, and I suppose seduce you if you were at all ready for it,” the poet Richard Howard remembers.

Through Wright, Baldwin was introduced to the editors of the Paris-based magazine Zero, and for them, in 1949, he wrote his first critical piece about his former mentor—a devastating essay entitled “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” In it Baldwin argued that American protest literature simply confirmed stereotypes about blacks, and that Bigger Thomas, the antihero of Wright’s 1940 novel, Native Son, was the spiritual and ideological twin of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom—a victim used as a vessel to project the author’s self-righteousness. Baldwin felt confined by political fiction; as he later explained, he wanted to be a writer “instead of a pamphleteer.”

Owen Dodson told me that when Baldwin attacked Wright’s aesthetic most black intellectuals and academics felt that he had gone too far. Disdainful of intellectual protectionism among blacks, I replied that I guessed that we were not only supposed to look alike but like alike, too. Today, however, as I read Baldwin’s essays on Wright and sort through my own jumbled feelings, the truth seems a bit more complicated. Certainly both “Everybody’s Protest Novel” and Baldwin’s later essay “Alas, Poor Richard” (1961) expressed real misgivings that the younger man had about Wright’s work. But these essays—as the title of the second one suggests—also constituted a very personal attack. Baldwin meant not only to bury the tradition of black letters, which had its roots in a Communism supported by white dilettantes, but also to supersede Wright as the one black writer worth reading in the largely white world of American letters. The Oedipal nature of their relationship was not lost on Baldwin, who once described Wright as “my ally and my witness, and alas! my father.”

 

It is a similar desire for a father—and an ultimate distance from him—that accounts for most of the pathos of Go Tell It on the Mountain, Baldwin’s first and best novel, which was published, finally, in 1953. (Baldwin had worked on Mountain—originally entitled In My Father’s House—in one form or another for a decade.) The story takes place in the course of a day—the day John, its hero, turns thirteen and is “saved” in the Baptist church where his father preaches. Sharing the stage with John are the dark, troubled “vertical saints.” They are his immediate elders: his mother, Elizabeth; his stepfather, Gabriel; and Gabriel’s sister Florence. While John writhes and moans on the “threshing floor,” each of them recounts, in flashback, the sins of his or her own past. John’s sins—his blackness and his gayness—are part of the filth that he lives in and from which he cannot imagine how to escape. John’s “ugliness” is also part of his sin. “His father had always said his face was the face of Satan—and was there not something—in the lift of the eyebrow, in the way his rough hair formed a V on his brow—that bore witness to his father’s words? In the eye there was a light that was not the light of Heaven, and the mouth trembled, lustful and lewd, to drink deep in the winds of Hell.”

The extraordinary power of Mountain arose from Baldwin’s ability to convey the warping intensity of an elder’s judgment and a child’s inability to protect himself from it. John cannot understand why his father despises him, because the fact that the father despises himself does not occur to John. Nor can John imagine being able to escape him: there will never be any reprieve from the memory of his cruelty and its effect.

The psychic tug-of-war between attraction and rejection was also destined to play itself out in Baldwin’s relationships with other men. Shortly after his arrival in Paris, Baldwin met a seventeen-year-old Swiss artist named Lucien Happesberger. The fact that Happesberger was white and Baldwin black was less of a transgression than it would have been back in the States. “In Paris,” Baldwin said, “I didn’t feel socially attacked, but relaxed, and that allowed me to be loved.”

“He was this rather silly, giddy, predatory fellow who was extraordinarily unattractive-looking,” Richard Howard recalls. “There’s a famous eighteenth-century person who used to say, ‘I can talk my face away in twenty-five minutes.’ And Jimmy could do that.” To a point, perhaps. In the gay demi-monde, where looks count for a great deal, Baldwin was not a success, even after he became famous, and he tended to be attracted to straight and bisexual men, who increased the sense of isolation he fed on. Even Lucien, his great love, was primarily attracted to women. For Baldwin, the first principle of love was love withheld; it was all he had ever known.

His second novel, Giovanni’s Room (1956), traces a tragic affair between two men—a white American drifter and an Italian bartender amid the bars and hôtels particuliers of postwar Paris. The melodramatic plot—in which each man really does kill the thing he loves—creates, in microcosm, the sentimental, histrionic tone of Baldwin’s later, unwieldy novels, notably Another Country.

Giovanni’s Room isn’t exactly self-affirming, but the fact that he wrote about the world of his sexuality at all is extraordinary, given the year and his race. (So intense was the stern Puritanism of most blacks I knew while I was growing up that one was not simply a faggot but a damned faggot.) When Giovanni’s Room was published, Howard recalls, “it was regarded as an exceptional book, and gay people were proud that such a thing existed. And that it should have been written by a black person was kind of phenomenal.”

 

It was in Baldwin’s essays, unencumbered by the requirements of narrative form, character, and incident, that his voice was most fully realized. And his attacks on the straight-white-boy gatekeepers of culture and politics remain appropriately vicious. In the nineteen-fifties, his most pugnacious contemporary was Norman Mailer. In 1959, the thirty-six-year-old Mailer published Advertisements for Myself, which contained his essay “Evaluations—Quick and Expensive Comments on the Talent in the Room.” In it, he declares his admiration for James Jones and other major novelists of the time. But of Baldwin he says:

James Baldwin is too charming a writer to be major. If in Notes of a Native Son he has a sense of moral nuance which is one of the few modern guides to the sophistications of the ethos, even the best of his paragraphs are sprayed with perfume. Baldwin seems incapable of saying “F— you” to the reader; instead he must delineate the cracking and the breaking and the melting and the hardening of a heart which could never have felt such sensuous growths and little deaths without being emptied as a voice.

Baldwin’s subsequent essay about Mailer—“The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy,” published in 1961—deflates Mailer’s macho posturing with his “perfumed” wit: “Norman, I can’t go through the world the way you do because I haven’t got your shoulders,” he writes. He also pits his de-facto cool credentials against what he depicts as Mailer’s privileged white petulance:

The anguish which can overtake a white man comes in the middle of his life, when he must make the almost inconceivable effort to divest himself of everything he has ever expected, or believed, when he must take himself apart and put himself together again, walking out of the world, into limbo or into what certainly looks like limbo. This cannot yet happen to any Negro of Norman’s age, for the reason that his delusions and defenses are either absolutely impenetrable by this time, or he has failed to survive them. “I want to know how power works,” Norman once said to me, “how it really works, in detail.” Well, I know how power works, it has worked on me, and if I didn’t know how power worked, I would be dead.

In the same place, Baldwin slyly makes fun of Mailer’s infatuation with the predominantly black jazz world. “Negro jazz musicians … really liked Norman,” he writes. But they “did not for an instant consider him as being even remotely ‘hip.’ … They thought he was a real sweet ofay cat, but a little frantic.” Baldwin did not, however, own up to his reciprocal fascination with straight white boys and their privilege. Certainly Another Country, Baldwin’s own “hip” book about interracial sex, gay sex, pot smoking, and nihilism, turned out to be an artistic disaster.

 

 

By the time Baldwin published Another Country and the essay collection Nobody Knows My Name, both in 1962, he had become America’s leading black literary star. Both books were commercially successful, but the reviews of Another Country were mixed. The novel centers on Rufus, a black male artist, who falls in love with a white Southern woman he meets at a party, and has sex with her on the hosts’ balcony. (“He forced her beneath him and he entered her. For a moment she thought she was going to scream, she was so tight… Then, from the center of his rising storm, very slowly and deliberately, he began the slow ride home. And she carried him, as the sea will carry a boat.”) After becoming involved with her, Rufus is tormented by the world that cannot understand their love. He beats her; she ends up in a mental ward; he commits suicide. The subplots, about adultery, bedhopping, and ambition, are equally melodramatic. Elizabeth Hardwick astutely observed in her review for Harper’s, “In certain respects this novel is a representation of some of the ideas about American life, particularly about the Negro in American life, that Baldwin’s essays have touched upon. But what is lacking in the book is James Baldwin himself, who has in his non-fictional writing a very powerful relation to the reader.”

In 1962, Baldwin’s incantatory voice reached its largest magazine audience. Baldwin had agreed to write a piece about Africa for William Shawn, who was then the editor of The New Yorker; instead, he gave Shawn the essay that came to be known as “The Fire Next Time,” which had originally been assigned him by Norman Podhoretz, of Commentary. The peculiar power of “The Fire Next Time” was intensified by the cultural moment at which it appeared, just as Martin Luther King’s nonviolent movement was being overtaken by the violent nationalism of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam.

“The Fire Next Time,” which appeared as “Letter from a Region in My Mind,” detailed Baldwin’s evangelical upbringing and his views on Christianity as a form of slavery forced on and then embraced by blacks: oppression as the condition of black American life. In order to escape “the ghetto mentality” and be a “truly moral human being,” it was necessary for anyone, white or black, to first “divorce himself from all the prohibitions, crimes, and hypocrisies of the Christian church,” Baldwin wrote. “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.” The godhead with whom many blacks were replacing that Christian god was Allah, as represented by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. When Baldwin visited him at his home in Chicago, he was impressed by the Nation of Islam’s ability to transform some of Harlem’s more disreputable characters into Allah-abiding men.

Baldwin was able to maintain a skeptical view of the militancy of the Nation of Islam in his essay, and yet his admiration for strong black men is palpable. At one point, he confesses that upon encountering the Honorable Elijah Muhammad’s “marvelous smile” he was reminded of the day, twenty-three years earlier, when he first met the female pastor of what would become his church. “Whose little boy are you?” she asked him. And Baldwin’s orphaned heart cried out, “Why, yours!”

 

With the publication of The Fire Next Time in book form, in 1963, Baldwin became something of an intellectual carpetbagger. He undertook a lecture tour for the Congress on Racial Equality; he registered voters in Alabama for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; he travelled to Nairobi with Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier to celebrate Kenya’s independence. On May 17th, he appeared on the cover of Time. William Styron recalls seeing Baldwin in an airport shortly after the book came out: “He was being followed by crews of TV reporters with microphones. He saw me from a distance, and waved, and then he was swept along by the great media wave.” An essayist once known for his ability to question any party line had become the official voice of black America, and almost immediately his voice as a writer was compromised.

In 1964, Baldwin was asked by Lee Strasberg, then the director of the Actors Studio, to stage a play about the Emmett Till case, which the writer had been working on intermittently since 1958. As originally conceived, by Baldwin and Frank Cosaro, who was slotted to direct it, the play, “Blues for Mister Charlie,” was to be a “balanced view” of America’s racial scene. Baldwin, Cosaro says, wanted as objective a view of Mister Charlie—the white man—as of his victim, and Cosaro was impressed by that. But Baldwin couldn’t ignore the political influence of the black leaders he was becoming friendly with. “He then came back to me and Strasberg,” Cosaro recalls, “and said that he had to go after Mister Charlie.” The result was dutiful, turgid, and unconvincing.

Baldwin had always been a preacher of one sort or another, and preaching imminent earthly damnation to liberal white folks became increasingly irresistible. Even as early as 1960, Baldwin, standing in front of Styron’s fireplace in Connecticut, told his host, “Baby, we are going to burn your motherfucking houses down.” By 1968, Baldwin found impersonating a black writer more seductive than being an artist. That year, he went to Hollywood to write a screen adaptation of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The producer, Marvin Worth, recalls, “White liberals were thrilled to have him come into their Beverly Hills houses and beat them up, say they were shit. He was a star who played on white masochism.”

The irony, however, was that no matter how much Baldwin sacrificed his gifts to gain acceptance from the Black Power movement, his gestures went unrequited: while Baldwin may have been seen as a “bad nigger” by liberal whites, back in the hood he was just another twisted white boy in blackface. Eldridge Cleaver, in his 1968 Soul on Ice, called Baldwin “a self-willed, automated slave” and “the white man’s most valuable tool in oppressing other blacks.” And yet, even after he’d been vilified by Cleaver, his response was appeasing and reverential. In No Name in the Street (1972) Baldwin referred to Cleaver as “valuable and rare,” and excused his intolerance as the vigilance of “a zealous watchman on the city wall.” And it is difficult to read Baldwin’s description of Huey Newton in the same essay without wincing:

There is in him a dedication as gentle as it is unyielding, absolutely single-minded. I began to realize this when I realized that Huey was always listening and always watching. No doubt he can be fooled, he’s human, though he certainly can’t be fooled easily; but it would be a very great mistake to try to lie to him. Those eyes take in everything, and behind the juvenile smile, he keeps a complicated scoreboard.

Baldwin’s biographer, David Leeming, told me that many of the civil-rights leaders didn’t want to be associated with Baldwin, because he was so openly gay; it seems to have been why the organizers of the 1963 March on Washington pointedly ignored him. In the end, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver were reincarnations of his withholding and judgmental preacher father.

By the time the Black Power movement had started to ebb, Baldwin was adrift not only politically but aesthetically. Throughout the nineteen-seventies, Styron and Mailer were working on ambitious books like Sophie’s Choice and The Executioner’s Song, Thomas Pynchon was breaking new ground with Gravity’s Rainbow, and a prolific new generation of black women—Toni Cade Bambara, Gayl Jones, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison—was claiming the public’s imagination. Baldwin’s fastidious thought process and his baroque sentences suddenly seemed hopelessly outdated, at once self-aggrandizing and ingratiating. Nevertheless, up until his death, in 1987, at the age of sixty-three, Baldwin continued to harbor the hope that he would be embraced as an important literary figure by the army of his desire: the black men who had forsaken him.

 

 What became clear to me as I re-read Baldwin’s work (the Library of America selection mercifully excludes his ill-conceived and poorly written plays, “The Amen Corner” and “Blues for Mister Charlie,” and the novels written after Another Country) is that he never possessed a novelist’s imagination or sense of structure—or, indeed, a novelist’s interest in the lives of other people. Nor was he a reporter: most of his reporting pieces were stiff and banal. He was at his best when he was writing about some aspect of life or politics that reflected his interior self: he contained a multitude of worlds, and those worlds were his true subject.

But I also realized that my acute awareness of Baldwin’s weaknesses as a writer stemmed from my sense of kinship with him. Certainly Baldwin understood this particular kind of ambivalence, having written the following at thirty-six, the age I am now:

One of my dearest friends, a Negro writer now living in Spain, circled around me and I around him for months before we spoke. One Negro meeting another at an all-white cocktail party… cannot but wonder how the other got there. The question is: Is he for real? Or is he kissing ass?… Negroes know about each other what can here be called family secrets, and this means that one Negro, if he wishes, can “knock” the other’s “hustle”… Therefore, one “exceptional” Negro watches another “exceptional” Negro in order to find out if he knows how vastly successful and bitterly funny the hoax has been.

 

Baldwin had been eying the competition long before he was paid to do so by any white editor. In Notes of a Native Son Baldwin writes that he and his stepfather circled around each other endlessly before they had their only significant conversation. One Sunday afternoon, they were walking home from church when David Baldwin broke their habitual silence:

 

My father asked me abruptly, “You’d rather write than preach, wouldn’t you?”

I was astonished at his question—because it was a real question. I answered, “Yes.”

 

But in the end Baldwin could not distinguish between writing sermons and making art. He eventually returned to the pulpit—just where his stepfather had always wanted him to be.

Yet there is one great Baldwin masterpiece waiting to be published—one that was composed in an atmosphere of focused intimacy rather than in the stiff black preacher suit that was his legacy—and that is a volume of his letters. A number of them were lent to me while I was doing research for this article; they have the force and wit of his early essays and the immediacy of something written for an audience
of one.

After Baldwin’s death, the family’s relation to their prodigal son continues to reflect the hazards of uttering family secrets. When I asked David Leeming why the Baldwin family would not allow his letters to be published, he explained that the family felt he shed a negative light on them, particularly on David Baldwin, who was their father and not his; and they were uncomfortable with his homosexuality. “They have no interest in further exploring who he was,” Leeming says. The family’s unease with the private Baldwin is something that he himself always understood. And yet he left his legacy in their hands. In the end, even a bastard may be reclaimed by his family.

A version of this text was published in The New Yorker on Feb. 16, 1998.

List of Works

All works from right to left upon entry.

All works courtesy the artists and as otherwise noted.

 

Library

       Shelf

Hilton Als, Homage to Gary Fisher with Friends (the other Baldwin), 2016, dental molds, photographs, and self-portraits: Mitch Batch, New York; Jared Buckhiester, artist, New York; Andrianna Campbell, writer, New York; Durga Chew-Bose, writer, New York; Michael Ferrante, writer, New York; Tavi Gevinson, performer and editor, New York; Clay Hapaz, artist and producer, New York; Georgie Hopton, artist, London; Peter LaBier, painter, New York; Uzoamaka Maduka, editor, New York; Maggie Nelson, writer, Los Angeles; Carissa Rodriguez, artist, New York; Rachel Weisz, actor, London; Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, painter, London.

 

      Items from right to left

Carl Van Vechten, James Baldwin, September 13, 1955, digital inkjet print, 15 ½ x 20 inches. Courtesy The Van Vechten Trust.

Carl Van Vechten, Diana Sands as Adelaide Smith in “Tiger Tiger Burning Bright,” January 29, 1963, digital inkjet print, 15 ½ x 20 inches. Courtesy The Van Vechten Trust.

Hilton Als, Dorothy Dean Wallpaper, 2016, digital print, 18 x 24 inches.

Postcard reproduction of Ethel Scull 36 Times, 1963, by Andy Warhol.

James Van Der Zee, Untitled, 1939, gelatin silver print, 14 ½ x 17 ½ inches. Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery.

Hilton Als, Warhol Ladies and Gentlemen Wallpaper, 2016, digital print, 17 ½ x 20 inches.

Carl Van Vechten, James Baldwin, September 13, 1955, digital inkjet print, 15 ½ x 20 inches. Courtesy The Van Vechten Trust.

Gary at his birthday party with Karposi arm, 1991 (unknown photographer), digital print, 17 x 24 inches. Courtesy the Estate of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.

Fred McDarrah, Betty Carter backstage at a venue in Brooklyn, July 31, 1975. Collection of Hilton Als.

Video documentation of Gary Fisher reading with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, 1993, 30 mins.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Listening to Dionne (1), April 1992, photo collage, 17 × 30 inches. Courtesy the Estate of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Untitled, 1992, photo collage, 8 ½ × 14 inches. Courtesy the Estate of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, San Francisco ’93, (DK Ward), 1993, photograph, 5 × 10 inches. Courtesy the Estate of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.

James Baldwin and Nina Simone, ca. 1960s (unknown photographer), 17 × 15 inches. Collection of Hilton Als.

Hilton Als, Myself Wrapped in Plastic, 2016, 22 × 28 inches, photograph of Hilton Als by Catherine Opie, plastic wrap.
       Back wall

Hilton Als, Jim Brown #1, 2016, silkscreen on cellophane, 30 x 46 inches.

Jesse Murry, Abyss (Radical Solitude), 1992, oil on canvas, 24 × 24 inches. Courtesy George Centanni.
       Hanging wall front

Helen Kotis, James Baldwin, 1950, gelatin silver print, 17 × 21  inches. Private collection.
       Hanging wall rear

Mathew Brady, Henry James Sr. and Henry James Jr., 1854, digital inkjet print, 14 x 20 inches. Courtesy of the Houghton Library, Harvard University.

 

Hall

Hilton Als, Letter from Gary Fisher on Gober wallpaper, 2016, inkjet print, plastic, light fixture, 54 x 53 inches.

 

Study

Hilton Als, For Darryl and the Others, 2016, four-channel video with archival footage and John Edmonds, Shotgun, 15 mins.

Darryl Turner, Portrait of Andre Walker, 1991, digital video, 20 mins.

 

Sunroom

Walls

Hilton Als, Wall for Jesse Murry, 2016, 7 × 3 feet, mixed media including: Jesse Murry, Threshold, 1990, oil on canvas, 9 × 12 inches; Jesse Murry, Untitled (green), oil on canvas, 9 × 15 inches, 1990, Wolfgang Tillmans, Corinne on Gloucester Place, 1993, digital C-print, 14 × 14 inches.

Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Model study, 2015, folded and worn inkjet print on 170gsm semi-gloss paper, 33 × 44 inches.

Andrew Roth, Untitled (Julius Eastman), 1980, gelatin silver print, 12 × 14 inches.

Troy Michie, Sequence, 2016, collage, wood, tape, African pin, hair, shoe tongue, metal handle, and acrylic on cutting board, 21 × 16 × 1 inches.

Troy Michie, Quite-Quite, 2012, collage, tape, and acrylic on wood panel, 24 x 33 inches.

Troy Michie, Quite-Giddy, 2012, collage, tape, glass, and acrylic on wood panel, 24 x 33 inches.

Troy Michie, La Cellule, 2016, collage, tape, picture frame backing, key, rack and acrylic on wood panel, 23 x 16 inches.

Hilton Als, Face, 2016, digital print and bubble wrap, 30 x 55 inches.

Richard Avedon, James Baldwin, writer, Harlem, New York, 1945, 25 × 27 inches, gelatin silver print. Courtesy The Richard Avedon Foundation.

Hilton Als, Jim Brown #2, 2016, silkscreen on cellophane, 56 x 78 inches.

Hanging plastic front: Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Portrait, 2015, 10 × 13 inches, archival pigment print.

Hanging plastic rear: Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Draping, 2015, 10 × 13 inches, archival pigment print.

Hilton Als, Jim Brown #3, 2016, silkscreen on cellophane, 79 x 60 inches.

Jennie C. Jones, Score for Sustained Blackness Set 2, 2014,
acrylic paint, collage, and Noligraph 5-line staff pen on paper, set of 10: 16 × 20 inches. Courtesy the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

Hilton Als, Diana Ross Wallpaper, 2016, digital print, 36 x 45 inches.
       Center

Lawrence Wolhandler, Bust of James Baldwin, 1975, St. Paul de Vence, France, ceramic, 7 x 11 x 9 inches.

Hilton Als, Baldwin Kneeling , wooden kneeling bench, 91 x 21 inches.
       Sound

James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room, 1967, audio recording, 14:22 mins; Richard Pryor, “Don’t Mess with Jim Brown,” Wanted: Live in Concert, 1978, audio recording, 4:44 mins; James Baldwin, “Precious Lord Take My Hand,” A Lover’s Question, 1987, audio recording, 3:58 mins.

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The Romance of Certain Old Clothes: Sheryl Sutton, My Sister, My Mother, Senga Nengudi, and the Rest, June 28 – August 7, 2016

Looking back I can see that one of the chief pleasures, for me, of working on these three shows for The Artist’s Institute has been in making rooms at 132 E. 65th Street that amount to a forum where artists could play with one another without realizing, at least not at first, who their fellow playmates were. This, of course, yielded many surprises, many gifts. … Read more

Looking back I can see that one of the chief pleasures, for me, of working on these three shows for The Artist’s Institute has been in making rooms at 132 E. 65th Street that amount to a forum where artists could play with one another without realizing, at least not at first, who their fellow playmates were. This, of course, yielded many surprises, many gifts. When I began putting these shows together I didn’t discuss who the artists might be because I didn’t know: the guiding impulse here was a wild, non-verbal emotional feeling about an idea or bit of personal history that was eventually substantiated by intellectual evidence. But once a given show started to evolve, I worked very quickly to bring together those artists who could make my admittedly internal vision real. When I look back at all the artist-wonders who graced these shows, I am impressed, once again, by the leap of faith they made by joining me on this grand and great adventure, and I love them for that. By lending me their work, they have helped me create a vocabulary—a language—about myself in relation to their respective selves, and to the world.

About the shows: Each centered on the body, more or less. While Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn and others were their own art in a pre-Transparent world, the second installation, James Baldwin/Jim Brown and the Children, took a more traditional relationship to objects to express similar ideas: what does this kind of body look like in the context of this moment in history? What have we lost because of AIDS, because of the often stultifying arguments around what makes an “other,” and, thus, an “us”? I think The Romance of Certain Old Clothes—the title comes from Henry James’s 1868 tale about siblings, ghosts, and the metaphysical significance of clothes—combines elements from those first two shows to become, in the end, an exhibition about the convergence of bodies and art and an examination of memory and love.

When I began thinking about this final environment, I thought of my sister, Bonnie. Christened Yvonne Cecilia, she was born in 1949. Eleven years my senior, she was the first artist and intellectual I ever knew. From an early age she wrote poetry; then, as an adult, she studied painting. (Her middle name, Cecilia, is a variation on Celia, and Celia Paul sent her beautiful paint-encrusted clothes for the exhibition. Celia continues to paint while my sister cannot. In a way, does Celia paint for my sister?) We were raised in an alternately staid and creatively free West Indian-American environment, in Brooklyn. We did not feel limited by poverty—we grew up with our mother, a single woman who loved to dance and loved the dance but never had a chance to do it professionally—because we could dream. In the nineteen-seventies Bonnie took me to many black-centric events in public spaces near where we lived. (Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, the wonderful young writer who reminds me, in her distinctive costuming and interests, of Bonnie, has, like my sister, an interest in The Voices of East Harlem—our cousin, Bobby, was the drummer—and in The East, one of the black arts collectives we visited. By being interested in all this, and maybe in eventually writing about it, will Sharifa write the history of my sister?) At The East I watched my sister stand up and talk to free jazz musicians about their work; her authority was thrilling to me—and a given. She was the center of her own power, always. She wrote poetry and played the trumpet. I did not know anyone else in the world I grew up in who did that. In her poems—where are they now?—my sister’s voice, her natural inquisitiveness, shone through; she looked at flowers and found metaphors.

As a teenager my sister wore certain old clothes—the dresses and such of our grandmother’s youth, and our mother’s. This was unusual. (She wasn’t interested in looking “correct.”) But she was unusual. My sister’s old clothes were the visual representation of how she felt inside: she was part of a line of women who put their insides outside, not knowing that by doing so they were making art. But my sister knew. Eventually, I went out into the world without her, but she was always with me. And it was always a thrill to see certain things—art, a performance—that did not so much remind me of our more intense moments together as, essentially, children, but rather what I admired in her.

The first time I saw Frances Johnston’s extraordinary pictures of the Hampton Institute, for instance, I thought of our grandmother’s house in Brooklyn. Large, gloomy, and correct, that house at 1097 Dean Street was a testament to immigrant will and perseverance. (My family is from Barbados.) But my grandmother’s legacy to her children, let alone to us, her grand children, didn’t last: through vanity, self-interest, laziness, and the need to settle old scores with one another and their parents, my father and his siblings lost the house at 1097 Dean Street—a house that they owned outright—to taxes. Eventually it was razed. For a long time it was a vacant lot. Now there’s a community garden there. So, in order for you to see my sister, you need to see where we came from. The Hampton Institute album was exhibited at MoMA in 1966 (that cultural magpie, Lincoln Kirstein, found the work and donated it to the museum) and it remains, I think, the last photographic exhibition devoted to the early lives of black Americans and Native Americans on record at MoMA, just as 1969’s Harlem on My Mind remains the last photographic show devoted to primarily black lives that the Metropolitan Museum of Art ever put on. If museums won’t show the world I knew, I am determined to show it myself.

Moving on from our ancestral home as visualized by someone else, I want to take this opportunity to introduce you to Sheryl Sutton. Sutton was, of course, Robert Wilson’s great star in the nineteen-seventies and eighties—a time when women, let alone women like my sister, were going through many politically generated upheavals: What do we do with out bodies? What do we do with our race? Anything at all? I was not familiar with Sutton’s work until I bought a recording of Einstein on the Beach in the late nineteen-eighties, by which time she wasn’t working with Wilson so much, but had moved on to Europe after being integral to the Squat Theatre, a collective founded by Hungarian artists who destabilized “classic” narrative theatre, among other projects, out of a storefront on West 23rd Street until 1984. Entranced by Sutton’s voice, I looked for anything I could find about her; the most valuable records were with Wilson, of course, and as I looked further into that period I saw that New Orleans native was the only black female figure in a white world. It has almost always been thus in the avant-garde.

Her experience was my experience, and my sister’s, too—Bonnie as the lone black female artist in a world of black nationalist men who preferred she did not wear old clothes, the clothes of her female ancestors, but the costuming of a “sister” (head wraps, so on). What was a sister supposed to look like? She tried to find out for a time, but she, like Sheryl, could only be herself. Mothers always give you your weirdness, sometimes without realizing it. Our mother loved art, loved artists, and sometimes now Bonnie and I will laugh over our love choices in this world, Bonnie saying: “I blame her,” for this or that improbable lover we loved in large part because they were artists. Given the way we were raised, we put those mad artists first. It has taken me years to think let alone accept the fact that, by speaking to artists in these shows and by sometimes making visual work myself, that I’m also an artist, one in dialogue with my fellow co-conspirators, and one who, albeit closeted for a time, has dedicated most of his adult life to remembering, to inquiry, and to the imaginings he finds as he buries his head in romance, in the fragrance to be found in people and certain of their old clothes.

—Hilton Als

 

 

List of Works

All objects from right to left upon entry.

All works courtesy the artists and as otherwise noted.

 

Library

    Throughout the room

Digital reproductions of selections from Frances B. Johnston’s The Hampton Album, a set of 173 photographs printed in 1899–1900.

Hilton Als, Sheryl Sutton I, screen print on cellophane, 2016.

    Objects around fireplace

Album cover for original Broadway cast recording of for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange; L’Officiel des Spectacles, n. 1280, June 16–22, 1971 picturing Sheryl Sutton; Blouse for Sharifa; Judy Linn’s gloves from childhood.

Certain old clothes from friends of Hilton Als.

The Wooster Group, Route 1 & 9, 1981, video, 6 min. Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte.

Letter to the editor from Adrian Piper, Artforum International, May, 1991.

Yvonne Als’ painting for Hilton Als (wrapped).

 

Study

Celia Paul, Charlotte Brontë outside the Haworth Parsonage (From a Photograph taken in 1855), 2010, oil on canvas.

Hilton Als, Portrait of Sheryl Sutton and Julius Eastman, 2006–2016, digital video, 30 min.

Celia Paul’s painting clothes for Hilton Als.

 

Stair

Hilton Als, Green Sheryl with My Sister Sona, drywall, photographs, printed ephemera, 2016.

Hilton Als, Wall Piece for Valda and Darryl, family photograph and xerox of James Van Der Zee, Untitled (Dancing Girls), 2016.

 

Sunroom

Senga Nengudi, Performance Piece, 1978, silver gelatin prints. Courtesy Dominique Lévy Gallery.

Rosine Nusimovici, Deafman Glance, Paris, 1971, vintage photographs.

Rosine Nusimovici, Deafman Glance, Paris, 1971, digital reproductions of photographs.

Robert Wilson, Byrdwoman Dress / Table / Milk Bottle / Glass (rehearsal and stage property for Deafman Glance), 1970. Courtesy the Watermill Collection.

Hilton Als, My Mother in Black c. 1950, book, digital print on paper, plastic wrap, 2016.

Claire Frankland’s letter and stockings for Hilton Als.

Senga Nengudi, R.S.V.P. Reverie – Stale Mate, 2014, nylon mesh and sand. Courtesy Dominique Lévy Gallery.

Robert Wilson, Deafman Glance featuring Sheryl Sutton, 1981, video, 26:53 min. Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix.

Hilton Als, Portraits of Sheryl Sutton, screen prints on cellophane, 2016.

Richard Avedon, Florynce Kennedy, civil rights lawyer, New York, August 1, 1969, gelatin silver print. Courtesy the Richard Avedon Foundation.

Robert Wilson, Einstein on the Beach excerpt featuring Sheryl Sutton, 1976, video, 4:04 min.

Senga Nengudi, Untitled, 2011, nylon mesh, sand, and pole. Courtesy Dominique Lévy Gallery.

Diane Arbus, “Make War Not Love!” Sunday Times Magazine (London), September 14, 1969.

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Events

August 2, 5pm,

Hilton Als Closing Reception & Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts Reading
Next Tuesday we’ll be open late to celebrate the final week of Hilton Als’ season with drinks in the library. And at 7pm, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, acclaimed author of Harlem Is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America, will read from a new work in progress entitled “A Shipwreck Scene.”

July 27, 7pm,

Screening of Robert Wilson and the Civil Wars (1987) with an introduction by Hilton Als
Join Hilton Als for a rare screening of the out-of-print documentary Robert Wilson and the Civil Wars (1987). Commissioned for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Wilson’s epic work of theater, The CIVIL warS: A Tree is Best Measured When it is Down, never made it to the stage in one piece. However, filmmaker Howard Brookner documented the ill-fated project’s gestation, following Wilson and a coterie of performers and collaborators including Sheryl Sutton, Philip Glass, Christopher Knowles, and David Byrne through meetings, rehearsals, and preliminary performances. Looking back fifteen years later, critic David Wright wrote “if, ‘a tree is best measured when it is down,’ then the mighty crash of RobertWilson’s the CIVIL warS in 1984 has enabled lovers of theater, visual arts, and music to take its measure ever since.”

June 27, 6pm–8pm,

The Romance of Certain Old Clothes: Sheryl Sutton, My Sister, My Mother, Senga Nengudi, and the Rest
Reception for the final exhibition of Hilton Als’ season at The Artist’s Institute.

June 7, 7pm,

Hilton Als Lecture
For a number of years now I’ve been working on a piece called “I Don’t Remember.” It concerns the bar scene in New York, and the language and ultimately death as a result of AIDS I found there. In the piece I also examine the work of the late great American author, Gary Fisher, whose examination of race, power, and queerness, remains as vital and shocking as it was over twenty years ago. All of the issues Gary raises in his writing we have tried to address in the second Artist’s Institute show visually. Now comes a verbal reckoning.  – Hilton Als

May 2, 6pm–8pm,

James Baldwin/Jim Brown and the Children
Reception for the second exhibition of Hilton Als’ season at The Artist’s Institute.

April 14, 7pm–8.30pm,

Malik Gaines on Sylvester
Artist and scholar Malik Gaines discusses the performances of Sylvester, who was a member of San Francisco’s Cockettes troupe before becoming a disco superstar of the 1970s. Sylvester combined a queer performance of gender with signs and sounds of musical virtuosity, making a unique contribution to his era. Gaines considers Sylvester among other radical performers in his forthcoming book Excesses of the Sixties: Black Performance on the Outskirts of the Left.

March 31, 1pm–3pm,

Launch Lunch of Pierre’s: Issue One of The Magazine

The Artist’s Institute invites you to celebrate a lunchtime launch of its new bi-annual publication series, The Magazine, at our new location, 132 E. 65th Street. The first issue, Pierre’s, interweaves Pierre’s Huyghe’s recent work and research interests, covering topics as varied as genetic engineering, new realist philosophy and the science fiction of Philip K. Dick. Enjoy sandwiches, 20% off all publications, and the chance to see our inaugural exhibition uptown with Hilton Als.
March 1–31, 12am–12am,

Book Club: Brenda Shaughnessy’s Our Andromeda. Space limited; RSVP required.
Reviewing Brenda Shaughnessy’s Our Andromeda for The New Yorker, Hilton Als writes that her collection of poetry “further establishes [her] particular genius, which is utterly poetic, but essayistic in scope, encompassing ideas about astronomy, illness, bodies, the family, ‘normalcy,’ home.” In her lyrics of absence and imperfection he finds the knot of the artist’s life: a mind that can confound the order of the world and still be beset by its demands.

Als has invited Shaughnessy to the Institute to discuss her book of poems for the first of a series of book clubs that will meet each month for the duration of his season. Space is limited to fifteen participants, RSVP to bookclub@theartistsinstitute.org

March 21, 7pm,

Film Screening of Tally Brown, New York, Rosa von Praunheim, 1979, 16mm, 93 mins. Introduced by Thomas Beard.
In conversation with Hilton Als’ current exhibition, The Artist’s Institute hosts a rare screening of Rosa von Praunheim’s remarkable documentary. Its eponymous subjects are Tally Brown—chanteuse of the underground, doyenne of the bathhouses—and Drop Dead 70s Gotham, both of which are seen to their advantage. Though a legend in her time, heralded for her idiosyncratic vocal stylings as well as her prodigious comic intelligence, today she remains criminally neglected. Tally Brown, New York is a testament to the glamour, and the struggle, of making your own world; Brown’s friend Holly Woodlawn puts it another way: “Yes I am an Andy Warhol superstar…Do you have a dollar?”

—Thomas Beard

Print of Tally Brown, New York courtesy of the Reserve Film and Video Collection of The New York Public Library of the Performing Arts.

March 2, 6pm–7pm,

Exhibition Opening
Hilton Als season opens in The Artist’s Institute’s new uptown location.

Recordings

“I Don’t Remember,” June 7, 2016, 7pm, with Hilton Als

Press