A few artworks, however, do tie more directly to Baldwin’s life. The writer became friends with
during high school in the Bronx. Years later, in 1964, the pair collaborated on a photo book entitled Nothing Personal
. Als included black-and-white photographs of Baldwin, taken by his friend. Three works by
, who Baldwin proclaimed was his “spiritual father,” are also on view. One painting, Dark Rapture (James Baldwin)
(1941), depicts the writer’s dark nude body against an exuberantly hued landscape. Baldwin would be unrecognizable if not for the title; sitting on a ledge with one leg crossed over the other, he looks like a mythical figure, fully embodied.
Of course, a single exhibition isn’t enough to understand any artist, let alone such a towering figure as James Baldwin. There’s no substitute for reading Baldwin’s work. If the man himself wasn’t a prophet, his work manages to be both magical and deeply human. As Gary wrote to Artsy, “I too know what it’s like to grow up under the heavy cloak of the holy spirit, to have to wrestle with saints in order to come to terms with the self. How the very personal and specific can at once be all encompassing and expansive is Baldwin’s foremost lesson to me.”
In “Sonny’s Blues,” Baldwin suggests that to truly understand an artist, you must fully engage with that person’s oeuvre. At the end of the story, the narrator finally goes to a club to listen to his brother play. “What is evoked in [the musician], then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours,” he tells us. “He could help us to be free if we would listen.”