“My father said, during all the years I lived with him, that I was the ugliest boy he had ever seen, and I had absolutely no reason to doubt him.” So wrote James Baldwin in 1976, and he repeated his father’s words often. He did have reason to doubt them though. They didn’t jibe with my impression of the writer’s appearance as taken from a photograph on the cover of the 1955 paperback edition of “Notes of a Native Son,” which I owned and treasured when I was a teenager, and a copy of which you’ll find on display toward the start of the exhibition “God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin” at David Zwirner.
I would have first seen that photo at some point in the early 1960s. Baldwin was African-American; I was a white kid in the process of working my way through the sociopolitical dynamics of all that through reading him. What I mainly saw in the photo, though, was a young man, slope-shouldered in a floppy sweater, looking warily self-contained, and emphatically un-butch. I could relate.
As a young person, I was a constant, precocious reader, as he had been — binging on Dickens at 11, Shakespeare at 12; that kind of thing. My wonkishness led me to make older friends; as a high school freshman I hung out with juniors and seniors, who would pass on literary contraband. And in, I think, 1962, one good friend, Nina Angelo, gave me a copy of Baldwin’s novel “Giovanni’s Room,” which had openly homosexual characters.
Again, I related. And I soon got my hands on a second Baldwin novel, “Another Country,” published that year, in which same-sex love and racial politics are inextricably knotted.
That knotting is the basic dynamic of the Zwirner exhibition, which has been organized by the critic Hilton Als. Two years ago, Mr. Als produced a kind of rough draft version of it called “James Baldwin/Jim Brown and the Children” for the Artist’s Institute at Hunter College. In that show he pinballed around an eclectic range of images referring to black masculinity and added an autobiographical spin. At Zwirner, he streamlines his material and zeros in on Baldwin himself.
The opening section has a family-album vibe. There’s a contact sheet of images of the writer with his mother, Emma Jones, taken in 1962 by Richard Avedon, Baldwin’s high school classmate in the Bronx in the late 1930s. (Their collaborative photo-and-text book “Nothing Personal,” which I snapped up on publication in 1964, was an eye-opener, and era-opener, for a future art critic.)
And there’s a photo of Baldwin’s father, David, who was actually his stepfather. (When Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924, his mother was unmarried. David came along later.) Baldwin described the man as both punishing at home and wrathful toward the world outside, especially toward white America. Three small, undated photographs that Mr. Als has placed near David Baldwin’s portrait help explain the environment that shaped him: they depict lead-up scenes of a lynching.
In the 1960s, with the civil rights movement in full swing and news media paying attention, white America finally started to learn about racial violence: the fire hoses in Birmingham, the bombings, the assassinations. By contrast, African-Americans like David Baldwin, descended from slaves, knew from childhood onward that such violence was the stuff of daily life across the land.
He reacted with hostility when a young white Harlem grade-school teacher, Orilla Miller, known as Billy, took the 10-year-old Baldwin under her wing. “I was an exceedingly shy, withdrawn, and uneasy student,” Baldwin later wrote. “Yet my teachers somehow made me believe that I could learn.” Miller topped the list of those mentors. Perceiving his talent as a writer, she took him to movies and plays.
When, at 14, Baldwin told her he had decided to give up writing and theatergoing to become a child evangelist — David was a Baptist preacher — they parted ways. But decades later, Baldwin tracked her down and resumed contact. There are three letters in the show — two from him, one from her — stretching over three decades after they eventually reunited. They are exchanges of pure generosity, and well worth reading, every single word.
For a few years, Baldwin did, indeed, preach in Harlem; a recording of him singing “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” plays in the gallery. Maybe this was a final effort to make himself acceptable to his family and community. But then, just as abruptly as he entered the pulpit, he left it and aligned himself with a different community and a different version of family.
The new family was situated downtown, and one of the first members Baldwin met — in 1940, when he was 16 or 17 — was the painter Beauford Delaney (1901-1979). Delaney, a Southern-born African-American, lived in Greenwich Village, and counted among his friends Marian Anderson and the expatriate Henry Miller. And he understood where Baldwin was coming from. Delaney, too, had grown up poor and in the church. (A 1952 painting by him of choir members preparing for a service is in the show.) And as a gay man with ambitions in a white-controlled cultural world, he knew the rough road Baldwin faced, and did what he could to cushion the ride.
One of the first affirming gestures he made toward the young writer was to paint a beautiful nude portrait of him. Although Baldwin probably posed in a daybed in the studio, Delaney transports him to a tropical paradise of rapturous colors — pinks, yellows, blues — that emanate from the sitter like an aura. They seep, glowing, rainbow-hued, into his skin and make his face glow like a lamp.
The last (and first) time I saw this painting was in 2018 in Brazil, where it was part of the epic “Histórias Afro-Atlânticas” (“Afro-Atlantic Histories”) survey at the São Paulo Museum of Art. There, among dozens of portraits from Europe, Africa and the Americas, it shone. And it’s the centerpiece of the Zwirner show, the souvenir of a time when, for Baldwin, “all of the American categories of male and female, straight or not, black or white, were shattered, thank heaven.”
Baldwin remained close to Delaney to the end of the older man’s life, by which time the care-taking roles had been reversed. In 1964, for the catalog of a Delaney gallery show, Baldwin wrote: “Perhaps I should not say, flatly, what I believe — that he is a great painter, among the very greatest. But I do know that great art can only be created out of love, and that no greater lover has ever held a brush.”
In 1948, Baldwin left New York for Europe, where he would stay for several years. He returned in the late 1950s to immerse himself in the American civil rights movement. During that time he became a cultural star, a political fixture (within black activism, a controversial one), and one of the grand moral prose rhetoricians.
In the process, Mr. Als suggests, he also disappeared from public view as a knowable, relatable person, someone still wrestling with conflicted ideas about race, sexuality, power, family, and his own creativity (he wanted to make films but never did); someone who could describe himself, in his late 40s, as “an ageing, lonely, sexually dubious, politically outrageous, unspeakably erratic freak.”
Interestingly, that figure eventually vanishes at Zwirner too. Baldwin’s face is literally absent from much of the second half of the show, which shifts from personal narrative to a far less-compelling essay on influence, a study of developments in contemporary art that he, or his work, anticipated, but that he wasn’t around to see.
He was back in Europe by the time the African-American photographer Alvin Baltrop was photographing out-in-the-open gay sexual life on the West Side piers in Manhattan in the 1970s. (Baldwin himself came out as gay, in his writing, only in 1984.) And he was away when the city became a ground zero of AIDS in the 1980s.
Baldwin died in France of cancer in 1987, at 63, so he couldn’t see what 21st-century artists would do with the ideas that mattered most to him. Probably, though, he would have been intrigued by some recent work in the show: Kara Walker’s animated excoriations of American racial history; John Edmonds’s subtle video choreographing of black male erotic encounters; Cameron Rowland’s grimly annotated Jim Crow relics; and Ja’Tovia Gary’s video mash-up of 19th-century slave narratives and Black Lives Matter protests. It would have pleased him — the preacherly pessimist, the fit-to-be-tied optimist — to see that although Ms. Gary’s piece is titled “An Ecstatic Experience,” its contents short-circuit uplift.
He was skeptical of uplift. As a teenager he left preaching, he said, after he came to see it as just another form of theater. My guess is he sometimes felt the same about the salvational spirit of the early civil rights movement. To the very end, he was negative in his assessment of progress made. “The present social and political apparatus cannot serve the human need,” he wrote bluntly in his final book, “The Evidence of Things Not Seen” (1985). He believed in the positive potential of community, though “in the United States the idea of community scarcely means anything anymore, except among the submerged, the Native American, the Mexican, the Puerto Rican, the Black” — the one hopeful word here being “except.”
“I have had my bitter moments, certainly,” he once said, “but I do not think I can usefully be called a bitter man.” I think he can usefully be called a hero. When I was a kid I felt he was one because of what I took to be his furious moral certainty. Now I look to him for his furious uncertainty. And I still have my copy, time softened with touching, of “Notes of a Native Son,” with him on the cover, his face furrow-browed but dreamy, his gaze fixed somewhere outside camera range.
God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin
Through Feb. 16. David Zwirner, 525 and 533 West 19th Street, Manhattan; 212-727-2070, davidzwirner.com.