To Describe a Life - An Interview with Darby English

Issue no5
Oct-Nov 2020
Wat is Nederland

Art historian and critic Darby English’s collection of essays To Describe a Life: Notes from the Intersection of Art and Race Terror (2019) was written during, and in part emerges from, multiple moments of crises in the United States, particularly the ongoing violence against black bodies. English champions a form of writing about art that allows us to sit with the artwork, observe all its details and start to understand its complexities and ambiguities. Hendrik Folkerts talks with English about his encounters with art, his method of description, the pitfalls of identity politics and Martin Luther King. ‘‘We don’t need reminders”, English says. ‘‘We need insights.’’

—Hendrik Folkerts You wrote To Describe a Life (2019) in response to a moment of crisis: the ongoing and often fatal police brutality against black bodies in the United States. In subsequent reporting, the lives of victims are only described in relationto their death - their lives become an abstraction. In the introduction you question this system of representation and how far it ‘‘delivers us from what persons are and do.’’ You dedicated your book to the late Douglas Crimp, whose writing remains a touchstone in cultural criticism during the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s and after. You write: “A vastly expanded view of culture in relation to crisis (the formulation is Douglas Crimp’s) would include articulations that mirror the instability of the predicaments giving rise to speech.” How do you approach writing about art in this moment of crisis?

—Darby English In this book, I was writing for the first time in the mode of direct response to real-time events and the unfolding of their implications, also in real time. Douglas provides the finest model of this that writers about art in the English language can have. Such writing is honest about where it’s coming from, about the fact that it issues from a burning desire to understand, and about its wish for effectiveness—which is only a wish, not that arrogant confidence which thinks it should mean something that you said things the right way. Such writing is marked by instability through and through. You’re thinking and working in a terrified panic: what the fuck is going on?! All the instituted frameworks teach and expect you to suppress that and submit things to the nearest available logic. My theme and the objects I describe do not honor that demand; as I see it, to write about them as though they did, would be cruel and cold. That is, one would have to downplay the element of abstraction you invoked, to convert its tragedy to mere occasion. By occasion I mean a pretext to repeat established facts reminding everyone “how things are.” We don’t need reminders. We need insights.

—Hendrik Folkerts How does the notion of description function, for you, as a method to defy or denounce the pitfalls of abstraction?

—Darby English In two ways. First, as a matter of method, description provides a framework for getting the most out of the works of art, which are, materially and conceptually, very complex. Second, more as a matter of principle, it slows things down, leaving more time to focus on the artwork itself than when you rush the description to get on with interpretation. Abstraction of the sort we’re talking about vanishes details and particulars into generalities that ‘say what it all means.’ Description of the kind you are asking about worries the details (when they’re worth worrying). In an atmosphere where crisis representation is slower and more richly detailed, generalities may have a harder time congealing and holding their form, and so abstraction may have a harder time functioning. Abstraction isn’t the enemy; it’s particular uses of the notion of abstraction to balkanize difference and suppress variation that concern me.

—Hendrik Folkerts Pope.L’s Skin Set Drawing project (1997-ongoing), which you discuss in the second chapter of the book, centers on difference, but the artist destabilizes that notion almost entirely through his use of language, color and seriality. How does differing happen differently here?

—Darby English I would say that differing is all that happens in the Skin Set Drawings. In a material sense, the drawings not only exist in series but also parade their variation from one another in color, size, material, texture, mood, and so on. The notion of difference also unfolds at the level of content. In the world that Pope.L creates through the series, there are groups (“sets”) of people — just like in our world—divided by color—again, just like in our world. These sets of colored people appear to exist for the very purpose of being seen and read. Sounds familiar? All of these deep connections exist between ourselves and the people in the world of the series. You might say, ‘Well in that world people are things that people just can’t be.’ And you’d be right: we can’t be “the road at the end of the movie,” nor can we be “cross-over” or ”a trick of rain.” Yet the same is true everywhere in our society, every single time we “read” people and say what people “mean” through social and cultural constructions.
For these reasons, Pope.L’s series has a hard time holding. You could even call it a ‘weak’ set, a set that displays as a problem the integrity of any type of categorization. Furthermore, the feeling is unavoidable that it is human difference itself—the sheer amount and vigor and inventiveness of it—which has created this problem! That is actually true: difference does pose huge problems for strategies and structures of containment. What might be valuable then about dwelling in the world of Pope.L, as the drawings invite us to do, is that they make us to realize the violent absurdity of all these strategies and structures.

—Hendrik Folkerts The paradoxical notion of difference, at once a celebration of humanity in all its forms and a mechanism of exclusion and oppression, returns in Kerry James Marshall’s Untitled (policeman)(2015). Marshall paints a black cop and shows the color of the subject’s skin and his emblems of authority (in this case, the Chicago Police Department) are not oppositional signs. With his portrait, “he asks us to hold the ideas ‘black’ and ‘policeman’ at the same time”, as you say in the first chapter. This is an image of profound ambiguity. Can you talk a bit more about your first encounter with Marshall’s painting, and how the work impacts those systems of representation we discussed before?

—Darby English Kerry’s painting is a contemporary encounter with an ambiguity we don’t often encounter in discussions on police brutality against black people. This topic appears to have a certain simplicity: white assailant, black victim. That simplicity appears to verify a historical dynamic: white power, black weakness. But nothing is as simple as that. The conversation needs some nuance. Kerry’s painting provides some. I first saw it unfinished and only knew it was going to be a portrait of a cop. Before I left Kerry’s studio that day I asked him to let me know when it was finished, not knowing how long I’d have to wait or how far I’d need to travel to see it again. He agreed and called me the next morning to tell me that it was finished. I went straight to the studio in Chicago, not far from where I live. I was not prepared to encounter a sympathetic treatment of a police officer, nor was I prepared to accept one. This was a matter of weeks after Freddie Gray, which was like the umpteenth instance of this spectacle in a short time. Furious and terrified, I was not prepared to feel ambivalence toward this subject. Yet standing before the picture, this turned out to be inevitable. I’m not talking about a total reversal of emotional or intellectual course. I am talking about being made to feel ambivalent in the midst of something you felt dead certain about. That’s what it means to change one’s mind. It’s not just the black cop and how it’s different from the imaginary white cop who does all the evil. It’s the way Kerry’s fashioning of the picture works his subjects, plural, into view and into mind.

—Hendrik Folkerts In much of your writings you resist the tendency to describe individual artists based on a shared collective identity. For instance, queer, queer artists do not only make queer art work, and blackness is not necessarily the subject of the work of black artists. Yet there is some political potential in these categories, to distinguish artists who are making histories built on difference and taking it up as a radical position. How do you, as an art historian writing both on historiography and the work of individual artists, navigate between these two poles?

—Darby English Collectives and categories are great. They’ve done crucial work, for billions of people. There’s no disputing that. But I have tended to focus on the work, the forms and the ambitions of specific historical actors. When it comes to such work, the explanatory power of collectives and categories is weak. Within the specificity of one case, not only do collectives and categories offer little help, they also hinder things fast. For whatever reasons, I get a strong feeling of loss when large concepts blow in and sweep away all the detail, the texture, the atmosphere that make a significant work of art what it is. Where collectives and categories are concerned it is one thing to join them or identify with them, as I do, gladly and often, and another thing to use them to decipher things you yourself did not do. Take a historical look at the things collectives and categories have been used to do, and the picture isn’t so rosy. With a strong collective or category you have a very powerful tool for reducing to a mere example anything that might be said to belong to it. That’s a kind of assimilation, the dangers of which are plain to see. And yet it’s standard practice for writers, curators, and other cultural workers who proceed to the artifacts from definitions about what it means to create as a person of X or Y type. Why are we not starting from the evidence the case itself presents? Precisely why are we supposing that the collective provides more insight into that than the individual? I tend to find the justifications unconvincing. Believe me, I am here and I am waiting to be convinced!
Categories of difference are especially tricky, because they want to work as wholes and they don’t like an artist to be ambivalent. You can’t come and go at will, they seem to argue; you’re either in or you’re out. But if you’re an art historian who looks precisely at things where stuff is on the move, when desire and doubt are in play, and when things are part-this and part-that, these categories are hard to use. To be true to the movement in experience, to the existence of the unconscious, and to the prevalence of fragmentation, you have to accept and embrace ambivalence. The whole raison d’êtreof minority collectives is to say: ‘Enough qualification! This we’re doing OUR way.’

—Hendrik Folkerts What you’re saying about the exclusionary forceof such categories makes me think of Ed Clark’s work, who passed away recently, and how he’s always defied any kind of categorization. The exhibition Quiet as it’s Kept, organized by artist David Hammons, showed Clark’s work alongside that of Stanley Whitney and Denyse Thomasos. The show reflected on how generic and reductive categories of “African American art” or “black art” have often overlooked, if not outright ignored, the abstract (painting) practices of artists of color.

—Darby English That sounds like Dawoud Bey’s argument about that show in Vienna. The classification, through the 80s and 90s, of what he calls “race and representation art” made black artists with other (abstract) way of working problematic. The show itself makes a very different argument by way of the exhibition catalogue, namely that you can use a priori stuff stemming from blackness to make abstract art representational for the so-called black experience in some way. You can do that, but when you do, you leave open to question the motive for not just letting the art be abstract. You give a person permission to wonder why you’re doing that, who’s really served by that reconfiguration of the object? What it means to overlay the modernist impulse with an alternative ideology of race. In my book 1971: A Year in the Life of Color (2016), I take that permission and elaborate on the work of black modernists, as I like to call them, who threaten the cultural order. If these threats were to cash out, it would mean starting art history anew. That’s why there are elaborate devices to contain that threat.

—Hendrik Folkerts In what ways does 1971: A Year in the Life of Color expose such mechanisms, and relieve the work and experiments by the black modernists from oppressive interpretation, so to speak?

—Darby English Many of the artists in that book had already died or passed into old age by the time I started writing. I didn’t write so much from an impulse to ‘restore’ them. I wanted to explore how they slipped through certain historical holes. The anchor of the book is a pair of stories about two exhibitionsin 1971,which put abstraction front and center in the fight against racism. They were not particularly well-received at the time. So maybe 1971, as a book, is a fantasy about giving them a new look, now some time has passed. What directly spurred the writing of the book were two exhibitions in New York, Energy and Abstractionand High Times, Hard Times, both in 2006, which finally brought the artists to wide attention. I’d been studying modern art closely for almost twenty years, and these exhibitions were presenting me with almost entirely new information. When I wondered why, the answers weren’t hard to find: these artists fell out of the history of, say 1970s art, because they made abstractions in traditional mediums. They also fell out of the history of modernist art because it is ultra-racist and these artists are black. They also fell out of black art history because they didn’t do representation. In 2006 they finally received attention again and their work was described as “Black Abstraction.” That term perplexed me too, but at least it represented a kind of development. In addition to the sheer anti-black racism that kept those artists out of the healthy modernist culture of the 1960s and 1970s, there had also been a constructed silence about them among proponents of black art. According to the rules of that silence, a true proponent of black art had to convert the abstract practices of black artists into some kind of race image—show that the work bore a sign of black life—or leave them by the side of the road. The popular conviction was: abstract art is white art. It hasn’t got anything for us except more of what we don’t need: whiteness. There was next to no effort to comprehend what abstract art could do for black people. To me it was plain to see that this art had profound implications for how we see and talk about color in a color-obsessed society whose languages for color are, all of them, stupendously simplistic. I wanted to bring this new, rigorous approach to color into the conversation.
My encounter with these artists’ struggle for visibility on their own terms— a struggle they’re still waging—was transformative. It really showed me how much, and how powerfully, the withholding of visibility has shaped black culture, not just from outside but internally as well. It even factored in those 2006 shows, making them even more complicated art historical objects: they are equally important as acts of recovery and as acts of foreclosure. Doing historical study of that time during the period of its partial, overdetermined recovery was really generative. I came to see the experiments with abstraction of that time as crucial reflections upon the idea of colored culture. I feel there’s a lot that we have yet to learn from them.

—Hendrik Folkerts Martin Luther King plays an important role in To Describe a Life, but I would say also in your writing on art as a whole. What does his legacy mean to you? How does difference as a divisive category and the potential of difference as a crucial form of togetherness play out in your reading of King’s life and death?

—Darby English King is pretty well confined to the final chapter of To Describe a Life, but you’re right that my work treats the integrated movement of nonviolent resistance as a source of political value: one that is underutilized in the present fight against American racisms. There is a wildly popular myth that King’s assassination ‘proved’ that his political theory was a pipe dream. This commits you to a really divided and divisive picture of social life. 1971focuses on the moment just after King was killed. In a very short time after King’s death, the time period 1971focuses on, the clusters of difference that would reshape North American social and political life over the next two decades turned lots of former collaborators into antagonists. Now, to be sure, in some cases political models were actually developing in ways that turned such people or their interests against one another. But the historical picture we have of all the stuff that got established in the name of difference has blocked our view of a great many other experiences of difference where it presents in far more complicated ways and produces many ‘unexpected’ results. So on the one hand we have amazingly granular records of the emergence of difference clusters, and on the other a sketchy, fragmentary picture of the residual activity. By residual activity I mean the stuff taking place where the lines were getting crossed, either because people had said ‘Fuck the lines’ or, at least as often, because intensities were such that people weren’t even thinking about lines.
The integration of cultural institutions (schools and museums, for instance) is one kind of problem, and on that front we’re still basically in the ice age. The integration of culture itself is another, and there you’ve got almost a century of ‘different’ cultural producers working in proximity, responding to one another, creating things that don’t sit comfortably inside readymade categories.
The way I see it, many things are more integrated than they can possibly appear through the categorizing filter we all still hold up to everything. Another reason I don’t worry is that there’s a whole generation or two of new people who look very differently at the robust intercultural activity of the 1950s and 1960s that people of our parents’ and my generation scorn and deem a failure. Millions of new people look, or will look, at that activity and think ‘Historically, that’s where I come from.

—Hendrik Folkerts In the fourth chapter of the book, you describe, in great detail, your first encounter with the replica Boym Replica of the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968. It was showcased in a SoHo design store in 1999 as part of a larger series of ‘Buildings of Disaster’. You decided to purchase it, since “having it seemed the only way fully to hear out its appeal.” Why? And how does writing about something you actually possess and spend time with at home or in your office, differ from writing about art works that you can only encounter and spend time with in an artist’s studio or an exhibition context?

—Darby English With regard to research and method, I didn’t treat the replica of the motel where King was assassinated differently than I would anything else. It’s very important to me to sit with objects for a very, very long time before starting to form sentences and paragraphs about them. Only in that prewriting space can I explore their impacts on the everyday seeing and thinking that I do. Only that way can I perceive how they themselves set up in preexisting fields of knowledge, whether those are mine or the subject areas the object engages. For example, the time I spent in Memphis looking at the Lorraine, which is now a museum, and talking to people about it, specifically middle-aged black and white people, greatly influenced the written outcome. That’s where King died, and people there carry that. No two people carry it the same way. But yes, it’s one thing to visit with a work in a gallery and quite another to be able to encounter it every time you go to work. This thing is decidedly nota work of art in the sense that a gallery or museum or even an artist studio confers on all the objects they contain. It is a mass-produced retail object, and as such possessed by a good number of people, who move the object around and combine it with other possessions. For me it’s many things, not one. I don’t know about the other people who have it, but I never lived with it passively, as with a souvenir or a nice lamp. I wanted it, and it wanted me. It has desire insofar as it wants to become part of a life and this is something that I want to honor absolutely. It’s this perverse little product, but you’re an implicated consumer. I hear the word fetish a lot when people talk about it, but to me it isn’t one. It’s too complex to be thought in that way.
I am very glad to have been able to fixate on this object, especially during an intense period of spectacles that seemed to be centered on the destruction of black people by the machinery of the racist state. That state is a desiring machinery, which deals with difficulty by reproducing death and pain, which it can reproduce precisely because of its impunity. In the social frameworks it creates race differences are absolute and manageable by containment. This social fantasy is by no means the sole property of antiblack racists. Anger about the killings of black people gets expressed in terms that echo the killer’s logic of absolute difference: the ‘them-and-us’ logic. The killings and that logic are products of history: history both justifies the killings and provides a framework for explaining them. As though history is all you need to make sense of the present. That formula excludes change and the implications of change.
This is all occurring in a context where people are moving along new lines, confusing categories, shifting everything. To me, the violence looks like a direct response to this, like the frantic flailing of a child who hasn’t gotten his way. The simplifying logic of difference just can’t address the muddle we’ve made. You can’t just substitute the unchanging for the shifting. ‘Them versus us’ is a fantasy of coexistence that sanitizes all the complex and messy things about coexisting. That fantasy abjures contact with the other, it refuses responsibility for the other, and it limits responsibility for oneself in one’s dealings with the other. Yet the reality we inhabit is a mixed reality, a reality that constantly forces the opposite upon us. To expect a mixed reality to care for us, we must impart care and comport ourselves with care, especially when we sense some asymmetry in a relation we’re in. In reality, black, white, and everyone else are locked in “an inescapable network of mutuality.” The phrase is King’s. His assassination is a signal event in the history of antiblack racism and in the history of the struggle to institute new frameworks of relation. The replica makes you hold both in mind.
I’m very interested in the popular American myth that uses King’s death to proclaim the end of integration, a phenomenon no one or nothing can end. Every kind of social or cultural conservative invests in this myth; their color don’t mean shit. When I hear about “the dream that died with King,” I’m like, did it? It sounds like something you say when you don’t want to face the historical fact of the merging of the races that he merely described. I have no interest in King as prophet. Like Kenneth Clark and James Baldwin, he was describing an emergent reality. What they saw developing has proceeded to such a great degree that races are fast becoming useless as grouping mechanisms. More interesting to me is the perverseness of King’s vision with respect to American norms. He was promoting the un-purification of American culture, to prepare people for the inevitable. The replica’s rubric is “Buildings of Disaster.” Indeed, it was disastrously embarrassing and ignorant to think King was so wrong that he had to be destroyed, especially when every day his rightness becomes more vivid.


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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 5 — 2020