When I told friends that I wanted essayists, curators, and art critics to write about mortality and death for the Guest Critic section of this issue of The Brooklyn Rail, I consistently received two reactions. The most frequent was a hard-stop groan. It connoted something between disapproval and disbelief. The second was a sideways look with raised eyebrows. It said, “Why would you even want to do this?” My favorite response was an email from the art critic, Brian Boucher, who wrote: 🎶Let’s talk about death, baby, let’s talk about you and me, let’s talk about death. 🎶
Interestingly, references to death seemed to be everywhere when I began working on this issue. The New York Times Magazine published an article entitled “Behind the Cover: Living with Death.” Peter Schjeldahl’s touching, funny “77 Sunset Me” in which he reminisced about his life following his lung cancer diagnosis was published in The New Yorker. In María Irene Fornés’s Fefu and Her Friends (1977) which I saw at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, a character’s hallucinatory rants and the eventual shooting of a rabbit make that character’s death both strangely symbolic and memorable. Death references were so frequent in my life that I found myself wondering: Is this simply a strange coincidental cause of my increased awareness or is it confirmation of the saying that death is always with us?
Still, I did not internalize these incidents as immediate personal predictions, but I did think about my first memory of death. I was around six years old when my mother took me to an open-casket viewing of a friend’s body in front of the altar at the Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church. Just as I approached where his head lay on a satin pillow, my mother swiped the open palm of her right hand over the face of my dead friend. Then in a continuous move, she swiped that same hand down my face as I stood next to her, held tightly in her grip. Her two swipes were so quick, so purposeful that I stiffened, surprised and scared. What? Why? If I thought anything, it was only those two one-word questions as she pulled me—my legs suddenly would not move or my knees bend—along the viewing line to give condolences to my young friend’s family.
The swiping was a superstitious protective ritual. There was no resisting it, no talking about it afterwards. It was what parents did, what they believed was best for us—the children and grandchildren that they were responsible for, that they wanted to protect.
But what was I, then a child, to gain from my mother’s protective swipe? What was I to carry throughout my life? The protective message was that death was not something to be feared. It was a given. As children, my siblings and I were rarely shielded from the grieving process either as death approached or after death came. Some aspects were decidedly private, but there was also a communal, shared element that enabled the people in my home community to help each other to remember, recover, and continue to live, more at peace with mortality.
Death and art became strongly linked in my mind during the AIDS crisis. The first time I saw Untitled (Hujar Dead) (1988) by David Wojnarowicz it was almost too personal. Not because of the images of a dead man, but because it was what I was experiencing with the people dying in my life. My friends, Steve and Walt, bought the work because they saw and understood its cultural importance. They saw the work’s truth, its honesty about the AIDS crisis. Wojnarowicz did not shy away from these as he photographed Peter Hujar’s moments after his death. For me, this work became an emotional benchmark.
Kay Rosen’s Little Statuette (1990) was one of the first works I bought that dealt directly with death. In the painting, Rosen stacks the words on three lines and paints black squares over all of the letters except the Ts. Each san serif T reads like a headstone in a cemetery, each black square like a grave. I will forever see this work as a personal memorial to all of my friends, especially my dear friend Drew, who died of AIDS.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled” (March 5th) #2 (1991) was the next work I bought. But this work was not just about dying, it was also about living. It was Gonzalez-Torres first, and most personal, light work. It was his elegant, simple, and deeply affecting memorial to his lover, Ross Laycock. The sculpture consists of two, naked light bulbs in porcelain sockets at the end of two randomly entwined cords hung at approximately 113 inches. The work quietly evokes life’s journey, fragility, and impermanence; all our connections to other people—a spouse, a partner, a lover, a close friend. For me, this conceptual work is about life (the lightbulbs) and the random inevitably of death (when each lightbulb blows). Gonzalez-Torres’s sculpture and its underlying ideas haunt my visual memory, echoing frequently through my mind and heart in beautiful ways.
Hank Willis Thomas’s Priceless #1 (2004) is another work about death that is stunning and brilliant, especially in its simplicity. The photograph shows a group of Black mourners—some standing, some sitting, some leaning on other people—in a semicircle, all looking in the direction of a coffin at a grave. In random places on the photography Thomas itemizes things the dead young man is wearing. One listing—“Picking the perfect casket for your son: priceless”—takes me back to that early funeral scene with my mother holding my hand, takes me into her fears for me and my three brothers, takes me into Thomas’s cultural criticism, and these in turn take me to a place of collective grief, anger, and disgust. As an African American looking at Thomas’s photograph, I know the clothes, the body language. There isn’t silence when I look and read his listing of each item and its cost. I hear the low moans, the deep groans, the muffled sobs, the slow hymn that’s being sung, and someone—probably a family member or trusted friend with deep, abiding faith—with their hands on the grieving parents’ or siblings’ shoulders softly repeating “It’ll be alright. It will be alright.”
Each of these artworks takes me into different and deeper understandings of death, personally and culturally. The insights and wisdom of each echoes through me, lives in its own way inside me. So when I asked Natasha Becker, Fraser Brough, Jonathan Calm, Dan Cameron, Wardell Milan, Stephen Perkinson, and Nico Wheadon to write for this Critics Page, I wanted each of them to take me, and you, on their journeys about the relationship between death and art to see what each of them would teach us, to see what each of us would gain.