Man and Woman #1, 1987, is the centerpoint of the gallery wall and stands out among the surrounding portraits and nudes. In the photo, a young man and woman, both Black, nude, and wearing white face stand close together, looking at the viewer. The image is part of artist Lyle Ashton Harris’s series Americas.
The photograph, which Harris made as part of his thesis project at Wesleyan University after switching his major from economics to photography, is a youthful portrait of the artist and a college friend. And while it raises questions about gender, sexuality, and race, Harris also says it foregrounds the power of play and self-fashioning.
On view as part of Unseen: 35 Years of Collecting Photographs, this is the first time the photograph has been shown since the J. Paul Getty Museum acquired the work in 2016.
Assistant Curator of Photographs Arpad Kovacs, who selected the work for the exhibition, says Harris was engaging with the Black body and queerness in a way that was quite new at the time. “I view this photograph as a precursor to conversations that are now happening more vocally as more artists are thinking about those ideas and concerns,” says Kovacs.
Harris’s work has been exhibited around the world. A triptych from Americas was recently on view at the Guggenheim as part of Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now.
I asked Harris to consider Man and Woman #1, 1987 in today’s context and asked him to talk about what inspired him to make the piece as a student.
Lyle Ashton Harris: At the time I was studying with the feminist scholar Hazel Carby. She was teaching a course in 19th-century African American literature at Wesleyan and looking at the role of the tragic mulatto. And unlike the stereotypical account or portrayal as that figure being one who is either illiterate or ineffectual—one might also look to films such as “The Birth of a Nation”— Carby analyzed how this particular character actually played a potent, powerful role in the transmission of resistance to slave laws. We came to understand that the mulatto figure served as an agent of transgression historically and, in our reading, contemporaneously.
I was also interested and very much influenced by Henry Louis Gates’s work, specifically as he looked into the historical role of the harlequin figure and other trickster characters. I think there’s clearly some of those things that are going on in this work.
CS: Has it changed since the mid-’80s to be in front of the camera versus today?
LAH: I have always been a self-portrait, autoportrait, autobiographical artist, if you will, but as the late poet, and a dear friend, Essex Hemphill said, it was less about self-portrait or autobiography, but more about using self-representation and the figure as a way to execute or to employ various experiments. And what could be more familiar, or more convenient, than using the self?
People often think of Cindy Sherman or Robert Mapplethorpe. But Ellen D’Oench, who was the head of the Davison Art Center at Wesleyan, where I interned and became a disciple of hers, introduced me to the work of Francesca Woodman and I was taken by her work. But clearly, I was exposed to the history of self-portraiture in art going back time immemorial.
CS: What do new audiences need to know when they’re coming to an image like Man and Woman #1?
LAH: Out of that lowly undergraduate work, there are photographs that have come on to be highly influential today. For example, a triptych from that series called Americans is currently on view at the Guggenheim in Implicit Tensions (Part II) with Mapplethorpe and his circle, including Catherine Opie, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Zanele Muholi, and others.
It is interesting that the earliest self-portraits in that exhibition—mine included—that come out of that early, primal, exploratory state of an artist, and how they over the last thirty years self-portraiture (or, portraits of the artist) have taken on a different level of agency or potency. It is curious how seeing someone who was born in the age of selfie and social media relates to images and images of themselves.
My participation in the 2017 Whitney Biennial included work a rediscovered archive of mine, Ektachrome Archive, which was shot from the mid-’80s – 2000. Looking back, so many of the informal gestures that you see in social media today were clearly evidenced 30 years ago. So, in that sense, a lot of young people were taken by the historical sense of community that our early work did, without relying on social media.
CS: This piece is going on view at the Getty for the first time. What are your thoughts on that?
LAH: The Getty is taking a deep dive into their archive and collection, and I think it’s great that the institution is able to draw on its resources and to offer fresh never-before-seen images from its reservoir. Similarly, a lot of institutions, exemplified by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, have made themselves fresher by delving into their vast collections and archives to present other narratives of modernism. A work of mine is in their collection and is currently hanging in their newly reinstalled collection galleries. After congratulating me, a friend of mine, who’s a critic, said to me in 2013 when the MoMA acquired that work of mine that it may never see the light of day.
The question is shared between the Getty, the MoMA, and the Met: what is it about this particular social-political time where institutions of such stature are remixing and refashioning and making themselves new and fresh? I think it’s been an exemplary time and celebration for institutions but also for the artists involved. It’s a question about culture generally.
CS: Is there anything else you’d want a new audience to know about your work?
LAH: The way in which this young generation is employing an element of play and self-fashioning – I think what the work Man and Woman #1 offers them is to see a work that was done 32 years ago that had a similar element of play, staging, etcetera. I think it underscores the power of play.
CS: You’ve said of getting started that you didn’t have a voice and the camera was the voice. Do you still feel that way?
LAH: I would imagine for a writer it’s similar. Mine is taking an image, or doing a collage…. there’s something about—no matter where you are in terms of your life or age or career— there’s something about that impulse. It’s not that I don’t have a voice, but in a way the camera connects me to that essence. It connects me to the source.
Unseen: 35 Years of Collecting Photographs is on view December 17, 2019–March 8, 2020 at the Getty Center.