Embedded in the downtown New York arts scene of the 1980s, Darrel Ellis’s practice had an unusual focus; unlike many of his contemporaries, such as Nan Goldin, Peter Hujar, and Robert Mapplethorpe, who centered their own lives and loves in relation to contemporary queer culture and the AIDS epidemic, Ellis looked backward. He used photographs of his family and 1950s Harlem and South Bronx taken by his father, Thomas Ellis, as the starting point for his own prints, drawings, and gouaches. Ellis never met Thomas, who was killed by police before he was born, and he never lived in the idyllic and optimistic Black utopia Thomas depicted. Despite this rearview approach, his work is not nostalgic. It reads as “melancholy,” to use the artist’s own term. 

Through a process of rephotographing enlarged original negatives projected onto three-dimensional geometric forms, Ellis distorts and conceals his father’s domestic scenes. A new hardcover monograph on the artist, published by Visual AIDS, carefully details this method. In addition, the monograph includes a chronology of his life and career, scholarly essays, reflections by the next generation of artists, and, most importantly, reproductions of dozens of finished artworks and sketches. It pays homage to Thomas’s art and influence on his son, using Thomas’s contact sheets as its endpapers (thus opening and closing the book with Darrel’s father’s work and wrapping the son’s work in the father’s). The section devoted to Ellis’s projection process is emblematic of the book’s larger approach: rather than showcasing his best-known works, such as his self-portrait made after a photograph by Mapplethorpe, it instead leans into process, including unfinished works, pages of journals, and a section that considers how to treat the archive he left behind after his 1992 death at age 33 from AIDS complications.

Darrel Ellis, “Untitled (Self-Portrait)” (c. 1990–92), ink and wash on paper, 25 × 26 inches. Collection of Michael Sherman (photo courtesy Visual AIDS and Candice Madey)

The artworks are not arranged chronologically, but rather thematically, showing Ellis to be keenly observant and at times obsessive, revisiting the same subject again and again. He was interested in seriality, often using the same photograph as source material multiple times. As he explains in a 1991 interview with David Hirsh for Visual AIDS, “I project that image on this geometrical shaped form and you get a totally different image than if I project it on something that’s more biomorphic. They’re all different, the photos; they’re like regeneration, regenerated. From one you get many. And that works as a metaphor for the family.” 

The artworks are grouped to illustrate Ellis’s interest in repetition and work in progress. We see him revisit subjects, each time changing them slightly. A group of five 11 by 14-inch silver gelatin prints from 1990 show Ellis’s mother and sister. The pair face each other at varying degrees of visibility behind white rectangles and circles obscuring their faces. These five black and white works likely derive from just two of his father’s family portraits. As the titles, “Untitled (Mother and Laure)” and “Untitled (Mother, Father, and Laure),” indicate (most were added posthumously, as Ellis left the works untitled), in three of the five prints his father appears standing between his mother and sister. But a quick glance would make this easy to miss, as Ellis has obscured his father almost completely. Curator Derek Conrad Murray cites Ellis’s “protectiveness” over the images, stating in the monograph, “The revealing and inviting intent of the family photo as a vernacular expression — as posed, stilted, and composed as it tends to be — is denied and kept private by the artist.” And while most of the images do focus on his mother and sister, by virtue of his father’s role as the photographer, this sequence in particular has a haunting quality because of his father’s erasure from the middle of the photograph, and the middle of the family. As Murray writes, “These images, like memories themselves, are warped, distorted, and obscured by the artist.”

Darrel Ellis, “Untitled (Birthday Party)” (1990), gelatin silver print, 25 x 29 inches (photo courtesy Visual AIDS and Candice Madey)

In describing his process, Ellis makes a point of noting that the original photographs and negatives remain “intact” and that the joining of the picture and the distortion is “ephemeral”: “It’s just that they come together and they marry for a while, then they split up.” In this marriage, Ellis often favors covering faces, adding to the works’ melancholy ephemerality. In a gelatin silver print titled “Couple Kissing” (1988-92), a man leans over to kiss a woman, but his head has been replaced by a large white square. The face is also obscured in the ink wash with the same title and date, placed alongside it, and likely made after the altered print.

Ellis’s obscured faces are most affecting in his self-portraits. While working as a museum guard at MoMA, he used his security badge photographs as new source material, creating a series of self-portraits in this persona. Ellis faces the camera directly in a suit and tie, but the images are funny and strange, his head elongated by white rectangles that block us from seeing his expression. As Tiana Reid writes in the book, this method of “face-blocking” creates an “absent presence that both gestures to and erases the self in self-portrait.” Here, the self is mediated by a character, the security guard, and by the physical interventions into the image.

Darrel Ellis, “Untitled (Self-Portrait after Museum Guard Photograph)” (c. 1990), gelatin silver print, 8 × 10 inches. Collection of Beth Rudin DeWoody (photo courtesy Visual AIDS)

In his painted self-portraits, Ellis uses other methods of mediation, primarily reimagining portraits taken of him by his friends and fellow artists. Included in the book are some of the more notable ones: ink wash self-portraits after photographs by Allen Frame, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Peter Hujar. In these images, Ellis portrays himself as others see him. “What is so powerful about the self-portrait,” writes Murray, “is Ellis’s interest in recreating it: his fascination with contemplating how others see him — and what the act of recreating the image will reveal about himself.” In a gelatin silver print tinted with orange ink, after a photograph by Frame, Ellis leans on his elbow, looking relaxed, but his face is again hidden behind a geometric obstruction. The tension of the self-portraits emerges from the desire to be both seen and hidden, between intimacy and privacy, qualities common to family photographs.

While he began to achieve recognition in his lifetime, receiving a solo show at Baron/Boisanté Editions in New York and a major grant the year before his death, his biography makes him ripe for recognition today. A section in the monograph, “The Case of the Artist’s Archive,” highlights how delicately a posthumous career must be handled. Allen Frame’s photographs of Ellis appear throughout the book, a hint at Frame’s own role as custodian of the artist’s archive.

Darrel Ellis, “Self-Portrait after Photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe” (1989), ink and wash on paper, 30 × 23 inches. Collection of George Steinberg (photo courtesy Visual AIDS)

Aspects of Ellis’s biography — the impact of police brutality and the AIDS epidemic — while essential to understanding his work, are also relevant to today’s culture and much-needed revisions of canonical art histories that have largely excluded the work of queer and BIPOC artists. But attention to these aspects alone misses the point of Ellis’s work, which actively looks away from these subjects. As Murray notes, “That need to resist definition is a prominent feature of his formal approach — which emerged from a concern that his images of the African American family would be read by art viewers differently than those depicting a white family.” Ellis challenged what is expected of a Black artist (saying to Hirsh in his interview, “sometimes my work doesn’t really look like it’s done by a Black person”). This is not to strip Ellis of his identity, but to find ways to see the work for its formal inventiveness as well as its subject matter and maker. The new monograph’s focus on Ellis’s formal working process is one step in the direction that Ellis had hoped for.

Darrel Ellis (2021) is published by Visual AIDS and is available online and in bookstores.

Megan N. Liberty is the Art Books section editor at the Brooklyn Rail and co-founder of Book Art Review. Her writing on artist books, ephemera, and graphic novels also appears in Artforum.com, ArtReview,...