Toni Morrison’s Black Book at David Zwirner resists narrative just as does her groundbreaking editorial project The Black Book. The over 70 archival documents, cultural artifacts, and artistic works do not tell Morrison’s life story nor summarize her novels. Hilton Als, the Pulitzer-Prize winning author and critic, and the exhibition’s curator, explores the directions her literary interests took and the impact of Morrison’s intellectual and literary pursuits on arts and letters.
This is Als’s fourth curatorial project with the David Zwirner, and his second organized around a literary figure (the first was on James Baldwin in 2019). The exhibition is structured chronologically, with materials concerning The Black Book, Morrison’s editorial career, and her first few novels in the expansive front and back rooms of the east side of the Chelsea gallery, and the works related to Morrison’s later novels and public life on the west side. In the connecting hallway, Als’s 2003 New Yorker profile on Morrison and photos from his personal archive linking Als to Morrison are displayed.
Archival documents speak to Morrison’s insight as a writer, editor, and collaborator. She’s meticulous and sharp when she articulates her vision for Muhammad Ali’s memoir The Greatest: My Own Story — the scenes needed, moments of exposition, areas for reflection. She’s a girlfriend kee-keeing with Toni Cade Bambara that she forgets to collect the manuscript she’s supposed to edit. As an editor, she understands what’s needed in a narrative and how to motivate those around her to produce it.
For the 1974 publication of The Black Book, she played the roles of publicist, editor, and curator. Documents show her pitching the book to publisher Random House and noted Black public figures. Created in collaboration with historian Middleton Harris and a team of non-academic experts and noted collectors of Black material culture, like Roger Furman and Morris Levitt, the collection of newspaper clippings, posters, sheet music, and poems advances chronologically from the 14th century through the 1940s. The volume is decidedly anti-narrative and grassroots, a cross between an archive, an anthology, a scrapbook, and a history textbook. The Black Book, along with Morrison’s oeuvre, aimed at restoring humanity to the story of Black people in the United States.
The artworks in the show include paintings, sculptures, photography, and film. Films by Kerry James Marshall on view near these documents mimic this non-narrative style. Gleaning: Cutting close (2003-2017) is a montage of asynchronous clips and videos of Black people across centuries, while Doppler Incident (1997), recreates a knife fight Marshall witnessed outside his window one day but manipulates time, angles, and motion to show the ways an observer’s relation to an event changes its relationship to narrative and truth.
Als’s collection of materials, art, and ephemera isn’t meant to elucidate Morrison’s work. No captions contextualize individual pieces. Instead, the curator uses quotes from Morrison’s writings to bring the items into each other’s orbit. Some lay on the floor close to the center of the space (an enslaved child shackle, an antique phonograph), while others, like Beverly Buchanan’s wood sculpture “For Mallory” (1995), require spectators to lower themselves to examine. Viewers must change their positions to look at these works individually and collectively; these perspective shifts reflect the multiple angles for pondering Morrison’s impact on American 20th- and 21st-century culture.
A white doll, an antique cabinet holding a Shirley Temple cup, a James Van Der Zee portrait of an entertainer who bears a close resemblance to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, five abstract paintings by Walter Price: these objects are complemented by a passage from The Bluest Eye. In that novel, the narrator, Claudia MacTeer, recounts the reasons she hates white dolls and wishes to destroy them. In sometimes subtle or surreal ways, each piece gestures toward Morrison’s interests. Looking at the cup and doll, the Doll Test comes to mind. The experiment, developed by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark, was used in Brown v Board of Education (1954) to demonstrate how segregation harmed Black children’s self-image. White girls are taught innocence, while Black girls, like Pecola (The Bluest Eye), are taught to hate themselves.
Kerry James Marshall’s “A lithe young man…” (2021) is accompanied by a quote from Morrison’s Song of Solomon regarding Black men trading stories about their experiences working under white men. In the painting, a dark-skinned Black man sitting on a royal blue arm chair stares directly at the viewer, as musical notes waft through the air from beyond the frame toward his head. Looking into this man’s living area feels intrusive, even on canvas. The orange cat, Oxford thesaurus, Madonna figurine, and robot-like contraption in the shelf of the end table: all are parts of his life that he guards with a relaxed but piercing gaze. Marshall’s portrait embodies the complexity of a Morrison character, like Milkman or Guitar (both from Song of Solomon), as they brace themselves to work another day.
Some pieces, like Julie Mehretu’s painting “A Mercy” (2019-2020), or Amy Sillman’s “Paradise (An Alphabet for Miss Morrison)” (2021) were commissioned by Als to be in direct conversation with each of those novels; yet, they are not prescriptive in their interpretations. Mehretu’s abstract painting looks chaotic. Washes of light medium and darker gray tones mixed with streaks of yellow, blue and red suggest a battle field or a town under siege. In the middle-left of the canvas, a form stands out, untouched by the darker, more violent hues. The strife and hope intimated in this massive piece is not obvious in its relationship to A Mercy, a novel about slavery and original sins. As with the show overall, for The Black Book to Morrison’s Black Book.
Toni Morrison’s Black Book continues at David Zwirner (529 West 19th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through January 26. The exhibition was curated by Hilton Als.