PRINT February 1993


THE EXTRAORDINARILY WELL-DRESSED young man and his companion who privately did not consider himself so were both Negroes, a not unimportant fact in the movie you are about to read.

To others besides themselves, the young Negroes were perceived from a distance, as screens on which were projected emotions that did not yield ideas. Generally these emotions were fear and loathing, commonly manifested as anxiety. What the projections yielded in the extraordinarily well-dressed young man and his companion was this: the idea that they were both movies—shallow, intangible, deep.

After greeting one another, the two young men spoke of films they had seen or were about to see. Or else they did not talk, rendered speechless by the meaning they saw in one another (the private meaning of their selves). What they saw—each in the other—had everything and nothing to do with being Negroes and having fathers who were Negroes too. Their fathers did not speak to their sons, and the extraordinarily well-dressed young man and his companion tried to redo the legacy of dumb patriarchy by speaking in the world of ideas. Sometimes these ideas involved thoughts about art.

One artist they discussed was Leonardo Drew. Their conversation was a soundtrack accompanying this image, for instance, shot from a middle distance: Leonardo Drew’s Untitled #25, 1992, a sculpture measuring 108 by 120 by 46 inches and composed entirely of cotton. The cotton is raw and in sheets, stacked one on top of the other. Its rawness is unfamiliar to the consumer accustomed to using it in its “finished” state (white), for example as a tool in the absorption of pain.

Medium close-up of the extraordinarily well-dressed young man attired in overcoat and homburg. He carries a walking stick, which he uses to point at Untitled #25. He says: Recently, having decided to peruse the work of the great Negro artist Chester Himes (whom James Baldwin called “tough,” and “valiant”), I began with his Cotton Comes to Harlem, of 1965. This detective novel, which Himes wrote while living in France, was one of many that featured Grave Digger Jones, the first Negro detective on record, excepting, of course, those in the films of the pioneering Negro filmmaker Oscar Micheaux. To my mind Cotton still remains a better film than a novel. This film features the late great Godfrey Cambridge as Grave Digger, and the smashing Raymond St. Jacques. Sometimes Cambridge and St. Jacques look at one another in this film long enough and silently enough to make us wonder what they see in the other’s face that we don’t. What they are in search of—that is the mystery.

This is the synopsis: in Harlem a bale of cotton is stuffed with money. The cotton is the booty of Negro history, naturally. The difference is that this cotton is made economically important to coloreds. The ironic historical implications of a bale of cotton afloat in a primarily Negro community are lost on that community, so dulled have they become to the past. And why not? That past is almost uniformly atrocious; to acquire distance from it would require an examination of its creepiness. Despair in the presence of cotton is itself a commodity as important as cotton. Not looking at all this—that is how a Negro survives history’s presence.

People protect themselves from most art by the casualness of their gaze, but some art attracts something dumber: the sociological gaze. How many people looking at Drew’s sculptures will view them as “problem” pieces, born of the colored experience solely? The work’s formal beauty and rigor will elude them as they search for its message, missing what Henry James called “the dark . . . the madness of art.” Close-up of the extraordinarily well-dressed young man facing Untitled #28, 1992, a sculpture composed of canvas and rust. Into the frame enters the extraordinarily well-dressed young man’s companion who privately does not consider himself so. This man wears a T-shirt. His head is as round and colored as his lips. He says: These are the things I have learned about Leonardo Drew, whose work, it seems to me, grows out of the tradition in which materials are the communicators of ideas—like a random bale of cotton suggesting ideas about a Negro community.

Leonardo Drew is 31 years old. He is a graduate of Cooper Union. He considered taking a job as a commercial illustrator for DC Comics but did not, having discovered another kind of superhero, Jackson Pollock.

Drew was born in the South but raised in a project in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The junk lots surrounding his home, filled with “urban detritus,” were a kind of movie set he sifted through, arranging and rearranging to allover effect. Drew’s sculptures are pockets filled with the junk of memory. They are also an insight into history—not just artistic (by way of Pollock and Eva Hesse) but the memory of “making do.” That is a very important concept to consider for a moment. To make do is to create out of what has been given or not given, what is at hand. Drew’s sifting through his urban landscape in search of the scenario that defines him reminds one, too, of literature—of Peola in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, who does not speak until spoken to, intent on finding the junked lot of her world a “signifying” event. The event it signifies: her consciousness.

Extreme close-up of rust, a continuum of decay.The extraordinarily well-dressed young man’s companion says: Unlike most concept-filled pieces, Drew’s work is labor intensive—the cultivation, for days, weeks, of erosion. Nails are bent, rust gathers the patina of time, cotton is stacked, pulled. These are materials the artist molds, in conjunction with nature. He molds them as they mold themselves. What one should look for in his work is the simultaneous narrative: the eye that disciplines the inherent shape of time corroding things, just as it corrodes the memory of fathers who do not speak, the memory of ourselves, faces on the screen, sculptures disappearing right before our eyes.

Hilton Als is a writer who lives in New York.