Nearly 70 Years Later, ‘Invisible Man’ Is Still Inspiring Visual Artists

In 1952, the photographer Gordon Parks labored with Ralph Ellison to translate the author’s novel, “Invisible Man,” revealed earlier that 12 months, right into a collection of photographs for Life journal. One of the images depicts the guide’s anonymous narrator in his retreat beneath town, amid the 1,369 gentle bulbs that, he tells the reader, “illuminated the blackness of my invisibility.” In Parks’s , the lights are arrayed on the partitions behind the determine in a modernist and rhythmic association that reads as an extension of the music emanating from his two turntables (presumably Louis Armstrong, whom the narrator listens to whereas consuming vanilla ice cream and sloe gin). The world up above — represented by tiny lights almost swallowed up by the night time — barely exists by comparability. But his clear, well-lighted place is a starting, not an ending. He is biding his time. “A hibernation,” he says, “is a covert preparation for a more overt action.”

This kind of inventive overlap wasn’t uncommon for Ellison, who sometimes labored as a photographer himself and was steeped within the arts of his day. After leaving the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama (the place he studied music and performed trumpet) for New York in 1936, he apprenticed with the Black sculptor Richmond Barthé, and by midcentury discovered himself amongst a cadre of Black artists and writers, together with Langston Hughes, Elizabeth Catlett, Albert Murray, Dorothy West, Richard Wright, Roy DeCarava and Romare Bearden. Bearden’s collages, specifically, represented Ellison’s creative beliefs. In an essay on the artist revealed in 1968 to accompany an exhibition on the Art Gallery of the State University of New York at Albany, Ellison wrote admiringly of the way in which Bearden’s work offers voice to the Black expertise whereas additionally exploring the probabilities of kind. The artist’s magisterial remedy of picture and method — in his textural collage-paintings and projections expressive of jazz and blues, Southern rural life and Northern cities, ritual and fantasy — allowed him, Ellison wrote, “to express the tragic predicament of his people without violating his passionate dedication to art as a fundamental and transcendent agency for confronting and revealing the world.”

Ellison, circa 1950, in New York City’s St. Nicholas Park, photographed by his spouse, Fanny McConnell Ellison.Credit…Fanny McConnell Ellison, Ralph Ellison Papers, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. © The Ralph and Fanny Ellison Charitable Trust

Ellison rejected artwork as sociological research or as a way for strictly realist illustration. Instead, he appeared for a lyricism that would seize the numerous sides of Black life. Much like Bearden’s paintings, Ellison’s “Invisible Man” — for which he’s greatest recognized (the novel appeared on the New York Times best-seller record for 13 weeks in 1952 and gained the National Book Award for Fiction in 1953, making Ellison the primary Black author to obtain the excellence) — additionally offers air to the Black expertise in America. His Everyman narrator has come to symbolize the way in which Black individuals have been obscured, silenced, made invisible all through the historical past of the United States: “Why is my work ignored?” the photographer Roy DeCarava requested in an interview in 1988. “Do they sit around at night saying, ‘What are we not going to do for Roy DeCarava?’ I don’t know but I do feel like Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man.’”

Gordon Parks’s “Invisible Man Retreat, Harlem, New York” (1952).Credit…© The Gordon Parks FoundationParks’s “The Invisible Man, Harlem, New York” (1952).Credit…© The Gordon Parks Foundation

Wynton Marsalis, who knew Ellison personally, additionally sees himself — and his artwork — within the guide. The trumpeter describes the construction of the novel as being akin to the refrain format utilized in jazz. “Chorus format means you play a song and you just repeat the underlying harmonies of that song over and over again,” he explains, “and the harmonies repeat and you create new melodies on it.” Throughout “Invisible Man,” Ellison “keeps looping back and forth on the subject of identity, of race, of generations.” For Marsalis, who has returned to the guide many instances since first studying it round age 14, it’s this symbolically wealthy journey of identification that’s of main significance: “At a certain point the narrator realizes how complex he is as a person,” Marsalis says. “That’s the jazziest thing about the book. The jazz musician’s thing is always how difficult it is to achieve your personality and your identity, and then to put your identity in the context of a group. The narrator comes to that understanding in the book … and the book is the result of his individuality, the result of his understanding.”

ELLISON BELIEVED IN LITERATURE’S energy “to make us recognize again and again the wholeness of the human experience,” and numerous writers — Danielle Evans, Clint Smith, Bryan Stevenson, Mychal Denzel Smith and Ottessa Moshfegh, to call a number of — have discovered a inventive foothold within the guide’s that means and concepts. What’s maybe extra shocking, although, is what number of visible artists have additionally discovered the novel to be a potent supply of inspiration. Working in portray or pictures, sculpture or set up, a protracted line of artists have explored the theme of rendering the invisible seen and have proven that the necessity to assert one’s personhood is profound, particularly when that personhood has been so completely denied.

Radcliffe Bailey, for example, is one other artist who took the narrator’s underground lair as his topic. In 2017, he recreated Parks’s in three dimensions, mounting a life-size atmosphere within the gallery of the Gordon Parks Foundation, in Pleasantville, N.Y. The darkish cityscape acts as a proscenium, past that are the lights, turntables and a stool, now empty: In his model, the invisible man is gone. Bailey’s work cannily hyperlinks the novel’s starting with its ending, the place the narrator, his story completed, concedes, “I’ve overstayed my hibernation, since there’s a possibility that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play.”

Jeff Wall’s “After ‘Invisible Man’ by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue” (1999-2000).Credit…© Jeff Wall, courtesy of Gagosian

The photographer Jeff Wall additionally depicted the narrator’s den, although with a distinctly completely different intention. In 1999, he started staging the room, filling it with detritus he gleaned from different components of the novel and protecting the ceiling with precisely 1,369 bulbs. His interpretation, “After ‘Invisible Man’ by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue,” is considered one of profusion — not merely within the multitude of bulbs however in the way in which the narrator visualizes himself by their gentle. “Photography is also about profusion, if you want it to be,” Wall says. “You point a camera at a tree, and you get every leaf. If you were painting it, you might just paint some green areas to represent masses of leaves, but in a photograph, you see them all. It seemed right for this scene, and once you go down that road, of course, then you have to create that profusion grain by grain. I had to make that room.”

Jack Whitten’s “Black Monolith II (For Ralph Ellison)” (1994).Credit…© Jack Whitten, courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum, William Ok. Jacobs, Jr. Fund, 2014.65. Photo: Courtesy of Alexander Gray Associates

INVISIBILITY MAY SEEM ANTITHETICAL to visible artwork. How can an artist render what isn’t there? But loads of artists have embraced this conceptual problem, taking over Ellison’s theme as their very own. In 1994, the 12 months of Ellison’s dying, Jack Whitten made his mosaic portray “Black Monolith II (For Ralph Ellison).” (The artist’s “Black Monolith” collection, accomplished over the course of almost 30 years, between 1988 and 2017, honors 11 luminaries, together with Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Barbara Jordan, Muhammad Ali and Jacob Lawrence.) To create the mosaic tiles, he combined acrylic paint with molasses, copper, salt, coal, ash, chocolate, onion, herbs, rust and eggshells. Surrounding the darkish, faceless determine on the heart of the work are light-colored tiles, their illumination giving the topic kind. “‘Invisible Man’ was the first time that anyone had put into print, for me, the exact dimensions of being Black in America,” Whitten stated.

Elizabeth Catlett’s memorial for Ellison, unveiled in New York City’s Riverside Park in 2003.Credit…Brittainy Newman/The New York Times

Nine years later, Elizabeth Catlett unveiled a 15-foot-tall bronze monolith for Ellison’s memorial at 150th Street and Riverside Drive in Manhattan. From the metallic slab, she excised the silhouette of a striding determine. But this invisible man isn’t empty area — in spite of everything, the narrator’s invisibility isn’t bodily however psychological and phenomenological. Through the cutout, one can see the bushes and sky past, a view Ellison loved from his longtime residence throughout the road, at 730 Riverside Drive.

The play in works like Catlett’s and Whitten’s of presence and absence can also be evident in one of many photographs from Ming Smith’s “Invisible Man” collection, some 50 black-and-white pictures taken between 1988 and 1991, which equally situates a determine among the many shifting fields of darkish and light-weight. A lone man walks down a vibrant avenue, the higher half of his physique virtually disappearing into the shadow forged on the constructing behind him. He seems blurred, mixing into his environment as if camouflaged by the world round him. How can he, like Ellison’s narrator, exist directly within the obvious gentle and within the depthless darkish?

Ming Smith’s “Invisible Man, Somewhere, Everywhere” (1991).Credit…© Ming Smith, courtesy of the artistSmith’s “August Blues, Harlem, New York” (1991).Credit…© Ming Smith, courtesy of the artist

Though Smith’s “Invisible Man” collection isn’t a literal interpretation of the novel, as Parks’s is, she was impressed by Ellison’s exploration of visibility, and shared his perception that artwork, in any kind, could be a manner of articulating cultural expertise. In 1972, Smith grew to become the primary feminine member of the Harlem-based African American pictures collective Kamoinge, and within the ensuing many years she labored amid a bigger group of elders and contemporaries, together with Bearden, DeCarava, August Wilson, Sun Ra and Grace Jones. “The writers, the painters, the actors, the musicians — they all just lead me, they’re just part of me,” she says. “I don’t really specifically think of anyone when I go to shoot. I work from instinct. I’m a continuum.”

TOWARD THE END of “Invisible Man,” after his good friend Tod Clifton is shot by the police, the narrator wanders into the subway, making an attempt to make sense of what it means to be exterior of historical past: “All things, it is said, are duly recorded,” he writes, “all things of importance, that is. But not quite, for actually it is only the known, the seen, the heard and only those events that the recorder regards as important that are put down, those lies his keepers keep their power by … Where were the historians today? And how would they put it down?” The artists who’ve discovered methods of expressing life by “Invisible Man” are a few of in the present day’s historians, recording Black expertise, which, in all its different complexity, additionally says one thing about human life writ massive.

Kerry James Marshall’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self” (1980).Credit…© Kerry James Marshall. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.Marshall’s “Invisible Man” (1986).Credit…© Kerry James Marshall. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Consider Kerry James Marshall’s portray “A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self” (1980). It depicts a Black determine with a broad, toothy grin set towards a black backdrop. He is directly part of the background and distinct from it, receding into the darkness and rising from it. Marshall has spoken in regards to the absence of Black our bodies and topics from life-drawing lessons, museums and artwork books and of the way in which that, as soon as observed, this absence turns into seen. Beginning with “A Portrait of the Artist,” he got down to prioritize Black topics, to carry them again into the seen creative spectrum. “The condition of Blackness in the paintings would be more absolute, not provisional,” he has stated. In his 1986 portray “Invisible Man,” Marshall once more renders a Black man disappearing into the background. Only the exaggerated caricature of his face stays clearly seen.

The connection Ellison noticed between the oral custom of the previous and the extra modern “literary rendering of American experience” was important for him. In a speech in 1975 on the dedication of the Ralph Ellison Library in his hometown of Oklahoma City, he stated, “This function of language makes it possible for men and women to project the future, control their environment. It offers feedback.” The narrator’s opening line — “I am an invisible man” — has offered simply that type of suggestions, appearing as a textual hyperlink between varied historic and art-historical moments. The sentence is echoed within the slogan “I am a man,” utilized by 1,300 placing Black sanitation staff in Memphis in 1968. Ernest C. Withers’s March 28 is among the many most well-known photographs of the protest, exhibiting a throng of strikers on the street, a sea of placards over their heads, like speech balloons. By omitting the phrase “invisible,” the employees demanded recognition — demanded to be seen, and regarded, as human beings. Their assertion additionally works as a response to a query posed through the battle for abolition within the 18th century: “Am I not a man and a brother?” In 1857, the query “Am I not a man?” was on the coronary heart of Dred Scott v. Sandford, which requested whether or not the Constitution allowed Black individuals to carry American citizenship and be accorded the related rights and privileges; in its determination, the U.S. Supreme Court answered with a convincing no.

Hank Willis Thomas’s “I Am a Man” (2009).Credit…© Hank Willis Thomas, courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

With his novel, Ellison supplied a distinct reply: an adamant affirmation. Nearly 40 years after the Memphis protest, Glenn Ligon reproduced the strikers’ placard within the portray “Untitled (I Am a Man)” (1988), subtly rearranging textual content and typography to carry this historic artifact ahead in time — remaking it, so to talk, for the persevering with battle. For the work “I Am a Man” (2009), Hank Willis Thomas created 20 painted variations of the phrase that learn like a timeline of civil rights historical past. Beginning with “I Am ⅗ Man,” the work strikes by “Ain’t I a Woman” and “You the Man” earlier than ending conclusively with “I Am Amen.”

Ligon returned to “Invisible Man” in 1991, stenciling with black oilstick onto a white background a passage from the guide’s prologue. (In every of a pair of etchings from a quartet made in 1992, Ligon reproduced variations of the identical Ellison citation in black on a black background, the delicate tonal differentiation akin to that of Marshall’s “A Portrait of the Artist.”) The letters are smudged and the final third of the paragraph is almost illegible. What is misplaced shouldn’t be merely a view of the phrases however what they stand for: the voice of the author and the language of illustration. Yet Ligon rescues two phrases from obscurity: “I’m” and “not.” Together, the phrases reject any insistence that he’s invisible: “I’m not.”

Glenn Ligon’s “Untitled (I Am an Invisible Man)” (1991).Credit…© Glenn Ligon, courtesy of the artist; Hauser & Wirth, New York; Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Thomas Dane Gallery, London; and Chantal Crousel, Paris. Photo: © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA, by way of Art Resource, N.Y.

ELLISON BELIEVED THE FIELD of tradition was large open, a spot of limitless freedom, the place the artist, author, poet and musician might specific the fullness and complexity of Black life and picture a world undivided by social injustice. That so many visible artists have discovered fertile floor within the pages of “Invisible Man” is a testomony to that perception, and to the novel’s energy and reality. That the guide continues to carry sway is maybe additionally proof that the equal and simply world that Ellison had hoped would at some point come has not but arrived. Ellison describes terrifying scenes of violence and police brutality. He evokes the load, too, that preconceived concepts have on Black identification. “Even today,” says the painter Calida Rawles, “it’s very tough to have that primary ingredient of humanity given to us, of being seen, revered and acknowledged, of being totally human, with brilliance and flaws.”

Calida Rawles’s “North & Penn (For Freddie Gray)” (2018).Credit…Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul and LondonRawles’s “New Day Coming” (2020).Credit…Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul and London

Rawles paints massive canvases depicting our bodies suspended in vibrant, typically blue swimming pools. In 2018, she made “North & Penn (For Freddie Gray),” wherein a determine is almost totally submerged, damaged into components by the turbulent water’s refraction, with solely the fingers of 1 hand breaking by the pool’s floor. “In my fantasy world, I can grab his hand and get him out,” Rawles says. In one other considered one of her works, “New Day Coming” (2020), a lady in a white gown floats serenely, her head hidden from view by a rippling distortion: The floor of the water displays her physique, sending a collection of echoes of the picture wafting towards the highest of the canvas, like a dream withdrawing. The sparkle of daylight is the final ingredient Rawles paints, and its addition to every work is important: “When I see a shimmer in these light patterns,” she says, “that pop — there’s just so much beauty in that. What a metaphor, that in itself. The light is one of the most important elements in the water — it’s just magic.”

“Invisible Man” is amongst Rawles’s favourite books, one she returns to time and again. While at work on the work for her forthcoming solo present at Lehmann Maupin in New York this fall, she wrote the phrases “seen and unseen” on the wall of her studio. “At the end of the day,” she says, “everyone just wants to be seen, heard and respected.”

Nicole Rudick’s guide on the French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle, “What Is Now Known Was Once Only Imagined,” can be revealed in February 2022 by Siglio Press.