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Frieze Week New York 2024

Jimmy Robert Reflects on a Portrait of Alvin Ailey

Surface and the unsaid in Carl Van Vechten’s 1955 portrait of the trailblazing dancer and choreographer

BY Jimmy Robert in Frieze New York , Frieze Week Magazine | 05 MAY 24

Why is it seemingly easier to wrestle desire out of photography than it is to wrestle it out of dance?

Trigger warning: I will not answer this question but rather let it simmer over the few lines below ... this is not TikTok.

It will be at once short yet slow, the shutter speed crystalizing movement. I want this text to be as fluid as Ailey’s body. Érotisme noir et blanc.

Is he dancing for the camera? Is he being directed? Are we witnessing a form of intimacy? I hate having my portrait done: it instantly creates in me a sense of artificiality, being at once a performer and a photographer, the inherent anality of the latter draws me towards control. The lie of the camera or the photographer’s objectivity irritates me.

The fabric of vision: what are images actually made of?

Act natural! What is natural for me movement-wise is perhaps different for you ... Privately and publicly.

This is the second portrait by Carl Van Vechten that I scrutinize. The previous one was of Jimmie Daniels, singer and lover of Philip Johnson, that I referred to during my performance in 2017 at The Glass House, Imitation of Lives. Desire striking again. Fashionable love preceding Johnson’s short flirt with fascism.

I remember one of the performers in the piece commenting on the openness of my “jazz hands” in contrast to my intention to allude to voguing while taking layers of T-shirts off, referring to African prints and a Matisse motif—an intense weaving of references, pointing out the complexity of image-making but also its construction ... The fabric of vision: what are images actually made of? Maybe this question is the place where we meet? 

Jazz is never too far away, either, in the background, expressive, unbound, like lovemaking itself, freeing the body, giving an envious fluidity to the image: excess as a way to essentialize. Is the Essence clear? Does it matter?

I chose a picture of the sitter crouching on a stool, highly uncomfortable: dancing looks easy but it’s painful. Stop complaining, keep smiling.

How many images are necessary to get to the right one? The construction of the self through myriad props, the pure joy of artifice, the stage and theatricality, but also the safety of likeminded gay men able to express themselves openly, unrestrained by dogmas or politics. We are witnessing here an intimacy made public. We are voyeurs. Will we eventually admit to that pleasure? This image asks for complicity and I joyfully fall into its trap.

Is this shirt on or off? It will remain so for ever in this very suspended closure, pointing at the decor, flippantly yet seriously, crumpled for effect and immediacy: did love happen before or after the picture? Sorry for the cliché.

The mischief in the gaze of the sitter takes us away from pausing/posing and mortality. Only for a little while, complicit as we are in this little death: une petite mort.

Alvin Ailey , March 22, 1955, Carl Van Vechten, Gelatin silver print, Image and sheet: 9 15/16 × 7 9/16 inches (25.2 × 19.2 cm), Gift of John Mark Lutz, 1965. Image courtesy of The Philadelphia Museum of Art
Carl Van Vechten, Alvin Ailey, March 22, 1955. Gift of John Mark Lutz, 1965. Courtesy:The Philadelphia Museum of Art

“Edges of Ailey” is at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USA, September 25–February 2025.

This article first appeared in Frieze Week New York 2024 under the title “What Images Are Made Of.”

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Main photo: Carl Van Vechten, Alvin Ailey, March 22, 1955. Gift of John Mark Lutz, 1965. Courtesy: The Philadelphia Museum of Art

Jimmy Robert is an artist. His two-person show with Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, curated by Jacob Korczynski, opens at Participant Inc., New York, USA, in September. He lives in Paris, France.