This past March, I visited OSMOS at 50 East 1st Street in Manhattan’s East Village to see some works by the Bronx-born painter and photographer Darrel Ellis. As far as I know, the last time any of Ellis’s works have been shown in New York was over fourteen years ago, in 2005, so it’s something of a big deal to see his work in the real world once again.
When I first began looking a bit more thoughtfully into Ellis’s biography upon recalling that he had been included in the exhibition Urban Mythologies: The Bronx Represented Since the 1960’s, a basic internet search yielded very few results, especially in comparison to Ellis’s peer group, which includes artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, Peter Hujar, and David Wojnarowicz. Apart from a short entry about Ellis on Visual AIDS and an exhibition catalog from 1996 published by Art in General to celebrate the posthumous, traveling exhibition which featured seventy of the artist’s works from his estate, there remains very little in print on the subject of Darrel Ellis. Given the works of his that I was able to view online and the little bits that I had been able to glean from his bio, this just didn’t sit right with me. This is an artist whose work needs to be known.
Self-portrait based on Peter Hujar photograph, c. 1990, painting on canvas, 22” × 24”. Courtesy of OSMOS. ⓒ Estate of Darrel Ellis.
Darrel Ellis was born December 5th, 1958. He died April 3rd, 1992, a couple of months before David Wojnarowicz, whose full-scale retrospective at the Whitney Museum, History Keeps Me Awake at Night, I saw last fall. Having encountered Wojnarowicz’s presence as a teenager through the fairly obscene underground films of Richard Kern [ie. “Stray Dogs” (1985) and “You Killed Me First” (1985)], it was definitely a trip seeing his work at the Whitney—it was packed to the point that I kind of didn’t want to be there. People love David now, I thought, a little moody.
As I moved through the museum’s galleries, I had to wonder what an artist like Wojnarowicz would think of all this posthumous looking and snapping. I had to ask myself: Why does the art world want to stage its appreciation for an artist like David Wojnarowicz now? Because the fucked up political future he had been observing finally came to pass? And if we are looking at David and the ambitious body of work he assembled during his lifetime and encountering it as emblematic of a certain downtown New York countercultural moment, or an idealized version of some queer, punk sensibility we associate with the ’80s and ’90s, then what else—and who else—in our historicization of that particular time drops out as a result?
I am not exempt from the “we” I speak of here; next to my bed currently sits a newly purchased copy of Weight of the Earth: The Tape Journals of David Wojnarowicz, published by Semiotext(e) just last year. My attention is turned towards David, too, and I suspect, unlike many of the tourists at the Whitney that day who might have been seeing his work for the first time, I had the luxury of living in New York City and participating in the art world in ways that allowed me to encounter his work IRL many times over the years and in several different contexts with varying degrees of politicization. I’ve even been lucky enough during my brief time working at a private arts college to teach and share his work with others. If I have a lot to say about David Wojnarowicz, it’s because I have had years of looking and thinking about his work alongside the many documented accounts of his critics, friends, admirers, and biographers, some of whom were fortunate enough to know him, and live to tell of their experiences (among my favorites of these accounts are those by artist Zoe Leonard, with thanks to Sarah Schulman).
The same, however, cannot be said of Darrel Ellis, so it is still something of an experiment: learning to look at and speak about his work, the impression it leaves on me. As of now, I cannot speculate as to how his art and reputation will fare in the wake of this strangely belated and renewed interest in the art historical ongoings and culture wars of the 1980s and ’90s. 
Poster for Day Without Art, designed by Danny Tisdale Studio, 1994, offset lithograph on paper; 35” × 25 ⅝”. Courtesy of Visual AIDS. Background image features Darrel Ellis’s Self-Portrait After Photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1989.
When he died in the spring of 1992 of AIDS, Darrel Ellis was the same age as his father, Thomas Ellis: 33 years old. In 1958, Thomas, a postal clerk and aspiring photographer who briefly ran a portrait studio in Harlem with his wife, was killed by the police following an argument with two plainclothes detectives who had blocked his parked car. The injuries sustained from the altercation proved fatal. At the time of Thomas’s death, his wife was pregnant with Darrel.  Justice was never served.
These events and the life that preceded them, as documented by the senior Ellis in the many family photographs taken before Darrel was born in parts of the Bronx and Harlem during the 1950s, eventually made their way into Darrel’s work. In 1981, when Ellis was living in the Lower East Side with his then-lover and participating in the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program, the artist, writer, and independent curator Allen Frame recalls that Ellis had recently acquired some of his father’s black and white photographs from the 1950s which he was reinterpreting with ink on paper at the time. 
In 1983, BOMB magazine published some works from this period. 
Left: Darrel Ellis, My Mother and My Sister from My Father’s Photograph, 1982. Right: Thomas Ellis, Picnic NYC, 1953.
The diptych featuring Thomas Ellis’s photograph alongside his son’s interpretation published thirty years later is uncanny. In Darrel’s version, there are outlines, blurs, shadows, and contours. Certain details, like the density of the grass or the striped pattern on the young girl’s shorts fall away in favor of other, more plain facts, like “here’s a family.” The position of the subjects in relation to one another would suggest even without our knowing that these folks are kin. Their togetherness in time is an indisputable fact. Prior to Darrel’s being-in-the-world, Thomas’s photograph establishes the family as existing within a shared visual field: they had a life and their being together—whether it was in a park or at home—appears as a notably carefree aspect of that life.
Ellis continued experimenting with his father’s photographs: the layers of technique and reinterpretation that would distinguish his images from the ones taken by his father would become more pronounced. Allen Frame observes, “Between 1984 and 1986, [Ellis] made a series of photographs of his mother, brother, and sisters, from which he produced a new body of work evolving from screenprint to experimental photograph to painting. The screenprints, made while he was living at his mother’s apartment after breaking up with his boyfriend and coming out to his family, were compiled into a book at the Lower East Side Printshop, with the help of Susan Spencer Crowe.”  The book, published by Appearances Press in 1986, reveals various domestic scenes and interior living spaces depicting relatives sitting in the kitchen, around the family table, doing each other’s hair, laying in bed. They are sparse in terms of detail, and resemble studies of the generic and the sublime as they depict the taken for granted scenes from a life. Again, what stands out are not the faces of the individuals pictured, but their relation to one another as suggested by their body language, particularly the casual nature of their closeness. 
At some point, while looking at the drawings alongside the later photographs, I remember saying to my new friend, Kyle, who had accompanied me to see the show at OSMOS, “I don’t see how the artist who made these drawings also made these photographs. Or rather, I can’t see that the photographs were made by someone who primarily identified as a painter…” Kyle responded, “I can see it… Maybe it has to do more with understanding Darrel’s relationship as a painter to the photograph as a surface.”
Kyle was onto something. In an interview, Ellis said of his process, “The idea of putting a photo on any surface other than photo paper gives you a lot of freedom. The process became [one] about animating the photo, about revivification.”  Perhaps what was painterly about Ellis’s photographs, particularly those that reinterpreted his father’s negatives, was that he treated the original images as content rather than object. In other words, by projecting the negatives on a wall and then experimenting with both his position as the photographer in relation to the projected image and the dimensionality of the surface onto which the image was projected by creating sculptural forms onto which the projections would appear, Ellis transformed his father’s negatives into surface. The resulting images that we are left with therefore are not really appropriations; they’re the being-with of a trace of a lost object—the trace being the negative, and the lost object, the father. As Ellis reflected of his father’s images, “When I look at those photographs sometimes, all I see is holes.”  I will never fail to be moved by those words.
Left: Untitled (Aunt Connie and Uncle Richard), c. 1990, silver gelatin RC Print, 15 ¾” × 19 ¼”. Right: Untitled (Aunt Connie and Uncle Richard), c. 1990, crayon and ink on paper, 10” × 12”. Courtesy of OSMOS. ⓒ Estate of Darrel Ellis.
When Ellis was discovered in a coma by his friends Susan Spencer Crowe and Bruce Dow in the spring of 1992 at his apartment off Franklin Avenue in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, “his last self-portrait was sitting on his easel beside his bed, eerily depicting him as he was found: eyes closed, lying on his bed in deep repose.”  After spending some time with Ellis’s work at OSMOS, I felt better able to appreciate how complicated the idea of the self-portrait must have been for Ellis if he was so compelled to return to it as a generative mode of inquiry. By adopting different mediums such as drawing, painting, and photography, while sometimes blending all three in the process to create an individual work, I imagine he must have felt provoked, if not also a bit estranged, by all the selves he had discovered through his practice.
Among Ellis’s self-portraits, perhaps the most recognized one is Self-Portrait After Photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe which was featured in the now infamous Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing exhibition at Artists Space in 1989, curated by Nan Goldin. For the show, Ellis contributed two self-portraits, both of which were based on photographs taken of him by Peter Hujar and Robert Mapplethorpe. The caption in the exhibition catalogue that accompanies Self-Portrait After Photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe reads: “I struggle to resist the frozen images of myself taken by Robert Mapplethorpe and Peter Hujar.” I’ve never seen either of the photographs Mapplethorpe or Hujar took of Ellis, but I remain haunted by the decision Ellis made to take back his own image.  I suspect that if during this time period, Ellis became that much more aware of his mortality following the discovery of his HIV status, then “the struggle to resist the frozen images” through the creation of the self-portrait forms part of the process by which the artist is able to reassert his right to his body as well as his right to explore acts of self-representation. I imagine then for Ellis: the self-portrait is not a luxury, but a vital necessity.
 Thank you to Tiona Nekkia McClodden who, through her continued work, conversations, and writing on Essex Hemphill, Julius Eastman, and Brad Johnson, helped me think the most deeply about some of the contradictions inherent in this renewed interest in queer art from the 1980s and ’90s, and so much more.
 Allen Frame, “Our Family Legacy: Variations in Black and White,” Darrel Ellis (New York: Art in General, 1996), p.13.
 Ibid., 14.
 Darrel Ellis and Thomas Ellis, “Darrel Ellis, Thomas Ellis” in BOMB, no. 5 (1983): 44. Also see “Two Drawings by Darrel Ellis” in BOMB, No. 8, (1983/1984): 37.
 Allen Frame, “Our Family Legacy,” p. 17.
 Thank you to Ricardo Montez who, upon learning about my interest in Darrel, gifted me his copy of the aforementioned book.
 David Hirsh, “Darrel Ellis: On the Border of Family and Tribe,” in Disrupted Borders: An Intervention in Definitions of Boundaries, ed. Sunil Gupta (London: Rivers Oram Press, 1993), p.125.
 Ibid., 124.
 Allen Frame, “Our Family Legacy,” p.21.
 See Kobena Mercer, “Reading Racial Fetishism: The Photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe” (1986) for a more in-depth discussion of the artist’s use of black male bodies.