by Darby English, Yale University Press. March 2019. 148 p. ill. ISBN 9780300230383 (h/c), $35.00.

Reviewed July 2020
Lauren Gottlieb-Miller, Librarian, The Menil Collection, lgottliebmiller@menil.org

englishTo Describe a Life: Notes from the Intersection of Art and Race Terror greets us urgently in our ongoing crisis, a needed and timely meditation on how we might use art, and the consideration of art, as a tool for navigating the “hypervisible destruction of black life” omnipresent in our contemporary visual landscape. Published by Yale University Press in association with the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, this volume collects English’s Richard D. Cohen Lectures given at Harvard and researched between 2015-2016, alongside the last days of Barack Obama’s presidency and the mobilization of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Written and published prior to the recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Sean Reed, and Tony McDade, English’s essays are as necessary now as in the aftermath of the killings of Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, and Michael Brown, among so many others.

In this volume, English uses individual artworks to explore police violence and racism as experiences witnessed in contemporary Black life. Using Zoe Leonard’s Tipping Point, Kerry James Marshall’s untitled portrait of a Black police officer, Pope.L’s Skin Set Drawings, and concluding with an object study of a bonded nickel replica of the Lorraine Motel, the site of Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968, English demonstrates how art, and extended encounters with individual artworks can help un-shake dichotomous thinking about race terror and American life. Rather than survey each artist’s work, English provides readers with a means to view and consider similar works and icons we will encounter moving forward. English does not offer easy solutions; he invites us to look, and to not look away.

English’s writing is a delight to savor, and his essays are carefully and meaningfully illustrated throughout. Preparatory illustrations accompany Kerry James Marshall’s finished painting. Multiple views fully describe Zoe Leonard’s installation piece, Tipping Point. Exhibition installation images, as well as individual reproductions illustrate Pope.L.’s Skin Set Drawings. A combination of archival photography from Dr. Martin Luther King’s life and detail shots of the replica of the Lorraine Motel elucidate his final example. The physical book is high quality and attractive, with lush illustrations, ample margins, and clear text. The backmatter includes exhaustive notes and a helpful index.

English’s book is essential reading for students and professionals working in art and art history and its allied fields. In this moment of ongoing crisis, English provides a way in which we may continue to witness while taking seriously our responsibility to reflect and change within and outside of our professional fields.