The King’s two Bodies with Darby English

2020 KEYNOTE Lecture by Darby English
January 13, 2020, 19:00
Oude Lutherse Kerk
(Singel 411, 1012 WN Amsterdam)

Adapting a chapter on the less discussed legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. within the built environment from his book To Describe a Life: Notes at the Intersection of Art and Race Terror
(2019), English proposes an expanded role for art and aesthetic experience in our tense times.

Darby English is a professor at the University of Chicago, an Adjunct Curator for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the author of milestone studies on art and culture, including
How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness (2007), 1971: A Year in the Life of Color (2018) and most recently To Describe a Life. He has also co-edited three timely volumes: Among Others: Blackness at MoMA (2019) with Charlotte Barat, Art History and Emergency with David Breslin (2016) and Kara Walker: Narratives of a Negress (2007) with Ian Berry, Vivian Patterson, and
Mark Reinhardt. A renowned teacher and advisor, in 2010, he was the recipient of the University of Chicago’s Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, the nation’s oldest such prize. Refusing reductions and encouraging rare insight, English makes art history into a new tool for urgent public debate.

To Describe a Life

Darby English

From the way this object haunted me, I learned that I’d been thinking about King for a long time: wishing he were still around, wondering how he might’ve evolved his radicality, or adapted his oratory to the sound bitten thrift of contemporary public discourse, or confronted the expansion of the black middle-class, or addressed the ongoing traumas of so-called development in urban centers, or failed differently.

Darby English, “The King’s two Bodies”  in To Describe a Life (2019)

In the final chapter of his new book To Describe a Life: Notes at the Intersection of Art and Race Terror (2019), the maverick art historian Darby English sets out “to describe rather than contain” a very curious object: Lorraine Motel, April 4 1968. This is a model of the site of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, produced by the design firm Boym Partners in 1998 as part of the Buildings of Disaster series. English considers the model from several angles: the past and present race terror, the struggle for civil rights, the illusive idea of racial integration, the “ unprecedented levels of nonerotic social intimacy” in the 1960 and the formation of (sometimes though not always shared) desires. In his hands, the object is never one thing – it holds multitudes. And by extension we come to understand Martin Luther King Jr. and his time with greater complexity. English tells of how, when he presented an early version of the chapter at Harvard University in 2016 with the model in hand, ‘everyone ignored the object’. For the inauguration of a new chapter of its operations, De Appel in partnership with Universiteit van Amsterdam makes room for Darby English to deliver his lecture with a fully considered staging of Lorraine Motel, April 4 1968. English’s deft narration of this all too relevant cultural history sets the tone for De Appel’s future programming, foregrounding event- and exhibition-making as a way of making history otherwise.

The model will remain on display after the lecture…until the end of February. In this setting, English will return to hold three open seminars with the Curatorial Programme participants and learning partners, based on his two previous books about ground-breaking (yet underexposed) art and exhibition making: 1971: A Year in Color (2016) and How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness (2007). He will also venture into unpublished territory, or as he writes: “This invitation will serve as a much-needed prompt to start giving shape to some new ideas that I have been playing with since last summer. They are to do with water, life, and differences.” English’s fluid way of thinking and his gift in combining seemingly disparate concerns promises to bring together differently-invested people, who would not normally gather in the same space.

PROGRAMME / SEMINARS with Curatorial Programme participants and learning partners from NICA

WHEN : January 14, 15, 16, 2020, 11.00-16.00 hrs

For Graduate Seminar credit (2 EC):
Please register at :

WHERE: De Appel Aula at Broedplaats Lely,
Schipluidenlaan 12,
Amsterdam Nieuw-West

Open for credit to students of Universiteit van Amsterdam and Vrije Universiteit, and members of NICA.
Participants without academic affiliation welcome.

Darby English leads a special 3-day seminar that guides participants through the development of an art history, a way of reading and lending context to the social life of art, that offers tools for serious engagement with contemporary urgencies. Three questions which connect the days arise:  How to perceive key works of art and artists’ practice, including their role as exhibition makers, in greater depth and dimension? (Greater especially than “instituted meanings of subjectivity and crisis representation”.)  How to make such art truly public? And how then, together, constituting a public, “to sit hard with and listen to what fights meaning and how?”   On each of the 3 days, English takes as a point of departure a different body of research: two published books and one book in the making:

14 January       1971: A Year in the Life of Color (2018)
with special attention to the “De Luxe Show” an exhibition integrating experiments in abstraction curated by painter, Peter Bradley in a former movie theater in Houston’s 5th Ward on the invitation of patrons Dominique and John de Menil.

15 January       To Describe a Life: Notes on the Intersection of Art and Race Terror (2019)
With special attention to “Differing, Drawn”, a chapter on the “Skin Set” drawings of Pope.l, forthcoming artist at De Appel in 2022.

16 January       ‘Purifroy/Robert’ a rare chance to hear about Darby English’s unpublished research
(There will also be an opportunity to discuss English’s recent research into MoMA’s collecting policy summarized in his editorial project Among Others: Blackness at MoMA (2019))

Please submit requests for participation with the heading “Darby English Seminar” to or to affiliated faculties.

For Graduate Seminar credit via NICA / OSK
Please register at:

WHY THIS HERE NOW?  English has forged a form of historically aware, expanded and fluid thinking that offers particular anchoring stories, which diverse audience can identify with, and interpretive tools for navigating social and aesthetic questions around racial tensions, but also desires for integration.

RECORDING :  Following the keynote lecture, an audio-visual record of the events will be produced for De Appel’s Archive and for enduring dissemination, most widely via Podcast as this medium is increasingly attracting audiences interested in longer-form, essay-style content.

PARTNERS: Universiteit van Amsterdam, Amsterdam School for Heritage, Memory and Material Culture (Prof.Dr. Christa-Maria Lerm Hayes)

TBC, additional: Rietveld General Studio on Color (tbc: Vrije Universiteit, Black Archives, Research Center for Material Cutlure, Iris Kensmil (artist whose presentation at 2019 Venice Biennale featured English’s book How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness)

OUTREACH: will be broad, including students, teachers, plumbers, politicians – everyone is welcomed through a poster campaign that announces To Describe a Life as a Show & Tell Experiment that inaugurates De Appel’s full-year use of the Aula at Broedplats Lely