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Robert Lynch Remembered

An archival exhibition in writing
A self-portrait of Robert Lynch in a mirror.

I was first introduced to the papers of Robert Lynch, a Black gay man from North Carolina who died of AIDS in 1989, by Brenda Marston, the curator of Cornell’s Human Sexuality Collection. She showed me, as evidence of her commitment to collecting pornography, a set of slides of photos of nude men, taken by Lynch, that are part of his papers. At least as fascinating to me was the orange cushion cover in which Lynch enclosed the slides when he personally handed them over to Marston, who had traveled to North Carolina to meet with him. The slipcover has become part of the collection, the kind of ephemeral artifact that belongs to the “archive of feelings,” my term for the way in which efforts to document intimacy lead to objects that often escape the conventional archive altogether. In this case, the orange cushion cover stands as a memorial to the careful and deliberate transfer of intimate and private materials to the public archive. Lynch died within days of Marston’s visit. She had no idea how sick he was and feels that he perhaps held on until she got there so as to be sure his legacy would be delivered.

After learning about the slides, I spent more time with the Lynch materials, drawn in by his careful efforts to archive his own life. Born in 1947, Lynch trained as a lawyer at Harvard and subsequently practiced law in New York—even were he not gay, his papers hold interest for the story of how a Black man negotiated the migration from South to North and into institutions of power during an era of desegregation. But perhaps in connection with his sexual proclivities, Lynch was more interested in becoming a writer or artist than in practicing law, and in the 1970s, he returned home to Enfield in rural North Carolina, where he wrote poetry and essays while amassing a collection of local art. There is something very touching about the care he put into archiving his life, and the hope and promise of the move back to his family home in North Carolina to write, punctuated by trips to New York in order to see art and cruise for sex. He revised his essays and poems endlessly—particularly a sonnet sequence whose different drafts and variations, holograph and typescript, appear across multiple files, as he continued to fuss over them in the absence of a publisher.

But the archive itself has now become Lynch’s form of publication, a way of ensuring his body of work reaches a broader public. He very deliberately sought to be in the archives: after being turned down by Harvard (whose only potential interest was in his Harvard-related materials), Lynch contacted Marston at Cornell’s Human Sexuality Collection, the founding of which in 1988 marked the beginning of a new level of institutional interest in specifically LGBTQ archives, catalyzed by queer and HIV/AIDS activisms of the 1980s. To read and handle his papers is to be in the presence of someone who wanted an audience, who performed himself through the act of self-archiving; the responsibility to serve as witness is all the more pronounced because of his death from AIDS-related complications. Indeed, the Cornell collections include the papers of other gay men with HIV/AIDS who died, and they exemplify the power of archives to serve as a memorial.

An orange cushion cover is placed next to a box of slides.

In the exhibition that follows, a combination of writing and images only hint at the breadth of Lynch’s collections and how he used the archival process to be sure that he would be remembered. The poems and essay excerpts are important, especially because of how many gay men with HIV/AIDS died before they could express their full creative potential, but they are only one part of what Lynch left behind. He also left traces of his sexual encounters: photographs that some may see as pornographic but which serve as a valuable historical record of gay male cruising cultures and their fugitive pleasures. Lynch was also a collector of African American folk art, although he preferred to call the quilts, statues, and paintings in his home “Outside art” or just “art”—or what he described in the draft of one essay as “art of the uncommon common-man.” His photographic documentation of this art through his work as a “field collector” is a valuable record of African American culture, rooted in a specific region of North Carolina with deep ties to slavery and its aftermath, as well as to Indigenous cultures.

While many people flee their rural homes to live as openly gay, and there is a long tradition of Black people leaving the South for the North, Lynch had an abiding love for his heritage and for the land in particular—and he developed an archival practice to bring that local culture into view. Though none of his writing was published in his lifetime, one way to honor his legacy—as a gay man, as a Black man, as a sexual being, as someone connected to the land, and especially as a collector—is to publish some of it here.

A journal entry with a piece of gold leaf paper taped to the opposite page.

1. Journals

Central to Lynch’s papers are his journals, which he began keeping in 1971 while at Harvard but kept more regularly during the years after his return to North Carolina. Like many writers, Lynch used his journals as a form of daily practice, a testing ground for words and ideas that show up in his more formal writing. The journals are themselves a form of archive, documenting not only the creative ideas but the ordinary rhythms of his daily life, especially during his period of chosen retreat and solitude in his North Carolina homeland. They offer beautiful testimony to the full range of his interests and passions, his moods and feelings, his surroundings. The daily handwritten entries appear for the most part on the right-hand pages, leaving the left side of the page free for notes, lists, drawings, and insertions of various kinds, including plants, hair, ticket stubs. Folded within the pages are the traces of his activities as a writer, a friend and lover, and an avid collector. Over time, because of their continuity and seriality, the journals also become a record of his slow death. While Lynch might have wanted to be known for his writing—and he is—the historic value of his collection also lies in its documentation of Black gay life cut short by the HIV/AIDS epidemic at a time when there was no effective medical treatment. As he grows more ill, the entries grow sporadic and spare, and the handwriting starts to sprawl.

Journal transcript, July 9, 1988: Just about regular night sweats, no mind for anything, sleeping a lot—seems like all I do is take pills & go back & forward to Duke [Medical Center].

Odds and ends, such bus tickets, scribbled notes, a New Yorker cartoon, and ticket stubs.

2. Enclosures

What I have found even more compelling than the texts in Lynch’s collection are its material and ephemeral qualities. His journals include scraps of paper of many kinds: receipts, business cards, notes, clippings, the occasional photograph or child’s drawing. As part of the cataloguing process, these materials have been removed from the journal pages and carefully inserted in envelopes of varying sizes labeled “enclosures” that are placed in archival boxes along with the journals. Each one is a little bit of a surprise packet—as I open them, I wonder what will come tumbling out. I took photos of some of the clusters that ended up spread out on the table; there’s one that includes a bus ticket, a postcard, a recipe for escalopes de veau à la crème on an index card, a bibliography, a New Yorker cartoon (in which a woman says to her male partner, “Don’t worry, darling. You’ll happen.”), and a scrap of yellow paper with a drawing of a flower and the words “I feel chill at the bone” scrawled above and “Spring comedo the freezing red buds betray you?” On the reverse: “My love, where art thou? Do you see I am forlorn and overflow with the lust to love. Where is my Alcibiades, my shulamite?” Indeed, Lynch’s journals are a testament to loss, longing, and lust as he struggles with the isolation of his creative endeavors and chronicles his sexual encounters and fantasies.

A typed page of an essay.
A typed poem.

3. Manuscripts

While the ephemera in Lynch’s archive offer a fascinating record of the creative practices embedded in his daily life, I would be remiss in not giving attention to his efforts to become a published writer. The first two of the thirty-six boxes in the collection contain multiple versions of essays and poems that were revised over and over again. These are old-school manuscripts, dating from a time before the widespread use of word processors: typescripts on onion-skin paper with editorial markings scrawled in the margins, followed by clean, revised versions ready for submission, including full poetry collections. Lynch penned essays on a wide range of subjects, drawing on his strong connection to his homeland to explore “Outside art” and his heritage as the descendent of slaves and sharecroppers, in the process providing a valuable record of North Carolina’s racialized history and culture. There are records of inquiries to publishers and lists of contacts—but no evidence of any published work. While the manuscripts may not have reached the outlets that Lynch hoped for, they remain within his papers as a valuable archive not only of the individual writer but of the writer as cultural ethnographer.

Transcript: what are the roots that clutch. in the south, it is said, they are god, the land, and woman, meaning the family. and for whites racial purity. But for me strange as it may seems, sometimes even to me, just a little colored black boy, a sharecropper’s son born, raised and worked in the fields, the land has brought me under its spell. i cannot mean anything (the land is ours.) proprietary or ancestral, though more times than is/ though for more times than credit is allowed we did and have for generations owned it; but i mean an ownership spiritual and elemental. we made the land—slaved, sweated and cried on it; and the land made us—our earthy souls and soulful songs. it was our despair and solace, our toil and strength.

Transcript from “my new sonnets”:

VI “A loved sonnet”
A horse never forgotten sparrow flies
(Centered) amidst dervishness more perverse
Than woman man made. What reverse
Expatiated guild of once hungry eyes

On possibilities you must converse.
Every doorman is part of the framework
Custom built. Pandoras overwork
Clasping lid on unribboned universe.

Six slides of Robert Lynch.

4. Sex

Lynch also left an important record of gay male sexual cultures—in the slides from his sexual encounters with men, almost all of them Black. The photo shoots are themselves a form of sexual intimacy, predicated on a level of ease between Lynch and his partners. Series of slides move from wider angles that show the entire person, to close ups of torsos or erect cocks. As I spread them out on a light table in the Cornell reading room, the erotic intrudes into the archival research process, and I’m open to that pull because of my interest in the affective power of intimate archives. But am I a voyeur because of the racialized dynamics of viewing Black bodies, specifically Black male bodies and Black queer bodies? Histories of surveillance and spectacle are at stake here, whether the scene is one of violence, desire, or both. At the same time, I want to support the commitment to sexual freedom and openness that is so integral to queer archiving. For purposes of publication here, Lynch’s slides present an ethical dilemma about what it means to circulate them for public consumption without the explicit permission of his male partners, who may still be alive and may not have imagined the photographs would one day reach an audience. It is one thing to view them within the relative privacy of the reading room, and another thing to exhibit them—to move from the act of saving the materials in archival boxes to acts of circulation in print and online. So as to avoid reproducing a Black man’s intimate life without his permission while nonetheless honoring Lynch’s commitment to seeing that his slides reached a public archive, as well as the historical value of these records of forms of semi-public sex, I include here images that appear to be of Lynch himself. The lighting and my photograph of the slide sheet keep his face and body somewhat out of sight, obscured. In one, he curls into a fetal position.

Leaves preserved in the pages of a notebook.

5. Botanical Specimens

As attractive to Lynch as sex were the plants, or as the finding aid puts it, the “botanical specimens,” which are dispersed across the files in the enclosures and journals. One envelope contains a giant pressed leaf, which I try to remove as carefully as I can so as not to break off any of the fragile pieces. Another one contains seed packets for flowers—presumably a record of what Lynch planted. Scattered throughout his journals are leaves and stems, often taped or pasted to the pages and left intact by the archivists at Cornell rather than placed in separate enclosure envelopes, an act of respect for the original provenance. These plants are an ephemeral and yet still remarkably tangible trace of Lynch’s daily activities, especially his intimate relationship with nature and the landscapes of North Carolina, which he sought to explore as a site of personal and collective histories. Like the poems and journals, these botanical artifacts are a document of his creative life, a product of his interaction with the environment, a lasting trace of his being in the world. And because they are literally forms of life, they are perhaps better archives of embodied daily activities and performative practice than writing and paper documents. He found a way to make sure he would not be forgotten, and the determination of that effort makes itself felt in my encounter with what he left behind as “enclosures.”

Journal transcript, August 17, 1987: Yesterday Sunday kept sorting and letter writing till before dusk, walked to pond, then had to go out. Took some year-old trash, stopped at [?] Boone to present Selected Poems & quickly excuse not meeting w/Institute; then off for ETHERIDGE FARM ROAD. → where Anthony drove & I picked yonder fantastic Spring wildflower.

A woman hanging a quilt from a clothesline.
Men hanging a quilt from a clothesline.

6. Quilts

Lynch’s impulse to collect ranges across many categories. In addition to the enclosures in his journals and the slides of naked men, there are boxes of photographs of paintings, ceramics, wood carvings, furniture, and quilts, many of which include portraits of the artists/makers, and sometimes other family members, posing with their work. To place the different collections alongside one another—sex and art, objects and people, men and women—is a form of curatorial experiment or practice for both Lynch and for me. Together the porn collection and the art collection position Lynch as both Black and queer, documenting Southern ways of living in which queer intimacy is one of many forms of creative expression.

In an essay titled “Outside Art from a Critical and the Collector’s Perspectives,” which includes the excerpt below, Lynch characterizes himself as a field worker who cultivates a relationships with artists, providing them with materials and other resources (including buying their work) as well offering the encouragement of being seen (including being photographed) that gives their work visibility and standing.

As someone who is of the place and people, he circumvents the problems of exoticization that pervade folk collecting. I don’t know if his queerness was visible to those he supported—perhaps it was a case of tacit acknowledgement—but there is a touch of the queer when he writes of his excitement in the field and his identification with those “who feel compelled to create, many times under the most unexpected and difficult circumstances.” As with the slides of naked men, I am reluctant to share these without explicit permission of the subjects, even as I think they might want to be revealed, in the same way that Lynch’s sexual partners were happy to pose for his camera even if they weren’t thinking about how that intimacy might find its way to a wider audience through archival deposit and publication. His intimate and sustained relations with those who made the quilts, some of whom were family members, made these photos possible. The flutter of shirts alongside the quilt on the clothesline, the woman slightly turned way from her quilt—these people are part of the world that gives rise to the vibrant colors, fabrics, and patterns of the quilts themselves.

Excerpt from “Outside Art from a Critical and the Collector’s Perspective”: To ask what is Outside art is just about asking what art is—as the Supreme Court Justice said about pornography: “I know it when I see it.” My basic definition of Outside art is: Art made by those who are self taught. Since Outsiders are self taught their art is outside the historical and current art mainstream. Consequently Outside art is very idiosyncratic in style, and many times uses nontraditional materials and subjects. The oeuvre of a self-taught Outsider is a school of art unto its self.

Photographs of Robert Lynch near a pool alongside a bus ticket and a small piece of paper with the address of an editor.

7. Self-Portraits

As I make my way through Lynch’s materials, I learn to recognize photos of him even when they are not labelled. It’s not until close to the end of my slow survey of the boxes that I find a sheaf of family photographs that show him in his youth, some ID cards in which he looks awkward when captured by the camera, as well as some self-portraits in a mirror. In what looks like it might be part of the same photo shoot, he is clothed in one photograph, and naked in another, posing as casually and openly as some of the men he photographed. (The camera around his neck provides reasonable evidence that he is the one who took their pictures). The family photos make it possible to piece together a version of his extended family. Although in exploring queer lives, I don’t necessarily assume that biological family are the only kinship structure that matters, in Lynch’s case his connection to his family heritage and the landscape suggests that he wanted to be seen as part of this larger network. Not clear from the materials is how open he was about his sexual identity with his family and community, but he most certainly lived a queer life embedded within that larger context. Across the materials, a self-portrait of Lynch emerges—in writing, in photos, in the things he collected, in the detritus of his hair and medications—but there is a certain aura in seeing him in a photograph rather than through his words or his objects. Slightly out of focus in the mirror, with the camera obscuring his face, and a still life of bucket, bowl, plant, and Kodak film dominating the foreground, he is both subject and object, and his self-portrait is an assemblage like the ones I make from his collections.

Some of my favorite images of Lynch come from one of the enclosure envelopes that contains three photographs—two of him naked in a lounge chair, maybe by a pool or on a patio, looking at the camera languidly in one, and away with closed eyes in another, one leg raised with bended knee, perhaps so as to display his flaccid penis just a little more but done so casually that it might not be an intentional pose; in the third he stands naked on a wooden dock against a backdrop of water and trees. Is this the record of a casual sexual encounter? There’s no real way to know, and I like the mystery of these remnants that emerge to make contact with me in the archive now as I lay them out alongside a Trailways bus ticket and the address for an editor at The New Republic. I admire the unabashed way in which Lynch displays himself for the camera—and chose to include these materials in his archive. Although he wanted to be known for his writing, he might also be known through these portraits, a bit of twentieth-century gay life caught in perpetuity, a being whose life is remembered through the archive.


All photographs depict materials from the Robert Lynch papers, #7320. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.