There are people in the world whose lives pose terrible questions. For the past two years, Guy McElroy was one of those people.
To meet Guy McElroy, who died Thursday night in Washington, was to be thrown up against something cruel and demanding and inexorable. In his office at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, he sat awkwardly in his wheelchair. A 1987 car accident had left him paralyzed from the neck down, and he refused to hide his pain or his anger. In a society that requests a certain perky resignation from the physically ill or injured, McElroy declined to oblige.
McElroy's exhibit "Facing History: The Black Image in American Art" opened at the Corcoran in January, and he was photographed and celebrated and interviewed for days. This young, promising black art historian had much to say about culture and society and the ways in which he believed American artists perpetuate racial stereotypes. But during several afternoons last winter, what I heard in his voice was less about the paintings he studied than about the new existence he was trying to master.
"People want to be told it's all right," he said. "And to a certain degree, in the past two years I've taken care of myself. Not in the ways I would have in the past, but it has happened. But I can't imagine ever getting over the desire to sit up and walk down the street, look in a shop window, walk outside and watch the sunset on my own.
"I wish I was in a position to say I've accepted this situation and am doing well with it, but I can't."
How could this have happened to me, he seemed to be wondering within every sentence. Like anyone who has been singled out for trouble, he was a challenge to the rest of us, a voyager who has visited an alien world and brought back a touch of its uncanny power to disconcert us.
There are ways to evade that challenge. "What a tragedy," you can say. "What terrible luck." Such phrases push it away, distance the listener from the pain. You wince, vow to be more careful in cars, to avoid danger, to live wisely, offering up promises to whatever minor god manages such things.
But such evasions were difficult with McElroy. His doctors reminded him repeatedly of the necessity of "accepting" his new limitations, and he knew he was no model patient. And because he would not in any way minimize what had happened to him, polite sympathy could not protect you from his truth. "Facing the abyss with him" is what his colleague Jane Livingston called it.
He seemed a man not shaped for looking into such a chasm. Tall, handsome, a connoisseur of painting and beautiful objects, he was vain enough to smile when asked his age. "What do you think?" he said, playfully, defensively. Mid-thirties? Close enough, he said.
He grew up in West Virginia, studied art history at the University of Cincinnati and the University of Maryland. He came to the Corcoran from the Bethune Museum-Archives to work on "Facing History," which is now on display at the Brooklyn Museum. In the catalogue essay he said he believed stereotypical images of blacks created by white artists "expressed an inability to comprehend a people whose appearance and behavior were judged to be different from their own, and thus inferior."
When he said it was a shock to find himself suddenly a member of not one but two minority groups -- black and handicapped -- his voice was both ironic and exhausted.
More than once McElroy wondered aloud whether the life he had found himself in was worth living. Listening to him, there was no answer to offer, nothing to say.
It is unfair to spend the days after McElroy's death speaking of his broken body rather than his supple life. Friends said yesterday they hope to hold a memorial service, and there they will talk about his work and his ideas. "He means so much to the ongoing reassessment of what American culture is all about," Corcoran education director Barbara Moore said yesterday.
Guy McElroy was not famous, and in many ways he was -- unfortunately -- not unique. What happened to him one day on a New Mexico highway had happened to thousands before him and will doubtless happen to thousands more. But what he said through his work and in conversation burned into the people who encountered him.
His friends say he had been complaining of feeling dizzy for several days. Thursday evening he became short of breath and then fell deep into a coma. He died soon after.
Doctors will, no doubt, figure out the cause of death, just as they could diagram the physical cause of his paralysis. But there are other things -- other questions -- they will not be able to answer.