On the heels of Monuments for a New America, his conceptual two-page comic spread in the Washington Post, the Chicago-based artist Kerry James Marshall has created two large murals for the Haas Atrium at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Depicting Mount Vernon and Monticello––among many other hidden aspects––these works, which debut on February 26, continue Marshall’s investigation of history.
THE CHALLENGE AT SF MoMA is to put something in the space that will not be overwhelmed by the architecture itself. Originally, I proposed to transform the atrium into a Garden of Eden with a stream running down the steps and out the front door. But then there would have been too much on the floor and therefore too many issues for the museum regarding flow and access. Once you move from the floor you have to start looking at the walls, and I decided to make two murals using the logic and devices particular to coloring books, such as connect the dots and mazes. The murals take history as an activity; viewers will be able to discover, reveal, and expose the hidden elements embedded in the murals.
Although it’s a temporary project that looks at two presidents––George Washington and Thomas Jefferson––conversations about the works began last January, well before the election. I’ve always been interested in history and in particular the nexus between American history and African-American history. I’m interested in the mythology that surrounds the figures we recognize as being historically important. My ongoing comic-book work RHYTHM MASTR, which was featured at the Wexner Center for the Arts last year, also has many references to history, both well known and not so well known, and these new murals are outgrowths of that interest.
One idea is to look at the distortion around these two figures, particularly their estates, which are presented as great historical sites. The support system that allowed these residences to operate is not often clear. There’s an aspect of the history that is ignored in favor of the idea of both of these men as being primary movers in the struggle for freedom and independence: They felt put upon enough by the British to go to war for freedom, yet they still held slaves. These are men who accumulated a decent amount of wealth and wanted to be able to preserve their wealth even though it was largely built on the backs of slave labor––their estates simply couldn’t have been sustained otherwise.
It is a problem to recognize the greatness of Washington and Jefferson without also acknowledging that as they fought for freedom they were denying it, not only to African Americans but also––in the process of consolidating the country––to Native Americans through genocide. Liberty didn’t extend beyond the white men who organized to fight for themselves. The Declaration of Independence expresses wonderful words and great ideas; but if you write it, and yet still hold, buy, and sell other human beings who don’t have access to what you write about, then it’s a problem.
The murals have nothing to do with whether or not these presidents should be held responsible for their investments in slavery at the time. I don’t think inheriting the institution of slavery traumatized them, as some people believe. In these works, I’m not giving them the benefit of the doubt. John Adams, the second president, was not a slave owner. If he didn’t do it and still ascended to the presidency, then the question remains, Why did they need to?