Critics’ Picks

Kerry James Marshall, Great America, 1994, acrylic and collage on canvas, 103 x 114”.

Kerry James Marshall, Great America, 1994, acrylic and collage on canvas, 103 x 114”.

Washington, DC

Kerry James Marshall

National Gallery of Art
Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue, NW
June 28–December 8, 2013

While Washington, DC, celebrates two important civil rights milestones in 2013—the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation—it is also honoring African Americans in its largest art museum. For the first time in the institution’s seventy-two-year history, the National Gallery of Art is presenting a solo show of a living African American artist. And while it is surprising that this has not happened sooner, it is especially so in Kerry James Marshall’s case, as his work is such a perfect fit. (Note that the National Gallery is presently closed as a result of the government shutdown spurred by House Republicans who refuse to accept the re-election of Barack Obama and his legislative healthcare expansion.) At the heart of the show is Great America, 1994, a painting the museum acquired in 2011. It depicts the Middle Passage of slaves as a sort of canal ride through a tunnel, perhaps a dark Epcot Center attraction; grim letters spell out WOW against a bloodred word balloon hanging over the tunnel’s opening.

Needless to say, Marshall’s are political paintings, but they are also paintings about politics. Rings of gold stars set against vivid blue water in Great America appear to reference the flag of the European Union, an institution that came into its own in November 1993; the symbol for the Red Cross that looms above the stars evokes emergency yet also ambivalence and neutrality. In Plunge, 1992, the cross also appears, but this time on a beach umbrella, while the same brightly hued gulf reappears as a swimming pool. Throughout the show, Marshall takes the viewer from chattel slavery to this unconvincingly postracial America we inhabit.

Insofar as every painting is an indictment of America’s history, it is also a celebration of its art: The show calls out to great American painters. The ghosts depicted in the tunnel in Great America remind viewers of the Ku Klux Klan, and also of Philip Guston’s famously hooded figures. Marshall’s America is Jasper Johns’s America and Faith Ringgold’s America. Marshall’s America is a challenge to Norman Rockwell’s America told through Rockwell’s compositions. I believe he is saying that American art rises to meet America’s challenge.