PRINT January 2017


Kerry James Marshall, Untitled, 2009, acrylic on PVC panel, 61 1/8 × 72 7/8".

IT IS AS PLAIN as the nose on one’s face—and, for many, equally impossible to see—that the history of Euro-American painting has been created by and for white people. Kerry James Marshall has recounted his childhood realization of this distorted condition while wandering in museums, and as an adult he made it his stated artistic mission to create representations of the black figure that would be ratified in the halls of our institutions. With the large survey exhibition “Mastry”—which traveled this fall from Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art to the Met Breuer in New York, where it is currently on view—he has clearly succeeded.

As a young artist, Marshall (more or less) eschewed abstraction in favor of an honest, highly personal representation of his surroundings and experience, and he has developed with increasing confidence, ambition, and subtlety into one of the most consequential painters among us. His work is noteworthy not only for the complexity and originality with which it braids together topical, art-historical, and personal concerns but also—perhaps more so—for the bright but surprisingly gentle light it sheds on the horribly mutilated condition of our collective psyche when it comes to matters of “race.”

Beginning in the late 1970s and throughout much of the ’80s, the dramatic ambition of many emerging painters in both Europe and the US captivated much of Western art discourse, and Marshall was clearly paying attention. In 1980, he made a tiny (8 x 6 1/2") painting in egg tempera on paper, A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self, a “self-portrait” depicting a ghoulishly smiling black man with a missing tooth, wearing a wide-brimmed hat. His teeth, eyes, and shirt stand out in white against the heavily worked black surfaces. Henceforth, all of the people who populate Marshall’s work would be black (literally). This little jewel claimed a territory in which abstract formal values, intensity of facture, and personal symbolism collide, while different notions of blackness, as subject, condition, and material reality, are conflated. Over the course of the next decade, Marshall, with increasing confidence, deployed similar images embedded in a field of personally and culturally symbolic icons that gradually matured into a more narrative form of inquiry.

Exemplary of this more ambitious and historically knowing approach, When Frustration Threatens Desire, 1990, depicts a magician, sharply dressed and nearly life-size, levitating a woman who hovers at his waist in a lacy dress as transparent as mist. The figures inhabit a shallow space before a diaphanous curtain that is covered with magical symbols and numerological diagrams, plus a newspaper advertisement for the psychic Sister Debra. The floor is littered with cards and dice, and a black cat and a snake attend the wizard. The scene feels at once dated and timeless. The painting can be considered simultaneously as a nostalgic memory of earlier forms of entertainment, a sympathetic evocation of folksy spiritual belief, and a knowing allegory about the “magical” abilities of artists. The magician could almost be reanimating a female corpse. The approach to representation is dramatically more sophisticated than in the artist’s previous work, the “illusion” in the painting seeming to arise from the material of the surface rather than from rendering in the usual sense. This is an altogether weird and beautiful work.

Underscoring his attention to the structural underpinnings of advanced painting aesthetics, Marshall around 1992 began presenting his large paintings on unstretched canvas, mounted on the wall with grommets. This treatment and an increase in size pushes the paintings’ scale to that of theatrical backdrops or billboards. Measuring roughly eight and a half by ten feet, De Style, 1993, was the largest work Marshall had made up to that point. It has the ambition and atmosphere of an important history painting, while depicting a mundane scene in a neighborhood barbershop. The barber (who has an aura surrounding his head and seems to be blessing the man whose hair he is cutting) and four customers (three stare dead-eyed out of the painting; the other’s head is cropped by the canvas’s left edge) occupy a space loaded with topical detail and made much more complex by the mirror that traverses the back wall. The hairdos of the three visible clients are marvels of culture-specific morphology, while the barber’s hand gesture echoes many representations of “the Savior” in earlier European painting. The painting’s title is an obvious play on words, condensing the aesthetics of early modernism and contemporary urban fashion; indeed, the artist’s feeling for the abstraction in day-to-day subject matter fills the painting with formal echoes and reverberations, increasing the sense of historical portent embedded in the mnemonics of individual, localized experience.

Marshall’s “Garden Project” series, five enormous canvases produced in 1994 and 1995, is one of the great painting cycles of our period. The subject of these works is a quintet of public-housing projects in Chicago and Los Angeles (each bearing the word Gardens in its name), and it provides a complex armature for the artist to develop an astonishing array of pictorial and painterly strategies while exploring the nature of work and pleasure, social and historical connectedness, and the inertial collapse of progressive social schemes. (Two of the largest projects—Chicago’s Rockwell and Stateway Gardens—were demolished about a decade after Marshall painted them.) The canvases look exactly like contemporary painting while not really looking like anything else, in part due to the artist’s ruthless yet good-natured pillaging of atmospherics from sources such as Rococo fantasias, gritty process-based abstraction, and carnival posters. The paintings somewhat resemble WPA murals that have been vandalized by smart art students and angry sign painters.

Notwithstanding the depressing nature of their overt themes, these paintings evince an atmosphere of sweetness and optimism: Gardens are tended, flowers bloom, and young love flourishes across the works’ scruffy surfaces. Before seeing the group installed together, as it is in “Mastry,” one might have thought it impossible for contemporary painting to simultaneously occupy a position of beauty, difficulty, didacticism, and formalism with such power. There really are no other American painters who have taken on such a project; in this, Marshall is closer to German artists like Anselm Kiefer and Jörg Immendorff, who in different ways have attempted to collapse the gap separating advanced painting ideas from cultural history.

In the late ’90s, Marshall’s paintings became both less complicated and more complex, as the artist pursued ever larger, monumental paintings depicting fairly undistorted domestic interiors, landscapes, and street scenes with interventions and interruptions of both an iconographic and a “purely painterly” nature. The enormous Souvenir I, 1997, depicts a woman in her tidy, generically appealing living room, staring out at the world as she arranges flowers on a coffee table, but her arms have sprouted golden wings, and the room, its walls and its atmosphere, is filled with memorial images of martyrs of the civil rights movement, encircled (as is the painting itself) in gold trim. The effect is a collision of homemade needlepoint and church decoration.

Kerry James Marshall, When Frustration Threatens Desire, 1990, acrylic and collage on canvas, 80 × 72".

Over the years, Marshall has worked primarily in acrylic paint, and starting around 2003 he developed a new physical support for his paintings: sheets of Plexiglas or PVC, mounted and framed with clean white-plastic molding. Superficially, the new support looks like stretched canvas, but it involves such material specificity that on consideration it becomes an update of the tradition of panel painting in Northern Europe—an association consistent with Marshall’s historical obsessions. A series of portraits begun in 2007, several of artists, would seem to bear this out. Three paintings from 2009 and 2010—two called Untitled (Painter) and one Untitled—depict artists in their studios before large, unfinished paint-by-numbers self-portraits. Two of these artists are female, adorned with elaborate hairstyles and colorful (in both senses of the word) Afro-Caribbean studio garb, and they look out at us with self-assurance. Formally, these paintings are less adventurous than much of Marshall’s other work, but the declarative conundrum of the subject matter forces a disturbance in the subjectivity of the beholder: The entire notion of a paint-by-numbers self-portrait is paradoxical, if not absurd. What the artist is positing here is unclear, but one thinks of parallel tracks of history not (yet) realized where our “great artists” are black women and their contribution is a precise and literal mapping of the self in pictorial terms. There is also a level of futility to it all, and Marshall may be poking serious fun at the entire concept of “the master”; despite all the regal attitude, one is left with an artwork that “anyone could make,” yet this also bespeaks a certain hope for the democratization of contemporary art practices, which are too often draped in obscurity.

Meditation on artists and their surroundings resulted in one of Marshall’s most ambitious recent paintings (which is saying something), Untitled (Studio), 2014. Here a woman artist, this time wearing a very practical dress, adjusts the pose of the woman she is painting, whose unfinished portrait is visible on an easel at the left edge of the visual field. In the background, a nude (male) model stares out at us while another man, partially visible behind the red backdrop the artist has set up for the portrait, changes clothes. The room is filled with the accoutrements of a painting studio; the atmosphere and the makeup of the group seem to indicate that the vignette is taking place in an art school or some other environment where studio space is shared. The scene is played fairly straight from a representational point of view, although there is a primary-yellow dog under the table (a yellow Lab?) whose flank, like the jar of yellow paint on the tabletop above him, is enclosed in a thick black outline. As in other of Marshall’s paintings, passages of clear representation can collapse or disperse into unfettered nonreferential mark-making.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of this work is its narrative blankness; there really isn’t much going on. The painting demonstrates a truth about artistic practice without serving up allegorical or metaphorical red meat, and in this it provides a more enveloping viewing experience. This is characteristic of the artist’s general approach: Extremely dense fields of subjects, many fraught with significant cultural baggage, are allowed simply to present themselves, opening windows onto the experiential richness of personal and social realities that may not even be vaguely familiar to many seeing his work.

In the end, the most profound philosophical tool Marshall has employed in his work is his literalization of blackness: His painted protagonists and surrogates are no shade or hue of brown—they are black. We throw this term around in daily conversation as a shorthand description of entire cultures and clans. In an apparently different world of discourse, the color black itself has a resonant history within “modern art,” and Marshall’s work conflates these precincts into one pictorial experience. It is unusual to see contemporary paintings of such historical sweep, even more unusual to see them claiming a place for the representation of “black” experience on a level playing field with the ubiquitous presence of “white” experience (assumed for generations to be the default mode of the “ordinary”), and formally both surprising and refreshing to see paintings so thoroughly colonized by black forms. To see Marshall as standing in dialogue with Rodchenko or Reinhardt (though his black-on-black figurative paintings must on some level nod to their seminal monochromatic black abstractions) as well as with Eldzier Cortor and Robert Colescott (where certain similarities are obvious) is perhaps a stretch, but there is something in all this to think about. Two of the most recent works in the exhibition—Untitled (Blot), 2014, and Untitled (Blot), 2015—are “representations” of ink blots, as in the proverbial Rorschach tests, and function ambiguously as both abstraction and not. Marshall will need to pursue this line of inquiry further to make his intentions clear, but the works certainly speak to an interest in the history of modernist abstraction as well as in the psychological dynamic of projected meaning through associative relationships. I am unaware of any attempts yet by art historians to add a layer of racial interpretation to Robert Ryman’s insistent “whiteness,” but perhaps there is work to be done here as our collective understanding of recent and near-future developments deepens and diversifies. The protocols under which Marshall’s work explores “blackness” and Ryman’s explores “whiteness” have been seen in our culture to be utterly separate, but the clean border between these discourses may no longer be sustainable. Marshall’s entire project is a wake-up call both for painting and for the culture at large, reminding us of painting’s potential for cultural centrality while it facilitates the radical reshuffling of the conventions of ourconceptual order.

“Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” organized by Helen Molesworth, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Dieter Roelstraete, formerly senior curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; and Ian Alteveer, associate curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is currently on view (through Jan. 29) at the Met Breuer, New York; travels to LA MoCA, Mar. 12–July 2.

Carroll Dunham is an artist based in New York.

Read Jordan Kantor on the work of Kerry James Marshall (January 2011).