PRINT December 2020

Kerry James Marshall

Kerry James Marshall, Black and part Black Birds in America: (Crow, Goldfinch), 2020, acrylic on PVC panel, 27 7/8 × 24 3/4". From the Series “Black and part Black Birds in America” 2020–.

WHERE TO START with “Black and part Black Birds in America,” the new series of paintings by Kerry James Marshall—modest, easel size—I stumbled on this July when, starved for art, I turned to the web. Does one begin with their manifest pictorial qualities—garish and gorgeous and cartoon-wonky? Or with the sly weave of sociocultural associations these faintly foreboding images improbably access? The twain—this holds, I suppose, for all incisive artmaking—will not be sundered.

Inspired by John James Audubon’s landmark 1827–1838 folio The Birds of America, Marshall’s in-progress series of paintings hinges on the eminent birder’s art and life—or, more properly, on Marshall’s relationship to both. Audubon was born Jean Rabin in what is today Haiti to a white plantation-owning father and, depending on who you ask, either an also-white mother or a chambermaid who may or may not have been “part Black.” Like many, Marshall was surprised to discover Audubon’s art in David C. Driskell’s 1976 Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibition “Two Centuries of Black American Art” when he visited the show as an art school student in Southern California, and while he owns that the artist-ornithologist’s racial makeup remains something of a mystery, he has also stated that “I never forgot that assertion was made.” For an artist whose project has been to paint the Black subject into the almost-all-white canon, the idea that this esteemed precursor was possibly mixed race was as enabling as the particulars around the ornithologist’s identity were impetus for pause. Audubon saw fit to reinvent himself upon immigrating to the US, changing his name and thereby obscuring his foreign birth, and possibly opting to pass as white. The matter of Audubon’s racial identity informs the series’ title, an inspiration that makes absurd the excruciating ways Black identity has been parsed in our racist society by transposing said horror show into the no-stakes sphere of ornithology.

People are not birds, and black as a color from a paint tube does not have much to do with race, but Marshall’s title slyly extends both metaphors, lampooning the historical lunacy of equating a range of skin tones—from café to blue-black—with a hierarchy of behavioral characteristics fantasized to support the master-slave pecking order. The title spoofs the “one-drop rule,” whereby a person with so much as a single known African ancestor cannot be considered white or, by extension, benefit from, in Marshall’s words, the “privileges and rights that Americans are supposed to enjoy.”

Kerry James Marshall, Black and part Black Birds in America: (Grackle, Cardinal & Rose-breasted Grosbeak), 2020, acrylic on PVC panel, 35 1/2 × 31 1/2". From the Series “Black and part Black Birds in America” 2020–.

In the two paintings that debuted this summer on the David Zwirner Gallery’s online-only platform Studio, each dominated by a baleful crow rendered in the luxuriant chromatic blacks that have become the artist’s signature, the one-drop rule, transposed to feather color, is made to show its essentialist folly. If a cardinal has a black spot on its head—so goes the illogic—then it’s a black bird! The first of the paintings, Black and part Black Birds in America: (Crow, Goldfinch), features a Dr. Seussian snarl of dead tree, fantastic flora, and a pair of Disney-whimsical birdhouses silhouetted against a subtly turgid aquamarine sky. Here, the hovering “all-black” protagonist (who is not really all black, as Marshall mixes his blacks with other colors) is flanked by a relatively innocuous finch perched on a lower branch. In the second, this one subtitled (Grackle, Cardinal & Rose-breasted Grosbeak), the three supporting birds, partially black in various degrees, are menaced once again by a passing crow, a symbol (the artist has said as much) of our culture’s volatile anti-Black legacy. If, like me, you consider Audubon’s art to count as more than adept illustration, you will appreciate that the ominous undercurrent of Marshall’s own avian arrangements echoes the bird-eat-bird side of Audubon’s not-always-so-peaceable nature vignettes. Indeed, the single Audubon composition selected as an online comparative features a chaos of partridges terrorized by a swooping hawk.

Difficult to fathom that the coincidence of Marshall’s painterly gambit and the confrontation between Christian Cooper, a Black man birding in Central Park, and Amy Cooper (no relation), a white woman he respectfully asked to leash her dog, could be happenstantial, but when the artist started his series early this year, the lightning-rod exchange had yet to rattle our raw-nerved polis. The tantrum of entitled spite triggered by the birder’s benign request (she threatened to call the police and tell them that “an African American man is threatening my life”) was chilling in its knee-jerk recourse to the not-so-subterranean current of prejudice rendered newly—intolerably—stark in this crisis-crossed period. There were direr symptoms of course, but this one would dynamite the fissured fiction of New York liberal civility and in so doing hit a close-to-home nerve.

“Nothing we do,” the artist has remarked, “is disconnected from the social, political, economic, and cultural histories that trail behind us,” and so, point taken, it is perhaps less than surprising that this apparently playful avian taxonomy (and that scary new pseudoscience of feather color that undergirds it) should figure the traumas that roiled worlds this summer.

Jack Bankowsky is a critic, a curator, and Artforum’s Editor at Large.