Kerry James Marshall, Red (If They Come in the Morning), 2011, acrylic on canvas, 8' x 17' 10 1/8".

Kerry James Marshall, Red (If They Come in the Morning), 2011, acrylic on canvas, 8' x 17' 10 1/8".

Kerry James Marshall

Kerry James Marshall, Red (If They Come in the Morning), 2011, acrylic on canvas, 8' x 17' 10 1/8".

THE MONOCHROMEis by definition dedicated to one hue. And so it is the modernist format most allied with purity, negation, substance—everything that is not external to the picture, everything that is not decoration or history or politics. But with this exhibition at the Secession, Kerry James Marshall used the monochrome to examine the question of color in all senses of the word, from its role in the history of modernist painting to its historical and even iconographic relation to past and present African American visual culture.

Marshall structured his presentation, which included sixteen new works, around three large-format canvases placed in three alcoves within the central exhibition space. The titles of the three pieces—Red (If They Come in the Morning), 2011; Black, 2012; and Green, 2012—refer to the series of paintings named “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue,” 1966–70, from the late work of Barnett Newman. Indeed, the exhibition hall of the Secession, with its pure white walls and measured low lighting, would have ideally suited Newman’s work. While the latter marked one of the end points of modernist painting, the former, designed by Joseph Olbrich and built in 1898, evidenced the onset of modernism—specifically, modern exhibition architecture—so that with his intervention Marshall brought together the beginning and the end of the movement. But Marshall confronted this trajectory of modernist abstraction, which was largely characterized as a search for transcendental experience—from the white walls of Jugendstil to the unmitigated flatness of Color Field painting—with another historical narrative, one grounded in a set of specific social realities and cultural references. Adopting the exact format of one of Newman’s paintings (96 x 214 inches), he replaced that artist’s primary colors with the colors of the Pan-African flag (also known as the UNIA flag, as it was formally adopted by Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association in 1920) and transformed the title of Newman’s series into that of his exhibition, “Who’s Afraid of Red, Black and Green.”

Marshall’s paintings also follow the formal principle of Newman’s series, specifically the structure of a centrally positioned color field bounded on the right and left by narrow strips of color (Newman famously called these elements zips). Marshall subverts the pure abstraction of the modernist monochrome with elements of text (in Red), symbols (in Black), and objective motifs (in Green). Through the expansive red of the first painting shimmers the phrase IF THEY COME IN THE MORNING, a paraphrase of the conclusion to James Baldwin’s “An Open Letter to My Sister Angela Y. Davis” (1970), which he wrote to the communist champion of civil rights while she was imprisoned for allegedly having acted as accessory to murder: “For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.” Baldwin’s letter dates from the same year as the last painting by Newman in the “Who’s Afraid” series.

In Green, the titular color is represented by the leaves of a tree, while red and black birds complete the triad of the Pan-African flag. Here narrow, band-shaped slivers of two brick buildings in the background, flames shooting from one of the structures’ windows, replace the monochromatic zips. In view of Red’s reference to Baldwin, the burning building in Green brings to mind the author’s earlier text “The Fire Next Time,” from 1963, a warning that violent revenge might follow a failure to immediately establish racial equality in the US. Black seems subtly to indicate that the issue of racial equality in American society, addressed in Baldwin’s text, has not been satisfactorily resolved even today. In the center of the painting, we see the US flag, a bald eagle, and the flag of Chicago, Marshall’s city of residence. To the right of the second flag is a less legible motif, which looks like a large, sculptural X in the colors of the UNIA flag. While the flags of the US and Chicago are being blown toward the depth of the pictorial space, the X suggests a contrary direction of motion from the picture outward, a confrontational gesture opposed to the harmony one might expect from the juxtaposition of these three emblems.

But these rich references to African American history and culture are matched by equally thoughtful resonances with the history of modern painting. In fact, viewers seeking to understand these paintings would do well to keep in mind another sentence from Baldwin’s letter to Davis: “There is always, of course, more to any picture than can speedily be perceived.” Marshall’s fundamental gambit is to politically historicize modernist abstraction, which, at its most extreme, emphasized ahistoricity, “pure” painting, and “pure” ideation. Here (surely nodding to Ad Reinhardt’s as well as Glenn Ligon’s black-on-black monochromes), Marshall slows down vision: The typeface of Red is barely perceptible against the red ground—one must stare at it over time to glean it—and in that gradual experience of recognition, the artist flirts with everything beyond legibility. Indeed, in all three works Marshall allows much to flow back into Color Field painting that was excluded from modernist orthodoxies such as those promoted by Clement Greenberg. For example, the objects in Black are clearly arranged perspectivally—an overt play on the “flatness” in postwar painting, designated by Greenberg as “American-type painting.” But while these reintroductions were standard for the postmodern turn, Marshall calls to mind the 1960s juxtaposition of the world of painting and the world of politics, the ideology of ahistorical purity in mainstream modernist aesthetics (which understood itself as universal, but was in fact a parochial, white Euro-American concept) and the Black Power movement (which was imbricated within specific historical, cultural, social, and economic realities, seeking not to transcend but to change them). But his paintings also invite the viewer to move beyond thoughts of these worlds existing side by side and to inquire into their historical and intellectual connections. If Newman described his own aesthetic as an effort to enact the sublime, the origins of this notion can be traced not only to Kant, Burke, and Hume but to the hierarchical racial conceptions of European Enlightenment philosophy, which were developed against the background of slavery and played a significant role in the theory of aesthetic sensation.

Marshall not only explores the tropes of high modernism but also examines another face of the Enlightenment: those subjectivities that have heretofore not been represented but were integral to the formation of modern European and Euro-American identity, for example a group of portraits that refer to the Stono Rebellion of 1739 in South Carolina, one of the most important slave uprisings in North America. Here, Marshall depicts the rebelling slaves—of whom no pictures exist—by avoiding period-specific historical detail, instead using elements from Christian Passion and redemption iconography. The Stono Group works, all dating from 2012, are less history paintings in the classical sense than painted reflections on sources and documents, on the narrative and mythic components of historiography by historically and politically changing interests.

Marshall’s use of citations and references is downright extravagant in School of Beauty, School of Culture, 2012, one of the most complex (and entertaining) paintings in this exhibition. In a richly decorated beauty salon, black women are occupied with hairstyling and cosmetic treatments, posters advertise black beauty, and an announcement of a Chris Ofili exhibition at Tate Britain adorns the space. Yet the image is haunted by the ghostly ideal of white beauty in the form of an anamorphic projection of a young blond girl’s head modeled on the similarly distorted skull in Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors. In a mirror in the background, one can make out the light of a photographer’s flash—an allusion to Las Meninas by Velázquez. On the wall across from School of Beauty hangs Untitled (male nude), 2012, probably the most fascinating and cryptic painting in this exhibition. Here the rigid pose and nude body of a black man, lying on a bed with the Pan-African flag in his hands, obviously recall Manet’s Olympia, and the historical coincidence that this masterpiece of modern art was painted in the year of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation underscores the complexity of Marshall’s understanding of history painting, the sophistication with which he connects political issues with imagery from both art history and popular culture.

Marshall explored yet another set of historical connections through the Robert Johnson Frieze, 2012, a two-part, site-specific work installed under the glass ceiling of the exhibition space. Roughly fifty feet long, this mural interweaves motifs from Johnson’s blues songs (such as “Crossroads”) and visual riffs on the rhythmic structures of the blues with formal elements reminiscent of the Beethoven Frieze by Gustav Klimt, which was made for the Secessionists’ Beethoven exhibition in 1902 and is on view today in the Secession’s basement. Like Klimt’s frieze, Marshall’s is a painting about music and the imaginative worlds it evokes. It features golden discs that reference both Klimt’s decadent, ornamental Jugendstil aesthetic and the sound hole of the blues guitar. As with all of Marshall’s best works, these chains of reference are fluid and looping rather than one-directional. Marshall’s frieze leaves one unable to see Klimt’s in the same way: The latter’s iconography includes demonic beings that are given new expression when considered in relation to the mythology of the blues, particularly the legend of Johnson selling his soul to the devil in exchange for his singular ability.

Just as Klimt’s Symbolist contemporaries and Newman alike explored the material, synesthetic, and symbolic registers of color, Marshall returns again and again to the ways in which color can mean. Almost all the works produced for this exhibition are dominated by the color triad red, black, and green, including the two that are not “only” painting. In Black Owned and Buy Black, both 2012, the eponymous words are neon signs applied to the paintings. They glow, in the manner of shopwindow displays, in front of what are otherwise abstract paintings, and refer to strategies of economic autonomy in the African American community. In view of an art market that continues to be white-dominated, these works also appear to be born of a critical self-irony. Ultimately, the “neon paintings” seem rather schematic and could not keep pace with the best paintings in the show, which are distinguished by a dense interweaving of political, cultural, or historical references and painterly qualities. But these paintings did play a significant role in the context of a presentation that built on the historical model of the exhibition as Gesamtkunstwerk, as practiced by the Vienna Secessionists, among others. Marshall’s nods to the art market remind us that it is necessarily a constitutive frame for any artistic social and political critique, inviting speculation about the legacy of the “total work” in a contemporary capitalist culture with seemingly unlimited powers of assimilation. In this context, the attention to difference inherent in Marshall’s critical reading of modernism—both early and late—from the perspective of African American aesthetics and politics becomes all the more urgent.

Christian Kravagna is an art historian, a curator. and a professor of postcolonial studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna.