A year ago, I saw the traveling show of Kerry James Marshall's work "Mastry" at the Metropolitan Museum Breuer (in the old Whitney Museum building designed by Marcel Breuer). It made quite an impression on me. I went to the show twice and took my camera the second time. All of the photos in this post are mine unless noted otherwise. My pictures are freely available, especially to educators and other artists.
Marshall is an extraordinary character born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1955, he grew up in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. When he was 10 years old, he witnessed the Watts Uprising of 1965 and came of age at the time of the Black Panthers and other African American radical groups in the late 1960s early 1970s. These experiences had an indelible effect on him, shaping his vision and his ambitions as an artist.
His painting "Untitled (The Studio)" from 2014 is about his initiation into art. An early experience inspired this painting.
When Marshall was an early teenager, he visited the studio of Charles White, an African American artist whose work he very much admired, at the prestigious Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. White was a hero to the young Marshall who inspired him to take up art and to paint about the experiences of African Americans and what they mean.
In this painting, we play the role of the young James Kerry Marshall when we look at it. Everything is set up and ready for us to take up the brush and begin work.
A table full of artist's tools waits for us to use. First and foremost are jars full of brushes looking very heavily used. Next to them are jars of colors, presumably the acrylic paints Marshall prefers to use. The brushes and the jars sit on top of a heavily used palette. There are other objects on the table that are less obviously tools, but which are part of the artist's trade. An anatomical skull with the cranium opened to show the brain and an eyeball in one socket sits on top of a book; the unity of mind, learning and vision perhaps. Next to the skull is a small bust of Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator so bitterly criticized and later so warmly admired by Frederick Douglass. Behind is a plate with a small cake and a butter knife; nourishment?. A small figure of a black woman, possibly as statuette wearing what looks like traditional West African clothing perhaps stands for an inspiring muse. The goldfinch and the flower on the right side of the table may indicate nature as inspirer and instructor. At the very least they are representatives of the sheer pleasure of looking and seeing.
A nude male figure in the background, maybe a model, looks toward us expectantly.
An assistant looks at us as she adjusts the head of a model as though waiting for our approval of the setup. Another model behind the backcloth appears to be dressing or undressing.
Behind the red back cloth and dressing/undressing model is a beautiful glimpse of landscape viewed out of a studio window.
A yellow dog sits under the table. I'm guessing this is a reference to WC Handy's "Yellow Dog Blues" most famously performed by Bessie Smith.
I wonder if the patches of what look like colored paper or cloth on the table above might be a reference to the famous quilters of Gee's Bend, Alabama.
This painting is a feast for the eyes, a masterful play between flat colors and figurative forms worthy of Gauguin. The prominent red color and everything arranged to invite us to paint reminds me of Matisse's The Red Studio. Like Matisse's painting, Marshall's picture is about the sheer pleasure of looking and painting. Big fields of brilliant unmixed color play off each other so beautifully. That same point-counterpoint of colors plays out in the many small details. Flat forms play off against more sculptural forms as well; the delightful play between imitation of the way we see the world and reminders that we are looking at a painted fiction that reconstructs that experience.
But this painting is about much more. This painting is also about the task Marshall takes up as an African American artist. Like every artist in the Western world, Marshall engages with the legacy of Western art and remakes it to serve his purposes; in this case to articulate African American experience as authentically as he can. The people in this painting, and in just about all of his work, are all really black. Marshall paints them all using unmixed black straight out of the tube. He does this quite deliberately. The "otherness," the inescapable "difference" of African Americans in obvious appearance and in more subtle ways shaped by the experience of difference are major preoccupations in Marshall's work. Also, I wonder if this might be based in Jacob Lawrence's work, how Lawrence deliberately minimized individual features to emphasize collective experience as a people. Marshall's figures are more complicated. Indeed, he seems to be trying to paint the experience of a people, but Marshall is interested in individuals and how historical experience affected and shaped them. If you look carefully at this painting, you notice that red, green, and black dominate this painting, the colors of the Pan-African flag. Marshall uses the colors of this flag a lot in his work, usually with great subtlety as in this painting.
Another thing about Marshall's work is his use of acrylic paint. I must confess that I hate working with acrylic paint. It dries so fast, and that fast drying time makes it so hard to mix and to create much in the way of gradations. It's a medium that I haven't yet figured out how to serve the chiaroscuro, the drama of light and dark that is at the heart of my own work. Marshall takes everything that I hate about acrylic paint and turns it into a positive virtue. Gradations of tone or color would look fussy in his work. That play between big flat fields of bright color and figurative form is a major pleasure of his work, and he's built an entire acrylic painting technique around it. None of the paintings in this show were on stretched canvas. They were all on bolts and pieces of canvas or on panels made of all kinds of materials from PVC to wood.
This is a painting that I really love, "School of Beauty, School of Culture," a large acrylic painting from 2012.
At first glance, this painting is a straightforward view into an African American women's salon and beauty school. Women style and are styled. On the left, one woman's permanent is complete. She looks in the mirror with great satisfaction. Her stylist looks with her carefully to see that the hair is done well and out of her own sense of accomplishment. Another woman in the foreground struts before us showing off her extravagant new hairstyle. Indeed, just about everyone in this painting seems move with a kind of strut. As Marshall himself once observed in an interview:
Black people occupy a space, even mundane spaces, in the most fascinating ways. Style is such an integral part of what black people do that just walking is not a simple thing. You've got to walk with style. You've got to talk with a certain rhythm; you've got to do things with some flair. And so in the paintings I try to enact that same tendency toward the theatrical that seems to be so integral a part of the black cultural body. (quote from here)We can see the title of the painting "School of Beauty, School of Culture" in the mirrors in reverse all across the painting. The title is inscribed on a banner with the colors of the Pan African flag.
The stylist herself is as extravagant and poised as her client who carefully checks her new hair in the very baroque heart shaped mirror. We see the stylist in the mirror, but her client remains faceless.
If we look a little more closely at the painting. so many of what at first glance are posters advertising beauty products are in fact musical references. Above the center mirror in the painting is the album cover of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill that came out in 1998. I'm guessing that the photo hanging next to the Lauryn Hill album in the painting is Bessie Smith (?) the great ("the greatest") blues singer.
Behind the strutting woman and reflected in the middle mirror of the painting beneath the Lauryn Hill album is what looks to me like a very clever and self-effacing self portrait of Marshall. He is the most distant and most obscure figure in the painting. In what may be a riff on Velazquez's self portrait in Las Meninas, Marshall stands at the very back, not painting, but using a flash camera like a fashion photographer.
On the right side of the painting, a group of men and women gather around in what appears to be a class session. An unseen client reclines in a barber chair as people watch some kind of demonstration taking place for their instruction. On the wall on the right is an homage to the British/Nigerian artist Chris Ofili, a copy of his painting Blossom.
It's very hard to see, but the clock reflected in the mirror says "Nation Time" in reverse, a reference to the great saxophonist Joe McPhee and one of his most famous instrumental numbers.
Probably my favorite detail in the whole painting, a riff on the famous anamorphic skull in Holbein's The French Ambassadors. Instead of a skull, Marshall shows the conventional white blond image of "beauty" as distorted and alien in this context as Holbein's skull. I must admit that I usually resist art world in-jokes, but the mildly curious small children looking at the distorted blond won me over.
Four painting of two young men named Jemmy Cato and JC Kato, acrylic on PVC panels from 2012.
These are beautifully individualized and magnificently colored; again very subtle variations on the colors of the Pan African flag.
"Memento 5," 2003 is a splendid monochrome elegy to disappointed hopes. It's a memorial to the decade of the Civil Rights Movement at the hight of its campaigns of civil disobedience. A woman, an angel, stands in a living room looking out at us while drawing closed what looks like a beaded curtain made out of silver glitter. It is as though she draws a stage curtain to its close, or maybe these are bars of a jail cell. The years of this decade of high hopes are counted out between the silver bars.
Angelic portraits of those murdered leaders from that time appear in the clouds; John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X.
"Black Painting, " 2003," a painting about the murders of activists Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in 1969 at the hands of the Chicago Police Department. This painting is a black on black monochrome painted with all the subtlety of one of Ad Reinhardt's black on black paintings. The variations of tone are merest whispers in the dark and very hard to photograph.
It's hard to read even in this more professional photograph. Marshall shows the bedroom in the middle of the night from the vantage point of the police who broke into the bedroom and shot the two men in their sleep. The painting is both deeply frightening and grief-stricken.
The "threatening" aspect of Black Otherness forms a major theme in Marshall's art. These are both paintings about the idea of the "scary" Black man, especially young Black men. Above is a relatively early work of Marshall's showing a young black man in dark surroundings as a menacing ghostly figure.
This painting is about a much more specific "scary" Black man. This is a portrait of the actor Hezekiah Washington in the role of Julian Carlton, an employee at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin studio in Wisconsin who in 1914 set fire to the buildings and murdered 7 residents of the studio with a hatchet while Wright was away in Chicago. Carlton tried to kill himself by drinking hydrochloric acid but survived. His damaged esophagus made it impossible for him to take nourishment, so he died of starvation in a jail cell.
Marshall shows Washington as the angry, paranoid, and murderous Carlton with frightening restraint against a background of Wright's design for stained glass.
Here's a better photo of Marshall's painting.