Kerry James Marshall’s Mastry
at Met Breuer, NYC
Reviewed by Prajna Desai
When a much-awaited survey of a leading light finally takes shape, and on hallowed ground, it should be forgiven its hagiographic excesses on grounds of perfect execution. The Met Breuer’s staging of Mastry, the first-ever retrospective of MacArthur Foundation Genius Awardee Kerry James Marshall, now 61 and a resident of Chicago, was exactly that, adoring, excessive, and majestic.
Seventy-odd works charting thirty-six years of Marshall’s ongoing career delivered a dazzling soliloquy about why the mastery (or mastry, also a play on his comic book-inspired work Rythm Mastr) of figuration and painting have fueled his endeavor to reclaim a high standing for black presence which has been historically excised from reigning accounts of art. Marshall has achieved this in part by focusing exclusively on black experience since 1980, to the unqualified omission of white figures, including all other categorized figures of color. The idea being, black may or may not be a color, but blackness is most definitely a historical condition which ought not to be flattened or confined by the notion of minorities sticking together.
These ideas were seeded early on during Marshall’s student days at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles in the late 1970s. While noticing the near absence of black figures in classical art works, what struck him was the use of blackness as a pictorial condition. It operated as a foil, as ground letting white figures come into focus and gain legibility — Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and Velasquez reveled in it.
In his recent writings, Marshall repeatedly draws attention to how the “subtext of superiority” – morality – of seemingly natural formal decisions in classical art practice – aesthetics – drives black viewers away from art museums. People, he argues, are naturally disinclined to look at art that denies their historical existence. The desire to lock horns with these elisions ultimately galvanized him, not towards abstraction — the track of choice among his black peers and first famously promoted in a 1967 pamphlet, Black is a Color, by artist and pedagogue Raymond Saunders — but to figuration.
Homing in on this philosophical keystone of Marshall’s work, the show opens with a pioneering portrait in what became a tranche of black-on-black paintings provoked by Marshall’s reading of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), a tragic-comic novel about a black man rendered invisible by his color. In the 8 x 6.5 inch A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self (1980), a black man in blackface wearing a black suit vies with the scumbled blackness of the background. White limns only the eyes, his cheeky diastemic grin, and shirt collar. Visible amidst the shadows, preserving his secrets, he manages our gaze with pharos -like eyes. Who is he? Dare one say, darkie, dandified coon, minstrel, negro? What manifests — a caustic and supremely racialized selfhood, racist and stereotyped by design — is self-authored to the core. Produced in egg tempera, a medium aligned with the early history of painting and portraiture, this tiny image celebrates these origins but with a defiant black salute thrust over and above their racist hierarchies. Subsequent works reprised Marshall’s pursuit of being and not being, and morality and aesthetics. But only Invisible Man (1986) expanded the black-on-black trope into a full-blown thesis about black visibility versus black sightedness. A naked black figure bends to fit within the frame, nearly indiscernible against the black ground. Aside from his teeth, what keeps him from vanishing completely are his white sclera, the implied instrument of his perspicacity.
Quick on its heels, a gap period of thought-experiments followed. Marshall’s choice of media flourished: collage and mixed media on wood, luan board, leather, and chalkboard. Figures remained enclosed in abstract space. Insets, stenciled flowers, vines, and collaged portraits began to appear on more resolved backgrounds. Some images contained more than one figure. Ciphers and opaque symbols stood in for allusions to Byzantine icons, 16th and 17th century Flemish and Netherlandish vanitas painting, Jasper Johns, the miraculous veil of Veronica, Nat Turner. Variety and curiosity apart, none of these works dazzle or disturb. They in fact feel like half-formed hypotheses about race and beauty, slave history, and the forced migration of African symbolism through the slave trade that must be gotten out of the way for the painter to move on.
By the early 1990s, however, the paintings begin to breathe, deeply, as if suddenly encountering fresh air. Space, contemporary life, and emotion make a particularly sinewy entry in two studies of romance and sensual interaction between young lovers. For the first time, figures become characters inhabiting a space of profound realism. Their naturalized actions and poses are meltingly inviting.
In Slow Dance (1992-93), the locked embrace of a standing couple in the center of the room tells how slow their dance truly is, how intense the moment. Could This Be Love (1992) depicts a couple on their way to getting it on, clearly at her place, appointed with thoughtful, if kitschy, touches. The man grins at us, thrilled to bits that someone is sharing this moment with him. But the woman taking off her clothes meets our eyes warily. Her secret floats up top as a snippet of Mary Wells’ 1962 R&B hit Two Lovers, “I’ve got two-oo lovers and I love them both”. In all this, the appearance of the things of life is tremendous and reassuring: bed, bedroom, decor, lamps, rugs, a gorgeous blue sofa.
Both works were directly inspired by Charles Burnett’s iconic response to White Hollywood and Blaxploitation in The Killer of Sheep (1978), the glittering mosaic of a black man’s life in Watts, Los Angeles, who struggles to find normalcy and pleasure despite obstacles. Now regarded as precursors to Marshall’s development of the Black Romantic, these two paintings codified the importance of exploring the full spectrum of black experience as a central dynamic in his trajectory. They contain irrepressible flashes of future staples: high-impact color, the paradox of joltingly meaty bodies and semi-secret emotion; humor and tenderness; and the visualized soundtrack of wafting music in the form of floating musical notation. None of this, however, prepares us for the sumptuosity of what follows close on their heels.
De Style (1993) is a watershed moment, and for good reason. For one, it is physically big and expansive in narrative. The quantum leap of this work’s massive 10 x 10 foot frame was imperative for the prosaic to operate like a group portrait along the lines of Renaissance artist Hans Holbein, who painted images of Henry VIII and Thomas More. Marshall was making a claim. If royalty and dignitaries could be captured in the grand manner, so could employees and patrons of a barbershop. To hell with class. Everything, from the cheeky faux-bois vinyl floor and the haloed barber to the cut-off portrait of Mohammed Ali and the exaggerated but seemingly normal hairdos, coalesces into the arsenal of devices and visual strategies that we now identify with Marshall’s mature work, work that claims history as its palette: Precise brushwork that lets image, color, and form speak, not the artist’s expressionist tendency. Economical but precise allusions. Penetrating study of character through gesture or inaction. And there’s the stunning color key. Black for figures – varied blacks – and single, different colors for everything else. The black figure’s blackness transformed into a gold standard, of sorts, compels the other colors to either resist by gaining in intensity, or submit by resigning to a wan impression of their former selves. Acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art soon after its completion, this work marked Marshall’s first presence within a museum holding. A decisive new era was underway.
Just days after ‘Mastry’ closed, notably timed with Obama’s upcoming farewell address in Chicago, The Washington Post carried a piece about a housing project called Altgeld Gardens and its ills: failed child care initiatives, violence, and toxic pollution. Built in 1945 by the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) as a ‘housing warehouse’ for black industry workers after WWII, Altgeld Gardens is CHA’s largest, most isolated and poorly serviced housing development — notoriety that once attracted Obama, who in 1980 first cut his teeth on social service as a community organizer at Altgeld Gardens, where thirty years later local elders interviewed by The Post assert that his double tenure as America’s first black president, the man they knew as Barack, has done nothing to ease their troubles.
It was the mid-1990s. Marshall set out to chronicle the contemporary irony of such ‘garden’ developments that sprang up after the passage of the 1937 Housing Act, under the aegis of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and a renewed optimism in America which did not envision their gritty future. To Marshall, these places were much more than impersonal, defeated utopias. They were familiar from the locale of his youth near Watts in Los Angeles, and others still closer to his studio located on Chicago’s South Side. More than anything, they fed his relationship with the visualization of black experience.
The resulting Garden Project paintings (1994-97), executed on unstretched canvases and mounted on the wall by means of eyelets at the corners, capture the mammoth scale of European tapestries. Their reworking of compositional strategies from genre and history painting depict what we are meant to understand is unlikely subject matter: the often lamentable aspects of life in the projects, where the outdoors holds a justifiably special appeal.
Romance, picnics, cavorting and hand-holding thrive under blue skies. Strapping figures decked in snow-white shirts, dresses and frocks are set off by smeary stenciled flowers, autumnal green, topiarized trees, crisp blue ponds, and puffy white clouds. These scenes do not invite us to look on the bright side, as it were, but instead engage it as an equal-opportunity partner to confront and upend the assumptions about the gardens’ aspirations and defeats.
The Garden Project paintings, establishing Marshall as a major American artist, were first exhibited at Documenta X and Whitney Biennale in 1997. Notable for taking on social questions with thoughtful rejoinders, they refract enough of the “dissatisfaction” lamentably assumed, if not entirely expected as stock output from any black artist’s output then and often even today . What they don’t do is rest on the limited laurels of content. Rather, their surface dynamics captivate for quite some time before one’s content-hungry viewing gene kicks in and remembers to seek out the work’s “identity politics,” which the Met Breuer amplified in a monumental display of the Garden Project’s five core paintings, bracketed by pivotal works of similar dimensions from that same period — Our Town (1995), Campfire Girls (1995), and Past Times (1997).
Within the core group, Untitled [Altgeld Gardens] (1994) reimagines the melancholic gist of Andrew Wyeth’s iconic painting, Christina’s World (1948), in the relaxed figure of a young man half-prone on the grass, staring into our space, away from the projects. The sun shines. A boom box plays the 1963 R&B chartbuster “Our day will come, and we’ll have everything” sung by Ruby and the Romantics — reinstating the optimism typically written out of images of African-American urban privation. Drippy blobs, distressed swatches, and soft floaty filaments co-opt the spontaneity of Postwar painterly techniques traditionally associated with the white world of Abstract Expressionism and Pop.
But garden delight comes with a caveat: a pie chart on the lower left illustrates the vast number of resident beneficiaries of the Aid to Families for Dependent Children (AFDC). On the far right, a gaggle of beautifully messy flowers, part splotch, part petal goulash, frame a half-faded sign: “Welcome to Altgeld Gardens.” A place name is all it might be. But one senses allegory hard at work. Pastoral fantasy is powerless against the hardships of place, as is abstraction in the face of socio-politics. If you’re looking for catharsis, move on, this picture seem to say.
After the “Gardens,” being in room after room of Marshall’s works becomes fevering, cleansing, stinging, intoxicating. There are striking poses and the odd creepy figure: Bride of Frankenstein and Frankenstein (both 2009); there are exonerating tweaks of history and pseudo-revenge fantasies: The Actor Hezekiah Washington as Julian Carlton Taliesen Murderer of Frank Lloyd Wright Family (2009) and Portrait of Nat Turner with the Head of the Master (2011); there are merged anachronistic tributes to the Black Liberation movement, slave rebellion, Angela Davis, Malcolm X, and Harriet Tubman: Souvenir I (1997), the Stono Group: “Jemmy Cato,” J.C. Kato,” “Jemmy,” and “Kato” (all four 2012), and Still-Life with Wedding Portrait (2015).
There are also stunning images of self-embodiments by fictional painters, mostly women, that challenge mainstream stereotypes of gender imbalance among African-Americans: Untitled (2008) Untitled (Portrait) (2009), Untitled (2009). In these images, the painters are posed frontally, clasping ridiculously oversized palettes on which the pompous history of Abstract Expressionism (its dribble-drip matrix) appears as paint smears with which the artists paint themselves into existence on paint-by-numbers sets. The development of this system in the 1950s, which theoretically enables anyone to paint, was coincident with the first sparks of the civil rights movement that stirred discussions about citizenship, equality of black people, and the privileges of democratic rights, all of which the represented painters are shown using to good advantage by writing themselves, as well as black talent and genius, into the canon. Each of these images is therefore a double portrait that ratifies itself. The artists paint themselves as evidence of their approval of their own place in the history of painting.
Stepping back, one registers yet another historical resonance. In each, the figure looks upon us with an inimitable gaze reminiscent of A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self (1980), whose protagonist engages our eyes sardonically, as if he has always been there, from the beginning, yet we notice him only now, for the first time. Suddenly, one senses one is behind the times, having arrived belatedly to the conjured world of black universality which Marshall’s oeuvre consummately projects as age-old canonical truth, newly revealed. And in recognizing this, one does not feel critiqued but in fact critical of the phenomena and histories that have made Marshall’s work a historical necessity.
At the end of the essay, “Young Artist To Be,” from the compilation of his own writings, Letters to a Young Artist (2006), Marshall writes: “If you are black, you are really coming from behind.” It is an assertion about how to evolve, which sometimes means stepping back and redoing what was done without the likes of the imagined young artist to be, to which this letter is addressed, this closing the distance between the classical past and contemporary present. It is wisdom: Don’t be afraid of not being new if it means inventing what should have been. Bottom line, it’s okay to operate belatedly. Marshall’s entire career is proof of the value of this assurance. What to paint, how to paint, and what it meant to begin painting as a late 20th century artist — when video art was becoming an evolved medium and conceptualism was de rigeur — was to mark oneself with a scarlet letter: A for Antiquarian. But perhaps only an antiquarian who gained command of the very medium that had coded art historical lustre for centuries could also re-craft it to the advantage of black experience. If ‘Mastry’ affects philosophical understanding, it is precisely this.
Prajna Desai is a writer and curator. Her writing about art, fringe practices, photography and politics has appeared in Frieze, Artforum, Aperture, Art in America, Caravan, GQ India, Art India, and on Guernica, tcj.com, and openDemocracy. She is the author of The Indecisive Chicken: Stories and recipes from eight Dharavi cooks (2015), a book about food, aesthetics, and women’s labor among migrant communities in Mumbai. This year she serves as a curator for Mumbai Focus Photography Festival 2017.
See Kerry James Marshall speak to the Mastry exhibition in this video: Mastry