Two things hit the viewer pretty soon into the Met Breuer’s exhibition of Kerry James Marshall’s beautiful work: figure after figure in his canvases is black, really black, so much so that that blackness becomes his signature. But Marshall’s black people are not Kara Walker’s haunting silhouettes, questioning presences stepping through the scrim of history. The blackness he gives his subjects is luminous, vibrant, and dense.
Secondly, the viewer notes references to other painters, to the history of painting itself. The traditions of Western art are Marshall’s to draw on at will, like everything else in his clearly formidable visual memory. Not for him the struggle of many twentieth-century black American artists who believed that they had to reconcile what they considered contradictory African and European aesthetics. That cultural conflict has passed over; and if anything Marshall’s work is an expression of this artistic freedom.
Kerry James Marshall was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1955. His family moved to the Watts section of Los Angeles in 1963. In a 2012 interview with Dieter Roelstraete, included in the monograph Kerry James Marshall: Painting and Other Stuff (2014), Marshall said he was struck by the difference in the light as well as the smog. A teacher gave him drawing lessons; he also paid attention to a drawing program on television. He began to collect images that intrigued him. His obsession with the heroic figures in Marvel Comics coincided with his first visit to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where he saw in person, so to speak, some of what he had only known through books. He seems entirely self-motivated in his quest for understanding how art is made. In Marshall’s telling, finding art books was his secret life away from being a happy guy hanging out with his older brother.
While in high school, Marshall copied various artists’ work from books as a way of studying how they arrived at their individual styles, including the drawings of the black artist Charles White, who was on the faculty of the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. Marshall graduated from Otis in 1978, but had started there by seeking out White, sneaking into his life drawing class. White as a youth had inserted himself into an Art Institute of Chicago class that met outdoors. Marshall remembers that White looked at his sketchbook and then moved him to the front of his class where he could see better.
Marshall has said that he recognized that he wanted to make art that was about something: “History, culture, politics, social issues.” But he knew he did not yet have the skills. He moved into abstraction in his work, though he stresses that he had been determined in his education to master representation before he abandoned it. After a period of experimentation, Marshall decided that rather than be one of several abstract artists, such as Norman Lewis, a black Abstract Expressionist maybe not recognized enough in his lifetime, he could make more of a difference doing something else—i.e., the figurative.
Because the overwhelming number of bodies on display in Western art and American advertising were white, he said, it was important for him to produce images of black bodies in order to counter the impression that beauty was synonymous with whiteness. When growing up, he hadn’t seen much by black artists. Their work was in black institutions, not museums, for the most part, and he couldn’t travel to see the murals of Charles White or Hale Woodruff, for instance. However, he knew the collages of Romare Bearden. Marshall found what he needed and went on looking. He could convert everything to his purposes.
Among the earliest works in the Met Breuer show are portraits that belong to what has been called Marshall’s “Invisible Man series.” “That blackness [of blackness] is most black,” the narrator declares in Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, published in 1952, and a book that according to Marshall led to a breakthrough for him in the matter of how to render the black body when he read it around 1980. The novel’s theme of the black man as a being unseen because white people choose not to see him inspired Marshall’s black-on-black painting of 1986, Invisible Man. The excellent catalog of the current exhibition, Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, edited by Helen Molesworth, notes that it’s hard to perceive the solitary nude figure in the painting because the man and ground are painted in the same black. But stand there long enough and the faint white outline of a partially bent figure turned toward us rises from the black field. A rectangular block of black covers the man’s junk, but the head of his dick is visible nevertheless, perhaps an illustration of another of the novel’s themes: white fear of black male sexuality.
Ellison was the kind of writer who told people how to read him and Marshall does something of the same: he speaks and writes with provocative clarity about his work and art in general. And yet in the Invisible Man series each painting holds a mystery, which is contained in what we see first: white teeth and the white surrounding the black pupils of the eyes. A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self (1980), Portrait of the Artist & a Vacuum (1981), in which the previous portrait is depicted as hanging on the back wall of a room, Two Invisible Men (The Lost Portraits) (1985), and Silence Is Golden (1986)—medium-sized and small works—all feature white teeth and the whites of the eyes, with a slight change of expression here or loss of a front tooth there. To what degree is Marshall playing with racist imagery? Is it deliberately evoked in the canvas, or is it in our heads, just waiting for the memory trigger of bug-eyed black comedians in American film and television? The viewer meets versions of the whites of their eyes throughout the exhibition, like the blackness of blackness. But the mystery might be how Marshall manages to give to what appears to be a trope of teeth and eyes the personality of realistic portraiture. It is as though he could turn the black mask into a human face while it was being worn.
His paintings are socially aware. Five huge works of acrylic and collage on unstretched canvas belong to The Garden Project, a series painted in 1994 and 1995 and showing public housing in Los Angeles and Chicago, where Marshall lives. Signs tell us where we are: “Welcome to Rockwell Gardens” in faded red and blue letters in C.H.I.A.; “Welcome to Wentworth Gardens” in the same colors in Better Homes, Better Gardens; “Welcome to Atgeld Gardens” we can still see in Untitled (Altgeld Gardens). But the name of the residence is obliterated in Many Mansions. These are complex compositions, built up in layers, full of allusion, symbol, decoration, color.
In each painting, the housing project, whether towers or garden apartment strips, is at the top, in the distance, or underneath it all. Four of the paintings have shiny ebony figures in the foreground: a young couple strolling; three men in crisp white shirts and black ties prepare a garden for what looks like an Easter egg hunt; and a man in a white shirt but no tie has a takeout picnic by himself with his boom box. Banners have not entirely legible mottoes, bluebirds fly around the signs, flowers dance, and heavenly skies preside.
The sign “Housing Authority City of Los Angeles Nickerson Gardens” in Watts 1963 is the boldest. The paintings don’t contain the images we expect when we think of black public housing. They bustle with tranquility and safety. They reach back to Marshall’s arrival in Los Angeles, when urban developments were relatively new and black people were allowed into some of them. However, the suggestion that all might not be well in the future is in the eyes, subdued, morose, from figure to figure, even the hand-holding teenagers.
In other huge acrylic paintings on unstretched canvas from around this time, Marshall depicts blacks at leisure: children in a backyard on the Fourth of July; a woman waving off two children as they hurry to play; two girls camping out in their backyard at night; a family in the park with croquet mallet, golf club, and a woman on water skis in the distance. But the campfire girls also bring to mind refugees huddled around a fire in a camp. Near them, under the phrase “Here I am,” words such as “covenants” and “Warranty” wrap around a tree, recalling the restrictive covenants that excluded blacks from buying homes in white neighborhoods.
Marshall portrays black people engaged in activities we tend not to connect with the contemporary image of the black, putting black people in places where we don’t expect to find them. But this isn’t ironic Norman Rockwell, far from it. Marshall’s realism is highly stylized, or realism can be one of several elements at his disposal in a single work. His canvases tend to have a lot going on in them all at once. And in his paintings of black infiltration into the suburbs and green spaces there is an insistent kinship among the figures, in the blackness of their skin, once again, but also in the guarded, suspicious, or deadpan expressions in the eyes as they look at or beyond the viewer. The hard gaze keeps the work from being nostalgic.
But even in Marshall’s recreational scenes where the eyes are not visible or the figures are far away, the sense of trespass is strong, because black people do not belong in a sailboat or posed before a seagull-filled sunset. The Edenic or pastoral can become subversive just by having two black figures running through the tall grass, and made almost fantastic by the volume Marshall gives to their hair. Blackness is also a temptation to allegory. Two full-length nude portraits, Frankenstein (2009) and Bride of Frankenstein (2009), are eroticized black specimens, their expressions tight, private. They do not feel like paintings of actual people. Instead, a story is being told, the one about the threat in the black woman’s vagina that we can’t see and in the outline of the man’s hanging thing, and maybe also the story of just who is looking at the play of light on their muscular shoulders and thighs. The only smiling figures in the show are the black girl brandishing her huge breasts in Untitled (Mirror Girl) (2014) and the young man and woman holding hands in Untitled (Club Couple) (2014).
Marshall’s painting sometimes tries to represent popular forms of illustration as well. The borders of two romantic vignettes are as florid as greeting cards. We look into Souvenir I (1997) as into a proscenium and see a black woman with wings of gold glitter tending to flowerpots on a white marble coffee table in a living room. A tapestry on the wall on the side commemorating the lives of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King is as prominent as the black woman. Floating in clouds above her are photo-screenprint images of the four black girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing in 1963, the three Freedom Riders murdered in Mississippi in 1964, civil rights leader Medgar Evers, slain in 1963, and two Black Panthers, Mark Clark and Fred Hampton, murdered by the FBI in Chicago in 1969. It isn’t so much that the painting is kitsch as that it captures the taste of the first black suburban generation, the impression of those new middle-class ranch house interiors of gold and pale green.
The painting belongs to a series not all of which is on exhibit at the Met Breuer. Marshall has explained that the lush, gestural marks of classical painting seemed inappropriate to the mood. He wanted something restrained. Instead of building up the colors in layers, he mixed the paint beforehand and applied it smooth and flat where it was supposed to go. Even in The Lost Boys (1993), in memory of the victims of police shootings, he wants the viewer to think beyond the blackness of the figures to the tonal relationships in the composition, the mastery of surface in paint that he believes he accomplishes.
This is history painting. The Land That Time Forgot (1992) is about the white settling or invasion of South Africa. As with work that has a strong narrative element, the more you know of the story the more you see. Voyager (1992) depicts Wanderer, a slave ship that landed in the US in 1858, though the importation of slaves had been outlawed in 1807. Black Painting (2003–2006) is a black-on-black work that may depict Fred Hampton and his girlfriend in the dark silence of their sleep before the FBI raid, a Panther flag visible on the wall and a copy of Angela Davis’s If They Come in the Morning on the bedside table.
Some of his portraits are of black historical figures of whom there is no actual visual record: the eighteenth-century black American painter Scipio Moorhead; Nat Turner, leader of a slave uprising in Virginia in 1831; or Cato, leader of the Stono Rebellion in South Carolina in 1739. In one painting, Harriet Tubman’s wedding portrait is being hung in a museum, perhaps.
As a history painter, Marshall seems to be going against the grain, even among black artists. He sometimes recalls the cultural nationalist days of street murals and their lessons in black history. His black portraits can have the Negro History Week solemnity of woodcuts by White, Woodruff, and Elizabeth Catlett. Is this art for a black or a white audience, work by a black artist in strongly black Chicago, far enough away from the New York market? We are not surprised that Marshall as a student looked at Schiele and Klimt. It is where someone interested in the modern female nude would go. Included in the Met Breuer exhibition is a gallery of paintings chosen by Marshall from the Metropolitan Museum collection. Bonnard and Ad Reinhardt, of course, you think, but the presence of an exquisite Ingres nude in monochrome is important. Marshall was perhaps also influenced by the Chicago artist Leon Golub’s use of unstretched canvases. But whatever he was looking at, this is American painting.
In Marshall’s SOB, SOB (2003), a black girl is seen on a staircase landing, seated on the floor before a partially visible bookcase. We can read some of the spines, titles familiar in Black Studies. Maybe the “sob” speech bubbles refer to what she did not know about blacks in history. A volume entitled Africa Since 1443 is unopened in front of her. She is in the same pose as the invalid girl with her back to us dragging her body through Andrew Wyeth’s field. Moreover, Marshall is attempting to recreate an old look using polymer-based paint, a medium invented in the 1960s, in the time of pop art, and there seems something very American in this aspect of Marshall’s project as well.
His tradition of American art includes black artists such as Horace Pippin, William Edmondson, and Bill Traylor, the taught and the self-taught. Absorption into the mainstream can mean denying ethnic or ancestral influences, he has warned. His aggressive portraits include four of painters, idealized figures, black men and black women in rich, colorful fabrics who stare down the viewer. Either they hold enormous palettes or behind them stand paint-by-number charts of the poses we can see them in, waiting to be filled with color. But Marshall opposes a black nationalism that resists participating in anything that seems like white culture. He finds that that attitude has a limiting effect, while he himself, he’s said, is more interested in pushing a thing as far as he can.
It was interesting to hear in the exhibition rooms the guides explain to groups of visitors Marshall’s relationship to the traditions of Western art: this is like Renaissance portrait painting in that the figure occupies the center of the canvas and the line along which the eyes fall makes the cross. But what we are responding to is not a black art that can meet white academic tests, but the intensity of the work itself, the pain and problems of painting. Whether a small collage or a monumental effort, Marshall sets himself great challenges, as though his true subject were how difficult it was to execute that particular work. To the realism of 7 am Sunday Morning (2003), another acrylic on unstretched canvas, a tribute to Edward Hopper and Gerhard Richter, Marshall will add the surprise of lens flare to the right side of the canvas, raising the question of perspective, who is holding the camera, what camera.
De Style (1993), a barbershop scene, was one of the first works that Marshall was able to conceive on a large scale, in the space of his then-new studio in Chicago. Building it up was like a matter of engineering, he said. The barber, his head crowned by rays of a holy spirit, is about to take shears to a customer’s head in the center of the picture, though everything around the customer seems to ignore that he is in the center. The barber and the man under the pink-striped sheet in the chair are flanked on either side by two figures, a standing black man and a seated black woman. Maybe they are just hanging out. The black barbershop is a club, a meeting place. They have elaborate hairdos, hers as high as a bishop’s mitre, his the shape of a headdress from some adoration of the magi scene, and so they don’t seem to be there for haircuts.
We can see only the T-shirt, black arms, khaki pants, and sneakers of a fifth person seated next to the woman. Posters, newspaper clippings, and reflections in the mirror behind the barber add to the number of black heads in the painting. The hair products on the counter are carefully observed. The figures all look out, the veiled expression in their eyes making the viewer the stranger who has interrupted a conversation.
De Style is answered by School of Beauty, School of Culture (2012), the glory of the exhibition. Monumental in scale, set in a beauty parlor, eight black women, some dressed in African prints, most seen in the middle distance with their backs to the viewer, have amazing headdresses of hair, weave jobs. Men are present, hidden, unremarked on, except for one man whose reflection we can see in a mirror against the back wall, as he takes a photograph of the woman posing voluptuously, unsmilingly, in the foreground. At the same time, he captures the rear end of a woman in sexy blue heels bent over directly in front of the mirror. Maybe one of the women reacts to what he’s doing. Two toddlers occupy the center foreground, losing interest in what might be a cardboard head of a white blond woman. It’s an impossible picture to sum up, given the colors, shapes, directions, and details. Busy as Jan Steen, the saying goes. Marshall has said that for him beauty is an understanding of the relationship of parts. The power is in the sheer painting and in the attitude conveyed. We are in the middle of things and these black women are attending to their beauty, but they are not performing primitivism for the viewer.
In some of his other paintings, music notes and rhythm-and-blues lyrics swirl around a romantic couple dancing after just after having finished a meal—that is not excitement in her eyes—or as another couple undresses in a bedroom. The woman is looking out in a way that says she will keep taking things off even though the viewer is there. Images of white women hang from a tree, maybe like bad fruit, over a reclining black couple under a blanket on the ground in They Know That I Know (1992). Marshall’s paintings examine the way the black body has been scrutinized, especially that of black women. He has his own mysticism. A black woman levitates under the spell of a black magician in When Frustration Threatens Desire (1990), with references to black cats, snakes, severed hands, root work, fortune-tellers, and numerology. And always the hard eyes that will not let Marshall’s figures lose their cool. As he notes in Kerry James Marshall (2000):
In the black community there’s great resistance to extreme representations of blackness. Some people are unable to see the beauty in that. So I’ve been very conscious of the way I render my figures. I try to give them subtlety and grace and there’s a delicacy in the way I handle the features, especially the lines and contours. Extreme blackness plus grace equals power. I see the figures as emblematic; I’m reducing the complex variations of tone to a rhetorical dimension: blackness. It’s a kind of stereotyping, but my figures are never laughable.
Untitled (Studio) (2014) presents the workplace, the backstage, preparatory side of things. We are looking at most of a work-in-progress of a black woman in three-quarter profile. Next to it is a table laden with tools of the trade and objects that conjure up classical still life. In the distance a black male nude model waits in front of canvases turned toward the wall. Closer to us, behind a red drop, another black male model is getting dressed. He is looking over his left shoulder toward a woman who has maybe just come in, sat down, and put her purse under the chair. She is wearing street clothes and sandals. The punch of the painting is that the woman manipulating the sitter’s head probably isn’t an assistant. She is the painter.
Even the suburbs in the US are segregated and maybe Marshall is right: we accept the absence of white people in his work, but never grow accustomed to the extreme blackness portrayed in canvas after canvas. It is an asserted presence every time and the question remains: How much is in what we see and how much are we interpreting what we see according to our own notions of what being black means? History painting waits to detach itself from its known world and journey into the future as pure painting, but maybe there is no such thing, and certainly not when it comes to the black figure, given for how many centuries ideologies of race and racism have been built up in the West. Art historians had some difficulty in identifying a recently discovered painting as a sixteenth-century portrait of the Chafariz d’el Rei, or king’s fountain, in Lisbon. At first they couldn’t say where it was, not only because there are as many black people as white people in the busy street scene, but also because some of the black people are richly dressed. One black man is prominently displayed on horseback.
Ralph Ellison rejected the cult of the primitive, because to him the emphasis on black culture as emotional, musical, sensual, creative, and the opposite of mechanistic white society represented an insult, the feminization of the black race. Marshall is with him on that, hence the eyes as keys to the locked soul. But Marshall is crucially of the Black Is Beautiful generation, psychologically, and what black artist from that time of cultural consciousness, the weaponized aesthetic, needs white permission to find desirable black women with big asses? Kehinde Wiley, a most eloquent man, told a Festival Albertine audience at the French consulate in New York not long ago that when he was a student at Yale, Kerry James Marshall visited his studio and after a while said that the light on the flesh in his paintings was wrong, that he had not paid attention to the way the light fell across the body. He told him to go look at Rubens.