CHICAGO — When he studied art history in the 1970s in Los Angeles, Kerry James Marshall was struck by the absence of black artists in the “canon.” This is no surprise. Even through the ’80s, art history survey textbooks still mostly excluded people of color as well as women. It’s more surprising that several weeks ago, during a minority-student panel at the private Midwestern art college where I teach, students asserted that their art history survey classes, depressingly, still lacked diversity. Imagine what it must be like to sit through several semesters and several thousand years of history and never see a glimmer of yourself in the text or images.
Marshall, who lives in Chicago, has spent his career considering these omissions and doing his best to rectify the absence of black people in the history of art, in museum collections, and as authors of parallel histories. He has been very successful, and finally, the first retrospective of his work has been organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, in collaboration with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. Stand aside Frank Stella, move over Pablo Picasso, Edgar Degas, László Moholy-Nagy, and Vincent van Gogh — all you white guys who still hold court. Marshall has succeeded in wrestling with the sinewy, sneaky forces of colonization, privilege, imperialism, prejudice, disempowerment, and erasure. And he has done it by following the rules, working within the historic terms defined by intellectual rigor and formalist accomplishment.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1955, Marshall moved with his family to the Watts area of Los Angeles in 1963. He studied at Otis College of Art and Design. At the time, abstraction and conceptualism seemed to offer universal languages that were free from the constraints of gender, race, or economic privilege. But this was certainly not the case. White males wrote the histories and dominated the art movements. In his catalogue essay, Marshall discusses why abstraction cannot be the language of insurgence. “[A] belief that abstraction would emancipate them and their artworks from racial readings appealed to many African American artists who felt boxed in by their presumptive identity,” he writes. “What I wish to show is that abandoning black figure representation was not really a move toward true freedom but instead another box within which black artists encountered other issues, chiefly the idea of belatedness, that prevented them from being recognized as significant contributors to the art historical record.”
Reflecting Marshall’s insistence that figuration is the stylistic path toward inclusion, the exhibition of about 70 works begins with a figure: the eight by six-and-a-half-inch breakthrough painting “A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self,” painted in 1980, shortly after he graduated from art school. With this portrait of a stylized black man with bright white eyes and a toothy grin (one missing in the front), Marshall set a trajectory for the next 36 years. It was a portrait of a black man that nodded to the formal history of the portrait and was painted in a historic medium (egg tempera). In one swoop, this modest picture made visible — almost like the emerging of a photograph in the darkroom — a profound void in the history of art. What materializes, however, is a chilling, goofy stereotype — equal parts minstrel, slave, phantom, and ghost. It’s a figure that is still mostly concealed by the essence of his blackness but, without a doubt, is swimming to the surface of a kind of assertive presence. It is a door cracked open. Marshall discusses this in terms of the “simultaneity of presence and absence.”
The leap toward large-scale, un-stretched canvases hung by grommets like circus banners or Renaissance tapestries seems quick in the exhibition, but actually represents 10 years of development. Marshall knew he had to address history on its terms and that meant he had to learn from and emulate grand manner painting — compositions on the scale of history paintings like Jacques-Louis David’s “Napoleon Crossing the Alps” or Théodore Géricault’s “Raft of Medusa.” What distinguishes Marshall’s approach from a contemporary like Kehinde Wiley, who also quotes history, is that Marshall’s work carries a studied admiration for the previous styles. He may be rewriting the visual record, but he is not dispensing with or ironically condemning the accomplishments of others. He is even quick to quote Ingres: “In order to see the idea of the picture in all its clarity, you have to erase all evidence of the artist’s hand.”
The first major Marshall painting to be purchased by a museum (LACMA) was 1993’s “De Style,” which measures roughly 10 by eight-and-a-half feet (basically the size of Diego Velazquez’s “Las Meninas,” 1656). Four figures stare frontally from the interior of a barbershop. A mirror (think Édouard Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies-Bergere,” 1882) reflects the patchwork details of the shop. Maybe this is a painting that picks up where Manet left off, but inverts the story from white to black, from Paris to Los Angeles, from an upper-middle-class nightlife scene to a childhood memory of learning to shine shoes and sweep up hair in the local barbershop. If there’s a cheeky nod here it is the poster image of a black boxer’s legs shown in the mirror from the torso down, like the truncated legs of a trapeze acrobat swinging in the upper left corner of Manet’s painting. The faces of Marshall’s subjects are painted a deep, flat black. Only their eyes and slight outlines of noses and lips shine forth, emphasizing that this level of exposure and visibility via the painting’s very placement in a museum still holds a distant, elusive “emerging,” a coming out of darkness, a not-quite-there-yet quality. The painting itself, like Marshall’s subsequent works, is a tour de force. The tall, exaggerated hairstyle of the woman seated on the left is mirrored by the plant behind her, and the plant becomes a gestural looping of cord reaching toward the ceiling. Marshall knits together these compositions, keeping them playful but terse — funny, warm, and deadly serious, bursting with pitched color punctuated and polarized by powerful black faces. The clock in the background reads 4:35, a real moment that represents so many mundane moments of lives that have never fully registered in the Eurocentric iconography of human existence.
This painting, like many of his others, is also about the viewer’s position as observer and witness. The subjects look out at us, fully engaged in being seen. The mirror reflects back on us as well, keeping us captive within the room. Just as Velazquez and Manet made paintings about the acts of looking and being rendered, so does Marshall, fashioning a new lineage, a new slide comparison for art history class — monumental, bold, and black. The drama of “being seen” occurs in the space between stage and audience.
Marshall fully hits his stride with a series of paintings called Garden Project. In 1997, these paintings were included in the Whitney Biennial and Documenta X. Staged in various housing projects like the ones Marshall grew up in and now lives near in Chicago, these paintings take the Renaissance language of pastoral paintings — Titian’s “Pastoral Concert” for example, or possibly Manet’s reframing of that work in “Luncheon on the Grass,” tossed with Gustave Courbet’s body language in “The Stone Breakers.” Marshall’s historic references are seldom overt or singular, but rather mash-ups. One room of the exhibition underscores this process, its floor strewn with cutout images, magazine pages, and book plates. These bits and pieces that might fall to the studio floor are both litter and inspiration. Like autumn leaves, the fanfare of canonical history, in Marshall’s hands, becomes fertilizer for next season’s growth — one style begetting the next amendment.
The Garden Project paintings hit a wonderfully indeterminate spot. They show the irony of housing projects, with their fancy “garden” names. These scenes are painted with scars, blobs, and drips of stenciled flowers, a graffiti-like mess Marshall pairs with the idylls of sunshine, blue birds, and young love. The paintings comment on the hardships of urban housing displacement and remind us that families lived there, kids romped, holidays were celebrated. He cautions against blanket assumptions about other people’s lives.
Marshall’s message feels increasingly urgent by the late ‘90s. There’s so much history to revise, so little time, and so much ongoing injustice. “Past Times” (1997) is a 114-by-156-inch painting that shows black people engaged in traditionally white pursuits such as motor-boating, water-skiing, and playing croquet and golf. Picnickers occupy the foreground and contrasting snippets of music emerge from two boomboxes — The Temptations singing “It was just my imagination running away with me” and the lyrics of a hip-hop song, “With my hand on my money and my money on my mind” — both representing black art movements that were mainstreamed by suburban white youth. This painting is about authorship and authenticity, when one faction takes on the trappings of another without actually making real contact, “Sunday Afternoon at the Grande Jatte” peopled with black folks dressed in white clothes.
Color, the subject of a multi-level conversation in Kerry’s paintings, becomes the very subject of the work in a series of pictures of artists with oversized palettes. “Untitled” (2009) shows a black woman with her hair in an elaborate up-do holding a giant palette filled with pinky, flesh colors and a few primaries. Her paintbrush tips emphatically toward a blob of white, in contrast to her jet-black skin. Behind her is a paint-by-numbers composition, mostly unfinished. In the absence of black paint on her palette, what appears instead is a smeary landscape of pale abstraction reminiscent of the exigent decades of masculine, ham-fisted expressionism.
It’s fun to attempt to decode the many signs and signifiers in Marshall’s paintings. But it is even more rewarding just to take them in, to stand before a glittering massive composition like “Memento #5” (2003) and feel the power of an artist who can juggle it all, who can translate a global wound into such hopeful and generous works. “Local boy does good,” said a well-meaning docent to a passing tour group during my visit, and I winced. Clearly, there’s much work still to be done.