On ViewThe Met Breuer
October 25, 2016 – January 29, 2017
This first ever retrospective of Kerry James Marshall (b. 1955) at the Met Breuer proves he has pulled off a stunning two-fold accomplishment. On the one hand, he has convincingly re-contextualized the post-Second World War African-American experience from America’s cultural margins, positioned here squarely within its mainstream. On the other, Marshall has mastered the techniques and art-historical canons of western European painting, and bent them for his own purposes in a way that vividly expresses the identity of urban (and the now urbanized suburbs) in its vibrant density—an identity for which African Americans provided the template.
In addition to his thematic complexities and contradictions, Marshall accomplishes this feeling of density in a purely formal sense by deploying a never-ending series of surface articulations, including collaged pieces of paper, tape, flower stamps, and a basso continuo of brush strokes in dry unostentatious acrylics, that brings the reading of the painting constantly back to its material qualities. Marshall’s formal interventions guarantee that studying his paintings never resolves into a sense of familiarity—which is the point. Changing a narrative requires breaking old habits on a number of levels.
We see Marshall’s formal, thematic, and compositional gambits to change the narrative on race coming together first with his breakthrough painting A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of his Former Self (1980). By depicting the subject’s face as a nearly illegible expanse of black space punctuated by eyes and teeth, the painting encapsulates a dilemma of “invisibility,” where the black body is at once a cipher and a target in the perception of white Americans. All the subsequent figures—and there are only black figures—punctuating the surfaces of Marshall’s paintings share that same striking combination of inscrutability and profound impact. Indeed, one of the most satisfying aspects of Marshall’s paintings on a technical level is the faces and bodies of his subjects, confidently worked out in a gorgeous, velvety matte black.
Using this formula for depicting black subjects, and by extension black subjectivity, Marshall has mined the implicit normalizing codes of Norman Rockwell-like single and group portraiture to great effect. In Cub Scout (1995), an African-American boy wearing the blue and yellow uniform looks at us impassively. The starburst behind his head only serves to accentuate the steadiness of his gaze. Moving in the opposite direction, by affirming blackness outright without irony, in Black Star (2012), a nude woman with her back turned to us looks around to confront out gaze. Her body conforms to African, perhaps not European, standards of beauty, and the title as well as the star in the background refers to the shipping line incorporated by Marcus Garvey.
With multiple perspectives, his most spatially complex, and arguably most ambitious paintings are his “Garden Project” series and related works from the 1990s. These large-scale canvases hooked to the wall with grommets read first and foremost as painted objects with all of Marshall’s surface interventions. In them, Marshall shows black men, women, and children enjoying life, pursuing leisure activities in urban and suburban settings—free of depictions of crime, decay, or other negative stereotypes. All these paintings make reference to genres from Renaissance and Baroque painting—for example, the fête galante, which was conceivably invented in 1717, when Jean-Antoine Watteau submitted his painting The Embarkation for the Island of Cythera to the French Academy, showing a tableau of aristocrats, in all their finery, at play and courtship in a rural setting. At its core, the fête galante captures the urge of these aristocrats to escape the confinement of their restricted roles as defined by court etiquette in order to resolve a contradictory impulse toward cosmopolitan refinement and the pleasures of freedom from that refinement within an Arcadian setting.
Marshall plays on that contradictory impulse in Past Times (1997), which depicts his subjects not escaping the strictures of the French court, but rather the city, represented by the high-rise buildings that tower in the background. In the foreground, an African-American family—a girl playing croquet, a mother, and a boy—sit on a checkered picnic blanket. Behind them, a man with his back turned, presumably the father, hits a golf ball. In the mid-ground, there is a body of water with a female water-skier and man driving a motorboat. All are dressed in white, accentuating the darkness of their skin. With music playing, sports, and good things to eat, these folks are enjoying the pleasures of the outdoors no less than the courtiers in Watteau’s scene.
In Marshall’s selections from the Met’s collection, juxtaposed with his survey of works, we can see the threads of academic painting and Modernism that Marshall put to use in Past Times. Representing the French Academy is a small Ingres grisaille of his Grande Odalisque, she of the impenetrable and aloof gaze, not unlike many of Marshall’s subjects. Representing Modernism is a work on paper from Frank Stella’s “Black Paintings” phase. Here too we have impenetrability, but a different and more formal kind. Out of these currents and many others, Marshall has crafted his own world, which, dense with contradictory allusions, seems not so much impenetrable as labyrinthine, offering us a way in but no obvious way out.