The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2018

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JUL-AUG 2018 Issue
Critics Page In Conversation

Self-Taught Artists and Institutional Narratives: Can Museums Find a Balanced Response to an Exclusionary Past? Leslie Umberger Speaks with Kerry James Marshall.

Bill Traylor (1853–1949), untitled (Figures and Construction with Blue Border), Montgomery, Alabama, United States, c. 1941, poster paint and graphite on cardboard, 15 1/2 x 8 in., American Folk Art Museum, New York, gift of Charles and Eugenia Shannon, 1991.34.1. Photo by John Parnell, American Folk Art Museum.
Bill Traylor (1853–1949), untitled (Figures and Construction with Blue Border), Montgomery, Alabama, United States, c. 1941, poster paint and graphite on cardboard, 15 1/2 x 8 in., American Folk Art Museum, New York, gift of Charles and Eugenia Shannon, 1991.34.1. Photo by John Parnell, American Folk Art Museum.

2018 has seen untrained artists surge at major American museums, with the group exhibitions Outliers and American Vanguard Art at the National Gallery of Art and History Refused to Die at the Met, and the upcoming retrospective Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM). Leslie Umberger, SAAM’s curator of Between Worlds spoke with artist Kerry James Marshall, who wrote the introduction for the accompanying monograph on Traylor.

Leslie Umberger: In different ways, these projects reflect a collective institutional grapple with histories that were inherently exclusive. Outliers is expansive, proposing that the boundaries between the self-taught and the trained were always permeable. History Refused to Die frames a group of untrained Southern makers as contemporary African American artists. Between Worlds is an in-depth solo exhibition. How can we ultimately reconcile mainstream and marginal histories?

Kerry James Marshall: Everybody’s position, relative to work that was marginal, has kind of evolved or changed under specific circumstances; there’s always some reason for these re-evaluations. If you look at Traylor and other untrained African American artists and their place in museums—these reconsiderations come with a series of complications, too. It happens that in 2018 there is also a retrospective for Charles White.[1] We can think about White as being at the margins as well. He saw himself as being a part of what you would call the mainstream, with a social mission too. Last fall David Hammons curated a show for MoMA in which White’s Black Pope (Sandwich Board Man) was staged alongside a Leonardo da Vinci drawing and curator Esther Adler wrote about it in a publication. But one of the things that never gets articulated is what reckoning with these exclusions actually comes to. The book shows a photo from 1943—Charles White and Elizabeth Catlett, with MoMA director Alfred H. Barr and curator Dorothy Miller. Adler discusses this seemingly great rapport between White and Miller—but MoMA didn’t acquire a work of White’s until 1970. So it calls into question what this ‘real rapport’ is, especially since that was six years after MoMA had done a solo show for William Edmondson (1937). For a lot of African American artists, White was a pivotal and central figure—he represented a level of mastery that many were striving for, and a degree of recognition that was acknowledged as beyond what a lot of black people could expect.

Umberger: So the retrospective must reconcile his creative value with the mainstream holding him at arm’s length during his lifetime.  

Marshall: I don’t want to discuss White’s work as a social phenomenon, but to actually wrestle with what it does aesthetically. One of the things I—and I think many artists of color feel—is that you never really get an honest, critical, appraisal of the work on aesthetic terms. It’s always positioned to serve some useful social function at times when museums are criticized to reorganize their priorities. But we gloss over what the art really does beyond what it means. If we want to bring artists in from the margins, then the art has to undergo that same kind of critical assessment as everything else. That’s what I want. If we want to say that its equivalent or equal, then we have to treat it that way.

Umberger: In terms of group versus solo exhibitions, what works or doesn’t?

Marshall: Well the group exhibitions allow you to compare one thing another thing, etc. . . . but I don’t think group shows project a clear enough thought—for me at least—to make them more useful than that. Solo exhibitions reflect a sustained way of thinking and doing and trying to get at something; you can chart, or should be able to chart, the evolution of a thought, how it moves from one thing to another or how it’s supported over time.

Umberger: I understand your view to be that museums tend to overcorrect, delve into inclusiveness for its own sake, rather than strictly by merit. And that marginalized artists—once included in the museum—are too-often sheltered from critique.

Marshall: I think we have to be explicit about what our interests are; there is a reason why museums now seem really invested in having more diversity in their holdings. There have always been official and unofficial strains of productivity. “Outsiderness,” then becomes another kind of privileged value. Do things formerly ignored really look different and mean something different now that there is a social justice imperative in play? Cultural theorist Kwame Anthony Appiah has observed that we have been trained to accommodate an astonishing range of things as art—things we would pass by, except they’re presented with an authorizing narrative that legitimizes them. But some things—even without that narrative—have the capacity to grab our attention. I think such narratives really do frame the way we look at a lot of art. That’s the dilemma, the conundrum, and as it should be.


  1. This conversation, recorded on May 23, 2018, has been excerpted and edited for brevity and clarity.
  2. Presented by the Art Institute of Chicago and The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, Charles White: A Retrospective runs June 8-September 3 at AIC and October 7, 2018 through January 13, 2019, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in Spring, 2019.


Leslie Umberger

LESLIE UMBERGER is the curator of folk and self-taught art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) in Washington, DC.

Kerry James Marshall

KERRY JAMES MARSHALL is a Chicago-based contemporary artist who creates paintings and installations exploring black identity, culture, and the frameworks of Western art history.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2018

All Issues