Kerry James Marshall Reviewed

The first thing I did after seeing Kerry James Marshall’s monumental paintings at the Met Breuer last week is to go home and read. I’ve been reading everyday since. I could give a lot of reasons for reading: I could list what I’ve been reading and that may help me to answer the reasons. Before I checked out his bio, I looked for Prints and Visual Communication, a 1953 primer by William Ivins (the Met’s emeritus curator of prints circa the 1950s). Ivins’s book informs Herbert Marshall McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy, a survey of printing and its impact on culture that also came out in the Fifties. The ideas about the exact reproduction of images discussed in these books are perhaps first introduced by Walter Benjamin in his seminal essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility.” A Marxist, Benjamin sought to promote the idea that “one could expect [technology] not only to exploit the proletariat with increasing intensity, but ultimately to create conditions which would make it possible to abolish capitalism itself.” This second possibility is clear in the realm of art, for “Above all, it enables the original to meet the beholder halfway... The cathedral leaves its locale to be received in the studio of a lover of art.”

After reading the concise, almost terse, paragraphs about the current exhibition on the Breuer website, as well as a couple of laudatory reviews by the New Yorker magazine’s Peter Schjeldahl and ___, an ISP attendee, I stumbled onto a brief but meaty interview of Marshall—call it lean—with visual artist and poet, Calvin Reid. Based in New York, Reid’s canvases share a common ground with Marshall’s. Both artists have an affinity for distilling images in a manner that conveys a singular, disruptive impact; a diligence rising out of their confidence in formalist rigor. In the interview, Reid asks Marshall about that rigor and how he arrived at it. Marshall provides some insight along with his answer: “In a lot of ways I was one of those fortunate people who consciously knew that being an artist was what I wanted to do with my life. I didn’t know at the time that it was called being ‘an artist!’” While John Nagy’s “Learn to Draw” television program provided young Kerry with fundamentals like color and geometry, the head of his junior high art department was a Mrs Clark, who held regular contests to choose kids’ work that was featured in the school’s vitrines, providing a real world “venue” for Marshall and his schoolmates. Marshall confesses that Mrs Clark did not often display his work. Undaunted, he continued to make images and kept on submitting them. Reid surmises that this got Marshall to start reworking—and further reworking his art. Marshall agrees. “I latched on to process as an integral part of the overall appearance of the piece... Maybe... process was a way to compensate for my inability to be slick.” At fourteen, he started hanging around Los Angeles’ Otis Art Institute while living with his family in South Central. There, WPA artist Charles White took an interest in Marshall, beginning a friendship that lasted until the elder’s death in 1979. White pointed the teenager toward art he found helpful and introduced him to working artists.“In the evenings when they took their breaks ... everybody would retire to the student lounge and have these round table discussions about philosophical and historical and political issues. I felt so out of place because I was so young. I couldn’t contribute to the conversation, but I wanted to more than anything. I thought, ‘If I want to be an artist too, I’ve got to be able to do that. I’ve got to know something!’” 

As I came across this, I realized my own impulse to seek out a range of texts on specific movements in art and certain approaches to the production of art was hardly an arbitrary response to Marshall’s work. 

In Marshall’s 2003 painting “SOB” Africa in 1413 is the title of a book laid before a young woman propped on one hip like the crippled subject of Andrew Wyeth’s popular postwar masterwork, “Christina’s World.” Wyeth’s figure remains iconic, faceless, her back towards us, vulnerable, as if unaware of the artist, looking up and away to a looming horizon and shelter. Somehow, Christina’s body conveys a sensuality that appeals to the male gaze discussed by John Berger in his BBC television essay and companion book on art, Ways of Seeing. In contrast, Marshall depicts a woman whose eyes gaze away from the viewer toward a light beyond the frame, outside the box, toward a reality left entirely up to her imagination—and to ours. The two thought balloons, drawn from the vernacular of our beloved comic strip illustrators, float upwards to convey the sitter’s lamentations in transformation: turned to anger as an evanescent vapor, her suffering will likely return to earth as rain; whether fructifying shower or catastrophic cloudburst remain possibilities that demand and depend on the viewer’s empathy and participation. Seated indoors, warmed by a bulky sweater and long skirt, her physical comfort is ensured by not only a railing, but also the neatly stacked bookshelf adjoining it. These shelves are replete with familiar volumes addressing the black woman’s experience—The Nigger Bible, Black English, W.E.B. Dubois, Black Women Writers, Pushkin, The Soul of Africa, Black Women In White America, From Slavery to Freedom, Critical Race Theory, The Egyptian Book of the Dead, The Souls of Black Folk, From Sambo to Superspade, Listen to the Blues—as well as the volumes “A” and “N-O” from a trio of encyclopedias. 

I started this essay by confessing that Marshall’s Mastry made me devote a few days to reading. I wanted to locate his diverse sources, snoop around for a syllabus, so to speak, sift through the carbon dust left behind along the trail he blazed while mastering his craft. Marshall’s paintings are brazen statements for an artist at the end of the twentieth century. Starting with the Neo-Geo expressionism of the eighties, painters struggled to revive the figuration that had earlier seemed imperiled by the emphasis on abstraction and minimalism, and the muscular textures that put material in the forefront of the medium. Haring and Basquiat, Hambleton and Wojnarowicz gave us abstracted figures that revitalized the possibilities for narrative, and even genre painting rooted in the high renaissance. With the last decade, the rise of new media and installation art turned our attention away from painting, and the focus on technology threatened to place architecture and environmental immersion at the forefront of a vogue some called “the shock of the new.” Bill Viola and Bruce Nauman, David Hammons and Stan Douglas created works that focused our attention on the question of what makes something art. At the same time, painters continued to explore narrative possibilities, with seasoned craftspersons like Leon Golub and his wife, Nancy Spero, Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer delivering their last, masterful and mature canvases that addressed our understanding of history through the channels of a dominant media machine they defied to the end. 

All of this took place in a reinvigorated cultural market that expanded with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unfettered Wall Street it hearkened. The victory of capital emboldened art investors and dealers to initiate biennials and art fairs in farflung places like Ljubljana and Dubai in a burgeoning spiral that turned Miami into Switzerland. With the primacy of money, the Marxist view of art that held sway through the 20th century gave way to the capitalist critique known as identity politics—a meaningless shouting match about how and why physiological factors should dictate who gets paid the big bucks to make art. 

Throughout this race to the millennium, Marshall kept his focus on the everyday practice that matters most for the creative who aspires to mastery. And 1413, he tells us in SOB is a pivotal point in the history of the three-part idea of mastery he has studied and returns to us in his oeuvre. This date marks the start of the exclusive Portuguese trade in sub-saharan—or black—Africans with the sanction of a pope seeking fresh souls to replenish the millions who succumbed to the divine drubbing of the black death; the beginning of the master-slave relationship that unquestionably informs Marshall’s sociocultural—and personal—history. It also serves as the beginning of European understanding of the mechanical reproduction of pictorial information after nearly a century of commerce with the Chinese; the year that heralds the coming of the master printers, whose “Prints are more important than the original art, as they are the emissaries responsible for spreading the ‘word’ (and picture) far further than a single, original work ever could. In reaching a broader audience, the printed images consistently tell the same story...” [Tom Baione, “Introduction,” Natural Histories: Extraordinary Rare Book Selections from the American Museum of Natural History Library, Sterling Signature Publishing, New York. 2012.] With these early crossings to Asia, a rekindled interest in math and geometry leads to perspective in drawing, the root of the renaissance; this year engenders the tradition of honoring the divine through patronage of the Old Masters, “those who, by means of their works, leave an honourable name written in the archives of fame in this earthly world of ours, [who] can also hope to have to enjoy in Heaven a worthy reward for their labours and merits.” [“Raffaello de Urbino,” Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, by Giorgio Vasari, tr. Gaston Duc Devere, Philip D Warner, London, 1912.


This inaugural exhibition for the MetBreuer suffers from a major shortcoming in the presenters’ effort at didacticism. Over and over again, the wall texts and catalogue essays mention Marshall’s many references to “the history of Western painting,” “American painting,” “a painting style popularized in the 1950s and 1960s,” and “Marshall reworks the canon through its most archetypal modes: the historical tableau, landscape and genre painting, and portraiture.” But the history of painting doesn’t actually reach us through paintings. Most of what we learn through print. And it is precisely Marshall’s use of—and references to—printing that set his canvases apart. “There was a period when I was doing flat, decorative paintings,” he tells Reid in the interview for Bomb, continuing, “a period when I was doing classical drawings; abstract paintings; monoprints and woodblock prints; and then there was a period when I did a lot of collage. The paintings now are an exact synthesis of all of those things happening simultaneously in one visual field.” To all intents and purposes, Marshall’s most “genre” canvases are not formal paintings, but large-scale collages. His acknowledgement of the utility of various print technologies and techniques is anchored in his renditions of the black bodies he details with the solid outlines of figures that are characteristic of book illustration and comic strips—outlines the figurative painters traditionally obscure until the last quarter of the twentieth century. Marshall effectively reveals his integration of print and its fundamentally idiomatic role in his art when speaking about “an unwavering desire to be like a lot of these artists I admired from art history books” that served as his primary texts, coupled with a decade of printed source material used to assemble collage. Printed magazines and books not only supply one with a vast image bank, they also offer volumes of historical and technical information on a seemingly infinite range of subjects. Marshall often arranges these print-based elements across his tableaus just as they might lay scattered—or ordered—on the studio floor. The penis at the center right of Voyager, as well as the vévé symbols arranged thereon; the geometrically highlighted circles and numbers of When Frustration Meets Desire and the diagrammatic texts and textbook illustrations, the scrolled musical scores in both it and Beauty Examined, Slow Dance, Could This Be Love and others—all clearly refer to the authority of printed matter. Just as the old masters spread information through this medium, Marshall seizes upon its vocabulary to reclaim and assert his own mastery. If this is not evidence enough of his consciousness of the utility of print, Marshall repeatedly fills his backgrounds with the stylized ornamentation familiar to us as wallpaper. Originally found in only the finest homes as a way of obscuring or imitating the woodwork that traditionally divided walls via the horizontal chair rail (or frieze) into wainscot below and panels above, wallpaper in the last century fell out of favor and its sun-bleached or dust-yellowed appearance came to be associated with hard times. In many cases, Marshall uses stencils to achieve the repetitive patterns of jazz-era wallpapers, and regularly applies glitter both as border (In Memory Of) and as sheer drop (What A Time). In Memory Of is crowned with silkscreen images of civil rights faces, portraits struck from popular images familiar to that era and recast as cameos (a popular way of framing early photo-prints, a kind of locket in which the print is fixed behind a frame of carved ivory). Marshall enfolds our heroes using stenciled white wings (and so, frames his cameos) amid clouds sprinkled and solidly outlined in gold glitter stencils. Rays of light, suspended floral bunches, left and right columnar borders, three sides of the holy trinity of civil rights martyrs (not the three civil rights martyrs, Cheney, Schwerner, and Goodman, who appear elsewhere at the crown of the canvas) and the pair of wings that adorn the back of the painting’s central figure are all of stenciled gold glitter. The red border of the rug on which he stands and the red pattern on wallpaper in the rear of the painting are also created with stencils, perhaps one of the oldest techniques ever used in the production of art and possibly the oldest means of printing still practiced.


Marshall tells us “I was struggling with simply trying to master the materials and the methodologies of making work...” for many years. His employ of egg tempera and carbon black, his command of the thin application of paint media on areas of flesh into which he “draws” facial and gestural features indicate Marshall’s thorough understanding of techniques pioneered by the Renaissance masters. But it is his marriage of print—as technique and as idiom—through the paints, glues, inks and papers applied to unstretched canvas that sets his works apart from painters like Robert Colescott and Nicole Eisenmann, whose works restrict themselves primarily to oil, varnish, and brush. I don’t mean to detract from the official record regarding set forth by the house critics who rightly list the comprehensive employment of art as history that makes Marshall’s work so masterful. They are not wrong, but their breakdown breaks down as incomplete. I’m content to help round out the record, adding further details to a standard review that gives short shrift to a mastery of culture that demands the artist collaborate not only with the past and the materials that are chosen therefrom; but that further demands that the critic—like Vasari and Pater, Read and Arnold, Greenberg and Kramer—extend that collaboration to inform the aesthetic experience as a totalizing interlocution that assists the viewer, the art lover, the fellow citizen who looks to art as mastery of technological technique. For art is nothing without an audience, and the audience is nothing when willfully excluded from its part in the active heuristics of history as process. 


Aware of the violence that defines mastery throughout recorded history, Kerry James Marshall defiantly snatches the term away from the traditional order it serves and excises its already silenced cipher to leave us with an orthography plunged directly into the thick of an enduring storm. By dropping the “e” he points to the liberation of constraint realized by Georges Perec in the writing of A Void; in the same way that David Hammons asked me to rebuild his farmhouse with less precision in keeping with the perfection of vernacular styles’ emblematic imperfection. Like Odysseus, aka Ulysses, the erased letter speaks of the overheated ardor fueling an outsized, criminal desire to hear the fatal Sirens’ song, the song an ordinary man forbids himself (and fears) to hear lest he court suicide, Marshall binds his black body to the Mastry at the axis of an art, the Grand Guignol one dances with reckless abandon upon a bridge that spans over gushing waters the unholy cannot cross, blind with fury in misshapen bodies all a-twist, ranging along the banks of the other side.


It may appear to be helpful for the critic to recount the historic events underpinning Marshall’s 2012 quartet of portraits featuring Jemmy, aka Kato, alias Jemmy Cato, alias J.C. Kato, leader of the first armed slave uprising in the colonial south (pre-Revolutionary War). Here, the artist not only memorializes the rebel, the ouevre highlights the masters’ perception of black faces as interchangeable and loaded avatars—from troublesome albatross to advantageous ally. Just as one shambling old black dude (myself, e.g.) can clear an evening sidewalk of a half dozen white hipsters who—as if faced with an equivalent cohort—suddenly fall silent and guarded, so do their “eyewitness” tallies on the numbers of black bodies generally outstrip reality (three black bodies morph into a “gang” and are consequently deemed menacing. By assuming an alias and speaking a non-western idiom, the act of naming becomes an insurrection. The American mandate to erase the names of subjugated persons extended the notion of property as theft and crossed into the violence of identity theft. But through the corrupting tendency of power, this theft just as readily extended agency to those the act meant to diminish; diminution led to the disappearance of identity, a disappearing act that actually enabled the bodies it intended to disable. The masters, on the run, enacted laws in the wake of Kato’s revolt that sought to strictly proscribe the ratio of black slaves to free whites, as well as forbidding all idioms save English.

Could This Be Love is at once evocative of the snapshot photography common prior to our digital age and simultaneously a romantic motif recalling the Hollywood idiom of countless noir films, a genre Marshall surely enjoyed in his youth. With the fourth wall removed, we are witness to an idealized portrait of love at its most potential moment. This is an interlude, a pause that captures two persons who find each other together, individuals no more. Dressed in a wife beater and slacks, we identify the male as a laborer, as well as the heat of the moment, both narratively as the result of undressing, and atmospherically. But the woman’s regards us with uncertainty, a look that tells us she asks herself Could This Be Love? The moment seems right: a musical phrasing rises from the bottom left to a crescendo that fills the room with satiny lyric and notes. The bottle in the foreground is decorated with the red and black colors of Exu, the vodun orisha who tends the crossroads. It stands on a yellow table holding two plates with unfinished meals, for unfinished business lies ahead. As still and erect as the couple stands in shared embrace, the transition is assured no less by the deep blue of the sofa into which we can imagine they will plunge. The wall at the rear is festooned with green wallpaper liberally stenciled with flowers that appear as bright as sweet lollipops, a spring meadow hinting at the euphoria derived from a field of intoxicating poppies? Beyond all the traditional iconography of romance, the curious cast of the woman’s visage ultimately wants to know is this clichéd moment all there is to love? Or is there something more, something outside what we see here, a love that is other, a love we cannot and need not picture with such facile imagery? Perhaps, such a fantastic setting is just that: fantasy; one we would all do well to question as earnestly as the woman who faces us while facing herself.


As critic, I am obligated to remind myself that there’s an element of the mundane in the work of every master, from the nameless slave to the everyday inkjet. The true master rarely confines oneself to a single medium or style. In the act of creation, a universe of factors come into play and singling out one above all the others is unfair to our job as reporters of what we experience; the equivalent would be to seek a transcendent role. The master is finally the teacher, an endowment earned as evidence of a genuine accumulation of learning. This learning is not the sum total of a particular time span, nor the opening and closing of so many weighty tomes full of illustration and text; it is the mastery of learning as process, a methodology that anticipates the invention of problems. It is a contradictory undertaking that remains evident in every corner of the Kerry James Marshall experience of a misspelt Mastry. As visitor, one should anticipate leaving the museum full of questions you never dreamed you would feel the compulsion to ponder. As visitor my damn self, I would wager that at least one of these questions you will attempt to resolve before the year ends eleven months from now; in making such a wager, I obviously extend the corollary caveat that this work will stay with you, and most likely in a way that urges you to take corrective action—no matter how great or small. This is the secret of Marshall’s Mastry: the only thing one can possibly do wrong is to not assume that there is more to learning than an identifiable end. Mastery is no more than passion. The world—crazy as its past, present and future may seem—is a better place because Marshall has managed to share some part of his own passion. May we each learn the merits of enjoying the pleasures and passions, the errors and irresolution of our own—and sharing them in our turn, be it high or low.