A Review of Kerry James Marshall: Mastry at The Met Breuer, New York



Cultural America in the 1950s and 1960s was unrepentantly white.  Before I attended university in upstate New York, my exposure to Black Americans was primarily through a handful of television and movie personalities, athletes, and musicians like, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr., Sidney Poitier, Ernie Banks, and Harry Belafonte.  At college on the cusp of the 1970s there were only six Blacks in my freshman class of 800.  The campus was mostly white and disproportionately Jewish.  All this white created a sort of cultural snow blindness, a funny coincidence in upstate New York where B.B. King, Buddy Guy, and Sun Ra played sold-out campus concerts.  When many of my classmates applied for junior year abroad, I chose to attend Howard University on exchange.  As an anthropology and art history major, this decision seemed right; I wanted to study African-American studies.  

These were anxious times in 1968, especially in Northwest DC on Georgia Avenue surrounding Howard.  I was one of six white students living on campus.  Because of my major, I was privileged to study with the great historian Harold Lewis; the brilliant Nigerian composer and musicologist, Fela Sowande, and a protégé of Margaret Mead, Jane Phillips.  During my studies I learned about a literary and ideological philosophy introduced in the 1930s by the Martiniquais poet Aimé Césaire.  With the intentionally provocative name “négritude,” Césaire and his circle of French-speaking, colonial-era intellectuals described the affirmation (or consciousness) of the value of Black or African culture, heritage, and identity.  In contrast to Cartesian logic, "I think, therefore I am," Sowande taught me Léopold Senghor’s, "I feel the Other, I dance the Other, so I am."  (« Je sens l'Autre, je danse l'Autre, donc je suis.»)  You participate, you dance.  This epigram became my mantra as a PhD anthropology candidate in Jamaica, St. Vincent, and—for two more years—Barbados.   “Feeling the other,” active participation, was the way for me to embrace unfamiliar customs and cultures.  Nonetheless, the underlying values and aspirations in my Caribbean homes were always the same: family and community were the foundation.




Kerry James Marshall's work is so much about normal aspirations and the desire for “a regular life.”  His work is profoundly optimistic, almost heroically so.  When you know his personal story, you wonder, "How did he rise above?"  Whether he is depicting dead boys or barbershops, artists or beauticians, street scenes or studios, Marshall reaches higher and beyond.  He tells everyday stories, often ones with enormous complexity, accompanied by word banners and thought clouds, adding commentary to the picture.  (For greater biographical detail see Wyatt Mason’s, “Kerry James Marshall Is Shifting the Color of Art History,” which appeared in The New York Times Style Magazine, October 17, 2016.)

Overall, there is a fair amount of writing that addresses the art historical references, sources, and archetypes Marshall has seen and used.  To paraphrase Marshall, he is interested in expanding the place of Blacks in art and art history, not indicting nor critiquing it.  This is pretty obvious, and much of the conversation surrounding Marshall’s work is not terribly original.   Artists have been mining, miming, and meme-ing their predecessors for 35,000 years.  More importantly, what seems missing is more critical commentary about Marshall’s work from the Black perspective, such as on Victoria L. Valentine’s Culture Type blog, which specifically “shares invaluable interestingness culled from the published record on black art.”




This revelatory exhibition compels you to consider other artists and their commentaries about the Black experience: Lorna Simpson, Mickalene Thomas, Kara Walker, and Carrie Mae Weems all address the evolutionary condition of the Black woman in United States history.  Mark Bradford, Rashid Johnson, Glenn Ligon, and Kehinde Wiley all digest the history of slavery, Black history, Black identity, and Black masculinity.  Marshall also makes you think of the piercing intellect and social commentary of David Hammons and of Afro-British artists Chris Ofili, Hurvin Anderson, and Yinka Shonibare.  These artists all go deep into their Blackness.  This is all very important, but very different, work.

Content wise, Marshall’s depictions of the Black American experience is comparable—in concept—to Louis-Léopold Boilly’s commentaries about the social life of the French middle class of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  Marshall’s paintings and photographs are true social chronicles and heartfelt affirmations of Black culture.  His depictions of everyday banality are important personal and public histories, sometimes using the exuberant colors of Pan-African nationalism.  But most of the time, Marshall is painting naturally using the colors of African, West Indian, Latin, and North American street life and culture.  His is a blinding, even shocking, visual assault.  Yet, the work is nuanced in remarkable ways.  Marshall uses seven shades of black “into which not a drop of white is added” (Mason, October 17, 2016).  This is a major conceptual feature of the work.  For Marshall, “Blackness is non-negotiable…it’s also unequivocal.”




But, no one even comes as close to Marshall as LaToya Ruby Frazier, a fellow MacArthur Foundation grant winner.  Frazier, like Marshall, explores the imponderabilia of everyday Black family and life in Braddock, Pennsylvania, using visual autobiographies to document social inequality and historical change in the postindustrial age.  “Informed by documentary practices from the turn of the last century, Frazier explores identities of place, race, and family in work that is a hybrid of self-portraiture and social narrative.” (See Macfound.org, September 28, 2015.)  Her work illustrates how contemporary art opens and enriches conversations about race, American history, class structures, and social responsibility.  The work is not idealized, nor is Marshall’s.  This is reality art.

Marshall's work is Black.  Marshall’s work is everyman's. In every painting—and there is some wonderful photography too—Marshall invites us to feel the other, to dance the other, to be the other.  He reminds us that Civil Rights history is still fresh and still under attack.  He reveals the universal human experience of aspiration and optimism.  To quote (and recontectualize) a thought balloon in one of Marshall's light boxes, "It wasn't nothing like they said!  I saw the whole thing...I'm telling you!"

Showing at The Met Breuer, New York City until January 29th, 2017

Written by Clayton Press, a Contributor to Arteviste.com