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A retrospective or survey exhibition is a rare opportunity to witness the full force of an artist’s work over time. It can also be a test. How do early works shed light on later developments? How do individual series punctuate moments in time? How do ideas and influences shape the direction of a creative life? In short, when you look back, does it all hang together? As a curator of contemporary art, I see many exhibitions a year—from international biennials around the globe to shows in our community of Pittsburgh—but none in 2016 was more persuasively vital and urgent than Kerry James Marshall’s Mastry.
Considered by many to be the greatest living painter in America today, Marshall is best known since the 1980s for reinserting black figures into the largely white historical canon of Western painting. His works, which vary from intimate imagined portraits to ambitious history paintings and epic landscapes, reference the medium’s past from the Renaissance forward, all the while chronicling the African-American experience of the present. Indeed, Marshall’s own title for his 35-year survey, co-organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, presents a challenging double meaning, at once evoking the notion of a European Old Master painter and that of an American slave owner.
The process of rewriting history may at first sound like an academic affair; in Marshall’s hands, though, it is anything but dull. His paintings are electric. They crackle with visual energy, color, and wit—often tempered by a sobering dose of the past. His themes may seem classical, but his treatment is thoroughly contemporary. Take, for example, The Garden Project, a series of five canvases that reinvent a traditional pastoral theme. While they may echo iconic paintings by Titian and Édouard Manet, they also examine the failure of public housing projects in the artist’s hometown of Chicago. Always in Marshall’s work, the romance of painting bristles up against the brutal truths of our time.
“His paintings are electric. They crackle with visual energy, color, and wit—often tempered by a sobering dose of the past.”
Contemporary painting can be a very contested field, and watching it play out sometimes feels like sport. What’s so refreshing about Marshall’s outlook is that he takes a long view of art history, engaging in a dialogue with painters across centuries rather than just one-upping his peers. So, wandering through the galleries of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago last summer, and then at the Met Breuer where the exhibition traveled in the fall, I could not help but recall Andrew Carnegie’s often quoted maxim—that our museum’s aim is to collect the “Old Masters of tomorrow.” Who else today would suit this description more fittingly and critically than Marshall?
Carnegie conceived the Carnegie International as a way to build the museum’s collection; and, indeed, Marshall’s work was featured in the 1999 edition, although at the time the artist—always challenging expectations—did not present paintings. For that exhibition, he published RYTHM MASTR, a far-out comic strip populated by a cast of black heroes, in the pages of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. (Imagine picking up your daily paper from the stoop and finding RYTHM MASTR inside!) In the museum, Marshall used the comic to paper over the display case windows of the museum’s Treasure Room (now the Charity Randall Gallery) as if the gallery were a closed storefront.
Because his project for the International was so ephemeral, Marshall’s work did not enter the museum’s collection. When I arrived at the museum in 2015, Director Lynn Zelevansky, Chief Curator Catherine Evans, and I quickly began talking about how we might fill this important gap, and in December 2016 the museum did just that by purchasing a new painting by the artist.
Untitled (Gallery) depicts a single female figure posing as if for a snapshot against the white wall of a gallery lined with framed black-and-white photographs. Spotlights illuminate the artworks, creating concentric rings of light on the wall. Beside the primary subject of the painting hangs a photograph of a nude woman lying on a bearskin rug in front of a fireplace—a familiar erotic pinup trope but also a reference to glamorous 1930s Hollywood production stills.
The juxtaposition of figure and photograph prompts a host of questions: Is the subject of the painting also the subject of the photograph? Is she the artist? The curator? Or perhaps the gallerist? Is she the owner of the artwork or just an interested viewer? These many possible positions afford us a wide range of potential interpretations and points of entry. If Marshall’s goal has been to bring the black figure emphatically into the field of art, and indeed into the museum, then Untitled (Gallery) takes this aim directly as its primary subject matter.
Despite the simplicity of this tableau, Marshall demonstrates his mastery of the medium and his encyclopedic knowledge of its history at each turn. A reflection in the photograph’s frame reveals a faint outline of the gallery space behind the painter/camera. This subtle detail suggests Marshall’s knowing approach to perspective and gaze that speaks to his decades-long study of the Old Masters from Hans Holbein to Diego Velázquez. More recent references abound in the woman’s attire, with her skirt evoking the fantastical foliage of Henri Rousseau and the structured pattern of her blouse echoing Jasper Johns’ signature cross-hatching motif.
In the last two years, Marshall has turned his attention away from larger-scale history paintings to create more focused single- and two-person portraits. Layered with art-historical references and cultural citations, these works depict black figures in everyday contemporary settings—the bedroom, the club, the backyard, the artist’s studio, and now the gallery—sometimes framed by equipment used on location photo shoots. In these works, we find Marshall not only contending with histories of omission but also tackling one of his (and the medium’s) most enduring subjects: the construction of identity.
Come celebrate this new acquisition when we debut the painting in the upcoming exhibition 20/20: The Studio Museum in Harlem and Carnegie Museum of Art, opening in July.
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