Kerry James Marshall - Mastry - MCA Press Previiew 042116 Photo by Victoria L. Valentine
Kerry James Marshall previews his new exhibition “Mastry” at MCA Chicago. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

CHICAGO — TWO PAINTINGS MARKED A TURNING POINT for Kerry James Marshall. Complete with Royal Crown Dressing hair pomade, a Zenith radio, and a business license with the first dollar made tucked into the frame, “De Style,” depicts a local Chicago barbershop. Another painting titled “The Lost Boys,” shows two boys playing. Rife with symbols of childhood interspersed with indications of violence, it references the tragic deaths of countless black youth.

The paintings were the first canvases Marshall executed on a large scale in a grand manner. He describes the 1993 works as “seminal,” the kind of paintings he had always imagined himself being able to paint.

“When I finished those, I felt like I had arrived at a moment when I was more sure of myself as an artist and what I wanted to do, and how to do it, than I had been up to that moment. There was a kind of clarity,” says Marshall, 60.

“There was also resolution in the paintings. They operated on all of the levels that I wanted them to—scale, the complexity of subject, the treatment [of paint and technique]—all of those things seemed to come together in those two pictures in a way that I had always been struggling with before, but had hit right on the mark at that time.”

“When I finished those, I felt like I had arrived at a moment when I was more sure of myself as an artist and what I wanted to do, and how to do it, than I had been up to that moment. There was a kind of clarity,”
— Kerry James Marshall

ESSENTIALLY BLACK

A VISIONARY AND IMAGINATIVE chronicler of the African American experience in all of its many facets, Marshall spoke about the breakthrough at a press preview of “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” the Chicago-based painter’s long-awaited survey that opened April 23 at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Chicago.

The exhibition is generally organized chronologically. Walking through the galleries, Marshall narrated the arc of his contemporary art practice through the paintings he has completed over the past 35 years.

 

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Installation view of KERRY JAMES MARSHALL, “De Style,” 1993 (acrylic and collage on unstretched canvas). | Los Angeles County Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by Ruth and Jacob Bloom. Photo courtesy MCA Chicago

 

Marshall talked about a pair of series—canvases called Mementos and Souvenirs reflect on the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement and the many figures lost to the era; his Garden Project, features romantic images of housing projects. Passing paintings of slave ships, boy scouts and girl scouts, Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, and anonymous African American artists, he discussed his approach to representation, the ways in which he elevates scenes of everyday life, and how in charting American history, he avoids sensational images by pursuing more thoughtful depictions of his subjects.

In the first gallery of the exhibition, Marshall explained the significance of an early painting, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self,” a self-portrait in which both the background and his face are rendered in black paint.

The 1980 painting was Marshall’s first exploration of the tensions between visibility and invisibility. Two years earlier, when he read the novel “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, the concept crystalized for him. The painting also signaled his embrace of figuration and commitment to painting black figures with black paint and considering blackness in cultural, social, and aesthetic terms.

“At the same time that I’m talking about visibility and invisibility and that I am using the concepts of blackness, the figure seems to stay the same. The figure remains essentially black in every circumstance that you see it,” says Marshall.

“Everything that happens around that figure corresponds to another set of concepts, ideas, and logics about the ways in which paintings function. But the figure remains constant. It is black. It starts out simply, but it gets more complex, even in its own blackness, as the show evolves.”

“At the same time that I’m talking about visibility and invisibility and that I am using the concepts of blackness, the figure seems to stay the same. The figure remains essentially black in every circumstance that you see it.”
— Kerry James Marshall

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KERRY JAMES MARSHALL, “The Lost Boys,” 1993 (acrylic and collage on unstretched canvas). | Collection of Rick and Jolanda Hunting. Photo courtesy MCA Chicago

 

MASTER PLAN

A SPRAWLING EXHIBITION, “Mastry” features about 70 paintings that span 1980 to 2015. The presentation includes the broad swath of Marshall’s oeuvre—portraits, interior scenes, landscapes, history paintings—all of which have a common thread, powerful black figures.

Nearly 25 years after “De Style and “The Lost Boys” signaled a moment of profound clarity and confidence for Marshall, “Mastry” marks another major milestone in the artist’s career.

A few years ago, “Kerry James Marshall: Painting and Other Stuff” (2013-14) a European tour of Marshall’s work that could be described as a mid-career retrospective featured a variety of mediums—photography, drawing, sculpture, installation and animated film. A more focused presentation, “Mastry” brings together the largest-ever selection of his paintings—the artist’s greatest strength and the medium in which he has been the most highly regarded, ambitious and mission driven.

The uniquely spelled title of the exhibition, “Mastry,” references Rythm Mastr, Marshall’s comic series about a black super hero, but it more closely tethers to the ambitious goals of his practice. For more than three decades, Marshall has sought to recast the art historical canon, addressing the absence of works by black artists and images of black people.

In the catalog for “Painting and Other Stuff,” Marshall discussed his work with Dieter Roelstraete, co-curator of “Mastry,” a curator of Documenta 14 (2017) and a former curator at MCA Chicago. During the conversation, he spoke at length about the urgent need to integrate the canon.

“Here’s why I am perfectly comfortable operating within the realm of painting with the goal of entering the museum as it is currently structured: if I don’t do it, or if other people like me don’t do it, we will be condemned to celebrate European beauty and Europe’s artistic achievement in perpetuity,” Marshall said.

He continued: “And that’s precisely why I stopped making abstract work—because white figures in pictures representative of ideal beauty and humanity are ubiquitous. The truth of this reality is almost everywhere taken for granted. And to me that’s unacceptable. …I think it is safe to say that museums around the world are not going to get rid of their Titians, Goyas, and Van der Weydens any time in the foreseeable future. Those pictures are going to stay right where they are, anchored in a narrative that begins in ancient Greece, Rome and medieval Italy, and is carried through all the way to Robert Rauchenberg, Jasper Johns, and Andy Warhol.

“…It really doesn’t matter what we think of Valezquez, Matisse or Lucien Freud. What does matter is that if no one is out there working to produce paintings with a racially different set of figures in them that are as interesting, as challenging, and as good as those historical masterworks, non-white people will always be in trouble. That is why I keep making pictures that aim to make their way into museums.”

“What does matter is that if no one is out there working to produce paintings with a racially different set of figures in them that are as interesting, as challenging, and as good as those historical masterworks, non-white people will always be in trouble. That is why I keep making pictures that aim to make their way into museums.”
— Kerry James Marshall

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KERRY JAMES MARSHALL, “Voyager,” 1992 (acrylic and collage on unstretched canvas). | National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Gift of the Women’s Committee of the Corcoran Gallery of Art). Photo courtesy MCA Chicago

 

CITY PRIDE

WITH “MASTRY” MARSHALL is making a bold statement in three major museums. Co-organized by MCA Chicago where it is on view through Sept. 25, the exhibition will travel in October to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it will be presented at the new Met Breuer building (the former home of the Whitney Museum of American Art). Next year, the exhibition will open on March 12 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA LA).

The itinerary, spanning the East Coast to the West Coast, includes prestigious U.S. art institutions, but the venues are also meaningful because each is in a city where Marshall lived and honed his evolving practice.

Born in Birmingham, Ala., Marshall grew up in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. He earned a BFA in 1978 from the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles where he met Charles White. An instructor at the school, the social realist artist became a mentor and friend. After a 1980s stint in New York, where he was an artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem, Marshall moved to Chicago in 1987. A decade later, he received a “genius” grant from the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation.

“Mastry” is co-curated by Roelstraete; Helen Molesworth, chief curator at MOCA LA; and Ian Alteveer, assistant curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. All three curators were on hand at the preview event, which was hosted by MCA Chicago Director Madeleine Grynsztejn.

“His work is a truly important, profound meditation on the most important issues that we are facing as a society today. He asks us to think more broadly about race and history and representation and equality and in doing so he expands our own humanity,” said Grynsztejn in her opening remarks.

“His work is a truly important, profound meditation on the most important issues that we are facing as a society today. He asks us to think more broadly about race and history and representation and equality and in doing so he expands our own humanity.”
— Madeleine Grynsztejn, Director of MCA Chicago

Well versed in what has come before, Marshall’s canvases are all his own, bringing traditional genres into the present with contemporary subject matter and relevant cultural references. Depicting a slave ship that violated the 1807 Slave Importation Act by transporting human cargo from Africa to the coast of Georgia, “Voyager” (1992) was Marshall’s first history painting. “Slow Dance” (1992-93), one of Marshall’s early forays into documenting African American romance and domestic life features the lyrics to “Baby I Am for Real” by the Originals and a copy of Ebony magazine.

 

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Installation view of KERRY JAMES MARSHALL, “Still Life with Wedding Portrait,” 2015 (acrylic on PVC panel), with “Black Star 2” in the background at left. | Photo courtesy MCA Chicago

 

ROOM OF REBELS

IN A GALLERY FEATURING PAINTINGS of Nat Turner and Harriet Tubman, Marshall smiles and says “this is the room of rebels.” His 2015 painting of Tubman is a striking image of her posing with her husband for a wedding portrait, a context in which no one but Marshall would ever imagine the legendary abolitionist. The day before, news that Tubman will appear on the $20 bill was announced. “Since we are talking about Harriet Tubman on the money,” Marshall says, he wants to take the opportunity to explain the painting.

“We never consider, where did the Tubman name come from? Well the Tubman name came from the fact that she married a man named John Tubman. But we don’t think of people like Harriet Tubman as having that kind of life. There is no domestic dimension of Harriet Tubman’s life, In our imagination. There’s certainly no romanticism in Harriet Tubman’s life,” says Marshall.

“What I wanted to do is give her back that space in which she could be desired, was wanted, and was able to be married, to not have her be trapped perpetually in this sort of historical labor of just operating to free other people. She also had another kind of life. She had a more complex life than that. Somehow you have to give that to historical figures—the complexity of their lives—because we tend to reduce their existence to a series of sound bite-like qualities that don’t allow them the fullness of their humanity and, for her, the fullness of her femininity, as well.”

“Somehow you have to give that to historical figures—the complexity of their lives—because we tend to reduce their existence to a series of sound bite-like qualities that don’t allow them the fullness of their humanity and, for her (Harriet Tubman), the fullness of her femininity, as well.”
— Kerry James Marshall

In the same gallery, “Black Painting” (2003-2006), represents an initial exploration of monochromatic abstraction by Marshall. At first glance, the painting looks almost completely black. Upon closer examination, an image of a couple sitting upright in bed in the dead of night is visible. A Black Panther flag that bears the slogan “Power to the People” is draped on the wall. “If They Come in the Morning,” a collection of essays by black revolutionaries, political prisoners, and their attorneys, edited by Angela Y. Davis, rests on the night stand.

Marshall walked through the exhibition with Roelstraete. Asked what prompted the Belgium-born curator’s interest in Marshall’s work, he said: “As a lover of art history and somebody who grew up in art and also as a lover of the notion that art is a vehicle for ideas, this is work that I feel very strongly and very passionately about. It has been a great honor working with the master.”

 

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Installation view of Garden Project paintings, including at left, “Better Homes, Better Gardens,” 1994 (acrylic and collage on unstretched canvas). | Photo courtesy MCA Chicago

 

PASTORAL VISION

AFTER ROELSTRAETE INTRODUCED the “master’s” Garden Project series, standing in a gallery surrounded by the paintings, Marshall says, “The only thing I will add is that one of these paintings in here has an autobiographical dimension to it. When my family moved from Birmingham to California we moved into the Nickerson Gardens Projects in Watts on 112th street.” It was 1963, two years before the Watts Riots erupted.

Harkening back to his childhood experience, Marshall emphasized his romantic memories of the projects in the series of paintings which features Nickerson Gardens alongside depictions of Chicago housing projects.

“When people moved into the projects in the 60s they really were sort of idyllic places. They were great places to be. People really wanted to be in the projects back then,” says Marshall.

Marshall recalled the normalcy of the community where he lived with his mother, father and siblings, and a real sense of pride of place. “Back then, you cut the grass in front of your building, your house. You used to go to the office that was run by the housing authority. You could rent a lawn mower, rent an edger. You could rent tools, clippers, and all that stuff and you cut your own grass,” he says.

The kids would do most of the lawn maintenance and then offer to cut the neighbor’s lawn for a couple of dollars. There was even a toy library, Marshall says. You could check out a toy, play with it for a week and return it in exchange for a new one.

Marshall expounded upon his vision for the series, painted in the mid-1990s, in the “Painting and Other Stuff” catalog.

“…The first cohesive body of paintings I made was the ‘Garden Projects’ when I was living near Stateway Gardens and Wentworth Gardens here in Chicago—public housing projects that had been built with utopian notions of beauty and good living in mind, but were unable to maintain the promise of their pastoral-sounding names,” he said.

“I very much had the tradition of the pastoral in mind (think of Giorgione’s ‘Concert Champetre,’ for instance) when I was making these pictures. People eating lunch and listening to music in a bucolic setting—only this time the setting is a public housing project for African American families.”

“I very much had the tradition of the pastoral in mind when I was making these pictures. People eating lunch and listening to music in a bucolic setting—only this time the setting is a public housing project for African American families.” — Kerry James Marshall

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KERRY JAMES MARSHALL, “Many Mansions,” 1994 (acrylic on paper mounted on unstretched canvas). | The Art Institute of Chicago, Max V. Kohnstamm Fund. Photo courtesy MCA Chicago

 

GRAND SCALE

THE GARDEN PROJECT SERIES combines figuration, landscape, abstraction and text, and the canvases are large-scale—each one measures more than eight feet up to nearly 12-feet wide. Marshall’s encyclopedic knowledge of art history has been critical to his intellectual approach. His practical observation that size matters has been transformational.

The majority of his works are what he calls “great big paintings”—a strategic decision intended to make a statement and ensure his work is not overlooked when it enters the museum.

“A lot of the history paintings that we know from art history textbooks, those things are massive. They are huge and they are dramatic and when you walk in there you are confronted by the picture. There is no way of getting around it. You’ve got to notice it. One thing I said is if you are coming in there, you’ve got to come in there like you mean it. You come in there at a scale and with a level of complexity that matches the stuff that’s already in there,” says Marshall.

“That is what set my ambition, in a way, because one thing I noticed, they may have had work by African American artists, and a lot of museums do have some work, but the way in which that work exists in the museum is on such a small scale.”

“One thing I said is if you are coming in there, you’ve got to come in there like you mean it. You come in there at a scale and with a level of complexity that matches the stuff that’s already in there.” — Kerry James Marshall

He made these remarks as he stood between “De Style” and its counterpoint, “School of Beauty, School of Culture,” a painting of a cosmetology school that Marshall always intended to bookend his barbershop image but that he didn’t get around to executing until nearly 20 years later in 2012. The barbershop canvas is more than 10 feet wide. The beauty school painting, which features a signed Lauryn Hill album cover, advertisements for Dark & Lovely hair care products, and a poster for a Chris Ofili exhibition, measures more than 13 feet.

 

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KERRY JAMES MARSHALL, “School of Beauty, School of Culture,” 2012 (acrylic on canvas). | Collection of the Birmingham Museum of Art; Museum purchase with funds provided by Elizabeth (Bibby) Smith, the Collectors Circle for Contemporary Art, Jane Comer, the Sankofa Society, and general acquisition funds. Photo courtesy MCA Chicago

 

INSURGENT PAINTING

MARSHALL IS PUSHING FIGURATION and representation into challenging new realms. In the exhibition catalog for “Mastry,” the artist definitively states where he stands when it comes to the power of the black body in black art.

“I am convinced that we would never have heard of [Romare] Bearden had he not abandoned abstraction for the representational collages with which he has become synonymous,” Marshall writes.

“Of course, I hope someday that it can be said that I showed another way to the summit of achievement in painting. To be sure, the mode of black figure representation I employ is a clear departure from most popular treatments of the black body. I am trying to establish a phenomenal presence that is unequivocally black and beautiful. It is my conviction that the most instrumental, insurgent painting for this moment must be of figures, and those figures must be black, unapologetically so.”

“I am trying to establish a phenomenal presence that is unequivocally black and beautiful. It is my conviction that the most instrumental, insurgent painting for this moment must be of figures, and those figures must be black, unapologetically so.” — Kerry James Marshall

His assessment of the moment appears to be on target. Marshall has made significant progress on his mission to integrate the art historical canon, likely propelled by acquisitions that have coincided over the past decade or so with overdue recognition at mainstream institutions seeking to catch up when it comes to representation of African American artists in their collections..

Dozens of American museums have brought his paintings into their collections, including the Met, Studio Museum in Harlem, Whitney Museum of American Art, and Museum of Modern Art in New York; National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; Art Institute of Chicago; High Museum of Art in Atlanta; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Walker Art Center in Minneapolis; Denver Art Museum; Seattle Art Museum; Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University; Baltimore Museum of Art; and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark.

The Birmingham Museum of Art, in the city where Marshall was born, purchased “School of Beauty, School of Culture” in 2012. “7 am Sunday Morning” (2003), an 18-foot painting depicting a block in the Bronzeville neighborhood near the painter’s studio, which includes the beauty school featured in his later painting, is in the collection of MCA Chicago, his hometown museum where “Mastry” is on view. “De Style” was acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the first museum Marshall ever visited. He was in the fifth grade.

“When they bought that at the LA County Art Museum,” Marshall says, “that was an achievement for me because literally all of my ambitions, all of my dreams, had been fulfilled by that acquisition.” CT

 

TOP IMAGE: Kerry James Marshall previews his exhibition “Mastry” at MCA Chicago on April 21, 2016. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

BOOKSHELF
“Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” a comprehensive, cloth-covered catalog was published to accompany the exhibition and includes essays by the curators and writings by Marshall on a range of topics, from his Rythm Mastr comic series to artists Mickalene Thomas and Horace Pippin. An extensive interview with Marshall by curator Dieter Roelstraete appears in the exhibition catalog “Painting and Other Stuff.” “Kerry James Marshall: Look See” coincided with the artists’s first exhibition with David Zwirner gallery in London in 2014.

 

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KERRY JAMES MARSHALL, “7 am Sunday Morning,” 2003 (acrylic on unstretched canvas). | Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Joseph and Jory Shapiro Fund by exchange, 2003.16. Photog courtesy MCA Chicago

 

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KERRY JAMES MARSHALL, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self,” 1980 (egg tempera on paper). | Steven and Deborah Lebowitz. Photo courtesy MCA Chicago

 

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KERRY JAMES MARSHALL, “Beauty Examined,” 1993 (acrylic and collage on unstretched canvas). | Collection of Charles Sims and Nancy Adams-Sims. Photo courtesy MCA Chicago

 

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KERRY JAMES MARSHALL, “Past Times,” 1997 (acrylic and collage on unstretched canvas). | Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, McCormick Place Art Collection. Courtesy MCA Chicago

 

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KERRY JAMES MARSHALL, “Untitled (Painter),” 2009 (acrylic on PVC panel). | Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Gift of Katherine S. Schamberg by exchange, 2009.15. Courtesy MCA Chicago

 

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KERRY JAMES MARSHALL, “Campfire Girls,” 1995 (acrylic and collage on unstretched canvas). | Collection of Dick and Gloria Anderson. Photo courtesy MCA Chicago

 

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KERRY JAMES MARSHALL, “Portrait of Nat Turner with the Head of his Master,” 2011 (oil on canvas). | Private Collection, Courtesy Segalot, New York Courtesy MCA Chicago

 

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KERRY JAMES MARSHALL, “Untitled (Club Couple),” 2014 (acrylic on PVC panel). | Collection of Mandy and Cliff Einstein. Courtesy MCA Chicago

 

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KERRY JAMES MARSHALL, “Souvenir I,” 1997 (acrylic, collage, and glitter on unstretched canvas). | Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Bernice and Kenneth Newberger Fund. © 1997 Kerry James Marshall. Photo: Joe Ziolkowski, © MCA Chicago.