KERRY JAMES MARSHALL, Rythm Mastr, 1999-present. | Courtesy the artist and MCA Chicago

 

EVERY TUESDAY FOR EIGHT WEEKS readers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s magazine were treated to a single illustrated panel from Kerry James Marshall’s Rythm Mastr comic series. This was nearly two decades ago, during the 1999/2000 Carnegie International when the artist first introduced the series. He developed the epic narrative in response to the historic absence of black characters in comics. Rooted in reality with elements of fantasy, Rythm Mastr is set in the community surrounding his Chicago studio.

Publishing images from the series in the city’s mainstream daily newspaper was one aspect of the project, which centered around the gallery presentation where Marshall papered the Carnegie Museum’s display windows with copies of 20 segments from series on newsprint. Writing about the installation in Artforum (June 2000), he said he hoped seeing the images in the newspaper would bring people into the museum.

Publishing images from the Rythm Mastr series in the city’s mainstream daily newspaper was one aspect of the project. Kerry James Marshall said he hoped seeing the images in the newspaper would bring people into the museum.

“The original drawings were done in india ink; the piece shown at the Carnegie International was printed as broadsides on newsprint, and the repetition of pages emphasized mass production. I didn’t want the installation to be precious, since I was exploring the way value is assigned to objects,” Marshall said in Artforum (1,000 Words as told to curator Katy Siegel).

“The Carnegie gave me the perfect opportunity to say something about what we value. The museum’s Treasure Room has an institutionally assigned value, and it’s assumed that whatever’s inside the vitrine is precious. A newspaper, on the contrary, has no value after it’s been read, except maybe to block out the windows of empty stores so people can’t look in. In the Treasure Room, the Rythm Mastr drawings block the display windows. You get a glimpse of objects behind the newspapers, but all you really see is a variation on the newspaper as object, as a simple paper craft: a cup, an airplane, a box (formed with Rythm Mastr newsprint). These things have no more intrinsic value than the paper lining the glass, but they sit in the privileged place of the institutional vitrine.”

 


Installation view of KERRY JAMES MARSHALL, Rythm Mastr, 1999-present, at 1999-2000 Carnegie International, Carnegie Museum, Pittsburgh. | From “Kerry James Marshall” (Phaidon, 2017), page 14

 


Installation view of KERRY JAMES MARSHALL, Rythm Mastr, 1999-present, at 1999-2000 Carnegie International, Carnegie Museum, Pittsburgh. | From “Kerry James Marshall” (Phaidon, 2017), page 15

 

THE FIRST CARNEGIE INTERNATIONAL was inaugurated at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum in 1896, one year after the first Venice Biennial. The months-long biennial-style exhibition is the oldest in the United States and the second oldest in the world. The Carnegie International now occurs every four to five years. The latest edition opens in Oct. 13. The artist list for the 2018 Carnegie International was released last week and it features 32 artists and collaborators, including Marshall, whose project will again focus on Rythm Mastr.

Over the past two decades, Marshall has continuously worked on the series. In Artforum, he explained the genesis for Rythm Mastr:

    A pivotal event was the introduction of the Black Panther. I was ten. Fast-forward to the early 1990s, when I started writing Rythm Mastr. It’s one thing to create a set of muscle-bound characters wearing capes—it’s another thing to put them in context where they matter. A lot of black superheroes just ended up fighting petty crime. So the underlying concern of my story was the legendary struggle for the souls of black folks, to borrow a phrase from W.E.B. Du Bois.

Marshall summarized the original concept in a recent interview with artist David Molesky in Juxtapoz magazine (Winter 2018):

    The idea for Rhythm Mastr began with two recent catastrophes: the spike in violence in Chicago in the ’90s, and the demolition of high-rise public housing near where I live on the South Side of Chicago. They were moving people out and tearing down public housing. It was controversial and complicated in how it was handled. I want the narrative around these events to take on Homeric epic structure and form. I realized how this could have the same cultural impact as Star Wars, which initially was going to be five episodes, but now seems to be going on in perpetuity. The narrative allowed me to talk about the social consequence of high-rise housing and its demolition, as well as the consequences of gang violence in relationship to public housing projects and the surrounding neighborhood. It also gave me a chance to talk about the conflicts between tradition and modernity.

“The narrative allowed me to talk about the social consequence of high-rise housing and its demolition, as well as the consequences of gang violence in relationship to public housing projects and the surrounding neighborhood. It also gave me a chance to talk about the conflicts between tradition and modernity.” — Kerry James Marshall


KERRY JAMES MARSHALL, Rythm Mastr, 1999-present. | Courtesy the artist and MCA Chicago

 

Rythm Mastr, an old man with a young protégé named Farell, inserts himself into the neighborhood turmoil. In the catalog for “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” the artist’s 30-year retrospective, Karsten Lund, a curatorial assistant who worked on the exhibition, frames the title character and Marshall’s nod to African history:

    Enter our hero: when Farell unwittingly stumbles into the museum of ancient Egyptian art, he meets Rythm Mastr, who teaches him how to use traditional African drumming to bring the ancient African and Egyptian statues to life. These statues are endowed with super human powers, and the stories of Rythm Mastr grapple with the offerings of a mythic African past, the daily struggles of present-day African American communities, and the ambiguous role of technology in shaping the future.

Marshall talked at length about Rythm Mastr in the Juxtapoz interview and went on to say that after the series debuted at the Carnegie International, it really began to take shape in “One True Thing Meditations on a Black Aesthetics,” his 2003 exhibition at MCA Chicago. He said it became a daily comic strip called “Dailies,” a format that facilitated his storytelling.

“Each component of the overall narrative allowed me to talk about things through barbershop-style conversations about history, culture, and politics,” the artist said.

As he prepared for the 2003 MCA Chicago show, Marshall discussed the status of the series with ART21. He was working out some technical issues wth the color printing:

    “The stage I’m at right now is doing a color separation with markers, because when I printed the piece the first time, the color and the black line were all in the same drawing. When the image was scanned to be converted into a plate, the fact that the various separations of color were stacked on top of each other ended up producing a halo around a lot of the black, which made it seem a little out of focus. So, what I’m doing now is a color separation, so that the color can be scanned by itself and then the black line can be scanned by itself.”

In 2008, the artist presented “Kerry James Marshall: Every Beat of My Heart” at the Wexner Center for the Art at Ohio State University. The exhibition featured his Rythm Mastr drawings as well as a new format for exploring the storylines: puppets. While in residence at the Wexner, Marshall traveled to Japan and studied traditional Bunraku puppetry. When he returned, he worked with local teens training them as puppeteers to present “Every Beat of My Heart,” a story segment from Rythm Mastr, as a live performance with musical accompaniment by jazz drummer Kahil El’Zabar. The puppets and sets from the performance were displayed as sculptural works in the exhibition, along video and photographs of the puppet show.

 


Kerry James Marshall’s Rythm Mastr was featured in Issue 14 of Esopus (March 2010). | via Esopus

 

MARSHALL’S LONG-STATED GOAL is to diversify the art historical canon, to see more images of black people on the walls of art institutions. As his practice has matured and his recognition has increased, he has become well-known for his grand paintings featuring black people depicted using black paint. The works make powerful social and cultural statements and have been acquired by major museums around the world, each transaction inching toward his goal of a more representative canon. At the same time, he has continued to hone and develop his Rythm Mastr series.

Kerry James Marshall’s grand paintings make powerful social and cultural statements and have been acquired by major museums around the world, each transaction inching toward his goal of a more representative canon. At the same time, he has continued to hone and develop his Rythm Mastr series.

Examples from Rythm Master were featured in light-box displays in “Mastry,” the artist’s retrospective (2015-2017); the series inspired “Above the Line,” a hand-painted mural installed along the High Line, the elevated park in New York City (2015-2016); and was the subject of an academic paper by art historian and curator Ellen Tani, delivered in 2016 at the Black Portraiture[s] III conference in Johannesburg.

Tani’s introduction to “There’s No Place You Can’t Get to From Here: Kerry James Marshall’s Rythm Mastr as Revisionist Art History,” situates the artist’s comic series within his practice and popular culture.

“Populated by superheroes whose powers derive from those attributed to the seven gods of the Yoruba pantheon, and characters that debate intellectual history, philosophy, and politics in Black vernacular English, Rythm Mastr channels the diasporic and utopian drive of science fiction and Afrofuturism using the intertextual qualities of the graphic novel and the film storyboard. A space of fantasy created out of extensive aerial mapping of Marshall’s Bronzeville neighborhood in South Side Chicago, Rythm Mastr offers up an alternative reality based in real space,” Tani wrote.

“By speaking to both popular culture and intellectual history, the ordinary and the fantastic, the constraints of the real and the opportunities of speculative fiction, Rythm Mastr generates the extraordinary out of the everyday in a way that powerfully advances Marshall’s larger project as a site of engagement with art history.”

 


KERRY JAMES MARSHALL, Rythm Mastr, 1999-present. | Courtesy the artist and MCA Chicago

 

A MULTIDIMENSIONAL SAGA, Rythm Mastr has always been envisioned, ultimately, as a graphic novel and feature animated film. In the wake of the record-crushing success of Marvel’s Black Panther, though it wasn’t animated, the film’s outsized performance certainly demonstrates a formidable potential audience and promising possibilities for a superhero film borne of Marshall’s animated characters, storytelling and artistic lens.

Asked about his animation experience, Marshall told Juxtapoz he had some:

    I’ve done some animation and video that uses animation. When I was in high school, I participated in a program at Otis (Art Institute) called “Tutor Art,” which included hand-drawn animation. I learned how to do animation to a soundtrack. I also have every book on animation you can find. I watch all the Disney and the Chuck Jones documentaries. I’m really interested in technique. I did production design for a couple of feature films, so I know a little bit about how films are made and how animation is done, so I am ready for it.

First, however, after the whirlwind of presenting his retrospective in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, Marshall told Juxtapoz he planned to take some time to “resolve the graphic novel form” and hoped to have it ready for publication a year after the interview, which was conducted in fall 2017. Toward that end, he was working on new Dailies.

The format of Rythm Mastr, whether as an animated feature, graphic novel, or multi-panel sequence on newsprint, may feel like a departure from Marshall’s painting practice, more tethered to pop culture than the high-brow arena where the artist’s large-scale works fetch seven figures. But the issues he is tangling with are echoed in his varied bodies of work. The pursuit is the same. According to Tani, Rythm Mastr “powerfully advances Marshall’s larger project as a site of engagement with art history.”

The issues Kerry James Marshall is tangling with are echoed in his varied bodies of work. The pursuit is the same. According to art historian and curator Ellen Tani, Rythm Mastr ‘powerfully advances Marshall’s larger project as a site of engagement with art history.’

The catalog for “Mastry” begins and ends with images from the comic series. The selection is described thus:

    They represent the central tale of Rythm Mastr, as well as parallel stories set in the black superhero’s neighborhood. While speaking directly to the socioeconomic issues and the history of Chicago, where Marshall lives, these narratives also examine the general context of encyclopedic art institutions and the shifting visibility of black cultural histories both inside and outside of the museum.

INGRID SCHAFFNER IS THE CURATOR of the forthcoming Carnegie International. She stated to artnet News that after the Carnegie Museum acquired its first painting by Marshall in 2016, it felt like the right time to revisit Rythm Mastr. Schaffner said, “I thought this was a moment to return to Kerry’s first touchstone at the Carnegie where he launched this major body of work.”

She added: “He said, ‘funny you ask this because I am about to redraw the first part of the series to bring it in line with the language that I’ve developed for the rest of the comics.’” CT

 

The Carnegie International runs Oct. 18, 2018-March 25, 2019, at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.

 

READ MORE about the artist list announced for the 2018 Carnegie International

 

BOOKSHELF
Images from Rythm Master, along with Artforum 1,000 Words article about the exhibition are published in “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” the catalog for the artist’s 30-year retrospective. Installation views of the 1999/2000 Carnegie International project appear in “Kerry James Marshall” (Phaidon, pages 14-15). The artist’s figurative works are also featured in “Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas,” a new exhibition currently on view at the Seattle Art Museum.

 


Swann Auction Galleries (June 10, 2014), Lot 155: KERRY JAMES MARSHALL, Three issues of Rythm Mastr, 1999-2000 (color photolithographs on folded newsprint paper). Estimate $1,000-$1,5000. Sold for $2,600 ($3,250 including fees).

 

Kerry James Marshall’s introduction of Rythm Mastr at the 1999/2000 Carnegie International took three forms: the exhibition, the single-panel appearances in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and stand-alone copies printed on newsprint distributed to the public. The comic segments printed in episodic newspaper form were sold for a nominal fee to cover production costs. In the years following, copies have turned up at auctions, at Swann Auction Galleries, for example, as noted above. Copies of Rythm Mastr issued nearly two decades ago at the Pittsburgh exhibition were also recently sold at Wright Auctions.

 

SUPPORT CULTURE TYPE
To help offset a small portion of the countless hours and expense required to research, report, write and produce the content on this website, Culture Type participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate program designed to help sites earn commissions by linking to amazon.com. When you make ANY merchandise purchase from Amazon, and the many independent booksellers and vendors that partner with Amazon, via a link from this site, Culture Type receives a minute percentage of its price. Your support is much appreciated.