THE FALL FASHION ISSUE of American Vogue features not one but two paintings by Black artists. Kerry James Marshall and Jordan Casteel were commissioned to produce cover images for the September 2020 edition. The artists were given considerable creative freedom and came up with two very different fashion-inspired portraits that reflect their individual practices.

The artists worked with some direction. Given the nation’s general unease with the COVID-19 pandemic still killing Americans, police still killing Black people, and the contentious presidential election fast approaching in November, Vogue dedicated the issue to “hope.”

Casteel and Marshall were asked to keep the concept of hope in mind when they envisioned their portraits. It was up to their discretion whether to depict a real or imagined person. There was one rigid requirement: Their subject had to wear a dress by one of four designers Vogue selected.

 


Kerry James Marshall. | Vogue, September 2020

 

CHICAGO-BASED MARSHALL focused on a fictional figure and chose a fashion-forward evening gown by Virgil Abloh’s Off White label. It’s a spectacular dress perfectly suited for the woman he portrayed. Her stance and gaze signal her confidence and self-possession. She wears cornrows that conclude with a bun at the back of her head. Her nail polish is a muted banana yellow. Her skin is jet black, a Marshall signature.

Dodie Kazanjiana, a Vogue contributing editor who writes about the arts, worked with the artists on the cover project. She spoke with Marshall and Casteel about the paintings they created.

“I’m trying to build into her expression that she’s not dependent on the gaze of the spectator,” Marshall told Kazanjiana. “‘I’m here and you can see me, but I’m not here for you.’ That’s a critical element. The great word, ultimately, is going to be ‘self-possessed.’ That’s what I’m aiming for.”

A glass door in the background offers a fascinating view. Just outside, there is a table shaded by a large umbrella next to a brightly colored pink, green, and marigold yellow child’s playhouse, complete with a white picket fence. Beyond the balcony, a pair of high-rise buildings form a metropolitan cityscape. It’s a contrast of urban and suburban. Together, the two scenes symbolize both the big business and fantasy dress up aspects of high fashion.

“The fact that she is some place instead of no place is important. She’s not part of the decor. She has her own presence, her own psychology,” Marshall said to Kazanjiana.

“The reality is that it’s a Black woman in an outfit that’s a pretty rarified runway kind of garment. If you take a dress that has fantastic elements like that one does, you have to ask, ‘Can that dress really be worn?’ So I tried to make a figure who could wear the dress. It’s important for me to show simply that the figure thinks. You don’t know what she thinks, but you can tell she has something on her mind.”

“The reality is that it’s a Black woman in an outfit that’s a pretty rarified runway kind of garment.… So I tried to make a figure who could wear the dress. It’s important for me to show simply that the figure thinks. You don’t know what she thinks, but you can tell she has something on her mind.”
— Kerry James Marshall


Aurora James by Jordan Casteel. | Vogue, September 2020

 

VOGUE’S SPECIAL SEPTEMBER ISSUE features more than 100 voices speaking up about the future of fashion. Casteel’s cover subject is a real person and a vocal participant in this discussion. She made a portrait of fashion designer Aurora James.

The founder and creative director of the accessories brand Brother Vellies, James started the 15 Percent Pledge in June. The campaign calls for U.S. retailers to commit at least 15 percent of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses. (The 15 percent target reflects Black representation in the population.)

“I believe that what Aurora is doing is hugely important in creating the long-term change that Black people deserve and this country owes us,” Harlem-based Casteel said to Kazanjiana. “I see her as a light in a lot of darkness, and a potential for hope, a representative of change across all creative industries.”

Casteel painted James on her Brooklyn rooftop wearing a gown by Kerby Jean-Raymond’s label Pyer Moss. Her pose—half standing, half sitting—on a high stool, makes it a challenge to see the design and silhouette of the dress, which involves yards and yards of light blue silk.

“I believe that what Aurora [James] is doing is hugely important in creating the long-term change that Black people deserve and this country owes us.” — Jordan Casteel

VOGUE REVIEWED its short history of artist-made covers and published the works-in-progress that led up to the current covers, sharing sketches of Marshall’s painting and an early stage of Casteel’s.

Before Casteel completed her portrait of James, which features red brick high-rise apartment buildings, brownstone townhouses, and a healthy canopy of green trees, the entire background was blue.

Besides James herself and a terra cotta planter pot emblazoned with a face that sits at her feet, everything is blue. The dress is blue. The sky is blue. The rooftop is blue. The buildings and trees in the distance are blue and all the close in details are, too. The iron fence, wood stool, and more pots and plants are indicated with blue paint. Loosely sketched, all of the elements have abstracted attributes.

It’s an interesting composition, what Barkley Hendricks called a limited-palette painting. Casteel’s in-progress, tone-on-tone image makes for a compelling work that rivals the finished painting.

“I think of the sky as being full of endless possibilities,” Casteel told Kazanjiana. “A lot of hope lies within that. The two birds next to her are a moment where I think of flight—the opportunity to move into new spaces. Most of the windows have the same blue that is in the sky. I like the idea that the hope of the sky came inside this urban building-scape, that whoever occupies that space within is also seeing the sky.… Those are some of the things I thought about in making this portrait as it relates to hope and all the things that can exist beyond where we are right now.”

The September 2020 cover portraits by Marshall and Casteel feature gowns by Black designers and follow American Vogue’s collaboration with Tyler Mitchell, who photographed Beyoncé for the September 2018 issue. Mitchell became the first Black photographer to shoot the cover of the fashion magazine since it was founded more than 125 years ago in 1892. Only a handful of artists have ever made paintings for the cover of Vogue. Marshall and Casteel are the first Black artists to do so. CT

 

FIND MORE about Jordan Casteel on her website and view her exhibition at the New Museum

FIND MORE about Kerry James Marshall in his Viewing Room exhibition at David Zwirner Gallery and a video conversation with the artist

 

FIND MORE A few major brands have accepted the 15 Percent Pledge. Sephora was the first to sign up. Vogue also just committed to working with more Black freelance writers, photographers, and other creatives

 

BOOKSHELF
A new exhibition catalog, “Jordan Casteel: Within Reach,” was published to accompany Jordan Casteel’s current solo show at the New Museum in New York. Another recent volume, “Jordan Casteel: Returning the Gaze” (now out of print) documents her first major museum exhibition, which was presented at her hometown museum, the Denver Art Museum. “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” accompanied Kerry James Marshall’s 35-year traveling retrospective. Other recent volumes include “Kerry James Marshall: Painting and Other Stuff,” “Kerry James Marshall,” released by Phaidon, and “Kerry James Marshall: History of Painting,” which explores the artist’s 2018 exhibition at David Zwirner Gallery in London.

 

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