Black dominates the compelling, eye-testing exhibition “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” the largest, most comprehensive retrospective to date of the Chicago-based artist at The Met Breuer. A matte, light-absorbing, sometimes blinding black turns the paintings’ faces and figures into silhouettes and sometimes devours them, as it spreads across backgrounds, punctuates zones of chromatic color, threads through them, or sets up syncopated rhythms across the picture.1 The history of art is full of eloquent black. Name the color and we think of the elegant clothing of Philip IV in Diego Velázquez’s images of the Spanish monarch, Ad Reinhardt’s all-but-unseeable canvases, Frank Stella’s severe Pin-Stripe paintings. We envision the velvety jacket in Edouard Manet’s portrait of Emile Zola or the coat worn by the dapper sixteen-year-old Léon Leenhoff, lounging against a table, in Manet’s Luncheon in the Studio. We conjure up Henri Matisse’s turning black into dazzling light. And we remember that the aged Pierre-Auguste Renoir didn’t like Matisse’s paintings, but told his young admirer that he was a “real painter” because he used black without making a hole in the canvas. Marshall, an informed student of art history, is obviously well aware of these, and many other, examples.

For Marshall, as for all these artists, black is not the absence of color, but a real, vital hue. Yet no matter how brilliantly black functions in formal terms in his work, no matter how much his use of the color makes one think about precedents in Velázquez or Manet or Matisse or even Reinhardt, this difficult hue clearly plays a very different role in his paintings than in those of his predecessors. For Marshall, the blackness of black, its resistance to being seen, becomes a potent metaphor for visibility and invisibility in modern-day African-American experience. He reminds us that invisibility extends to images of black people, in the history of Western art—a canon filled with white presences. Marshall’s declared aim has been to address that absence, to correct that imbalance.

Black is not the absence of color, but a real, vital hue.

Black dominates some of the first works we encounter in “Mastry,” among them the notably tough, notably small painting, A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self (1980, Steven and Deborah Lebowitz). The dry, light-absorbing surface of tempera accentuates the graphic impact of the image. Only the whites of the man’s eyes, his gleaming teeth (with one missing), and his immaculate shirtfront immediately announce themselves at first viewing. Then, as our eyes adjust to nuance, we see the black fedora, the dark face, and the black-clad shoulders against the dark background. The little painting, smaller than a sheet of typing paper, is part of a series inspired by Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man. One of the largest of these, painted in 1986, shares the book’s title. Even more extreme than the little soi-disant self-portrait, it slowly reveals a minimally indicated nude black male, his white eyes and teeth again providing a clue to the heroic body that bends to fit the canvas, within an expanse of black so relentless that it could be read as a challenge to Reinhardt.

Skin, in the figures in “Mastry,” is almost always this Stygian hue, a saturated, flat, only slightly modulated black. Occasionally, Marshall highlights or shades black flesh to suggest mass and fullness, but for the most part he encourages the light-absorbing quality of black to turn forms into elegant shapes, sometimes deliberately sabotaging the unity of his compositions. The uniform, elusive blackness of the skin of his figures makes the color not only an arresting formal device, but also a generic indicator that creates a subliminal subtext: the uncomfortable suggestion that his personages have been and still are, for some members of our vexed society, invisible. Few of the works in “Mastry” are as hard to come to terms with, visually, as the Invisible Man series, with the exception of the tour de force Black Painting (2003–2006, Private Collection), a large—six by nine foot—bedroom interior whose blacks and blue-blacks almost escape our efforts to decipher them. But throughout, with greater and lesser degrees of legibility, Marshall insists on using the color not as a description but as an emblem of the way African Americans are often perceived.

The implications of this subtext can make the cumulative effect of “Mastry,” for all the sheer beauty, lush color, and inventive structure of its most ambitious works, somewhat overwhelming. So does the sheer size of the exhibition. It’s a complete retrospective, a joint project of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. A curatorial collaboration among Ian Alteveer of the Met; Helen Molesworth of LAmoca; and Dieter Roelstraete, formerly of Chicago moca, the exhibition fills two floors of The Met Breuer with more than seventy paintings, many of them large, and about ten related works. The fully illustrated catalogue, with essays by all three curators and Marshall himself, also includes a selection of his writings from 2000 to 2015, and excerpts from his Rythm Mastr drawings, a sometimes angry, sometimes wry, always incisive comic book-style narrative, begun in 1999.

The exhibition is a fitting tribute to an artist who, over the course of three and a half decades, has taught extensively and been awarded numerous awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship and an appointment by President Obama to the Committee on the Arts and Humanities. Chicago-based since 1998, Marshall was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1955, moved to Los Angeles with his family at eight, and was educated at the Otis Art Institute there. In New York, the show traces the evolution of Marshall’s art from 1980 to 2015, with, among other types of work, religious paintings, portraits (almost always imaginary, despite their notable individuality), politically charged images, fantastic inventions, the occasional street- and landscape, and a sprinkling of unclassifiable experiments with different media and techniques.

Among the most striking works in the exhibition are what could be called modern-day genre scenes, presented with the size, elegance, and ambition of Grand Manner history paintings. Marshall explores African-American culture and history with the seriousness and scale reserved, in the past, for official Western history painting, ranging widely through the history of art, teasing us with oblique references, like subtle seasoning in inspired cooking. Works of this type include the stately barbershop interior De Style (1993, Los Angeles County Museum of Art), with its confrontational, extravagantly coiffed, silhouetted figures against a complicated background of cabinets, mirrors, photographs, reflections, and a nifty black vinyl tile floor. The painting has been discussed in relation to Hans Holbein the Younger’s full-length double portrait of Tudor-era dignitaries, The Ambassadors (1533, National Gallery, London), whose solemn figures, generous scale, and complex setting—not to mention its abundant use of black—invite a provocative comparison. The famous anamorphic image of a skull in the foreground of The Ambassadors turns up in the foreground of a painting made almost a decade later than De Style, the enormous—nine by thirteen feet—School of Beauty, School of Culture (2012, Birmingham Museum of Art), which replaces the frontality and restraint of the protagonists of De Style with curvaceous, brightly dressed women who move easily in space and cluster to chat, while children romp in the foreground, against a hot-pink floor and a complicated, almost fractured background. (African-American female beauty, clothed and unclothed, is a recurring motif, throughout the show.) Untitled (Studio) (2014, Metropolitan Museum of Art) rings changes on the motif of the busy, inhabited interior, with its middle ground occupied by a massive worktable laden with paint jars, buckets of brushes, rags, and a skull, its surface covered with paint, that pushes figures towards the periphery. A loosely brushed portrait, in work, is on the easel; an assistant adjusts the pose of the sitter. A red curtain stretched behind the posing figure, combined with the gray-blue surroundings and a standing nude lurking in the background against stacked canvases, somehow links the painting to Henri Matisse’s Pink Studio (1911, Pushkin Museum, Moscow), with its central curtain and multiple figures pushed to the edges, alluded to through depicted paintings and sculptures. The connection, an overtone, rather than an obvious homage, is typical evidence of Marshall’s well-furnished mental image bank of the art of the past and recent past.

This is made explicit by “Kerry James Marshall Selects,” a concurrent, adjacent exhibition of works from the Met’s collection, organized by Marshall and Alteveer.2 Marshall’s choices are strikingly eclectic. They include a Walker Evans photograph of a young, introspective African-American woman in a print blouse, a close-up Horace Pippin self-portrait, a Japanese “floating world” print, a group of half-length images of women by Matisse, Willem de Kooning, Balthus, John Graham, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s elongated grisaille odalisque. Most revealing, perhaps, is Marshall’s selection of works by George Tooker, Jacob Lawrence, and Romare Bearden, all of them distinguished by economically rendered, preternaturally still figures who enact (sometimes) ambiguous narratives.

We remember Marshall’s choices when we encounter, periodically, the exhibition’s many half-length “portraits,” most of them imagined or fictive. A series, composed like Old Master paintings, of imaginary African-American painters contrasts the intense colors on their palettes and paint-by-numbers efforts with their voluptuously black skin; other equally Renaissance-inflected works pay tribute to ordinary, modern individuals, along with such charged figures as Nat Turner and the leader of the Stono Rebellion of 1739, the largest anti-slavery insurrection in the British Colonies, organized in what is now Charleston, South Carolina. These are engaging, strong images, but some of the most unforgettable works in “Mastry” are a group of large, dramatic canvases, executed between 1994 and 1997, that translate the time-honored legacy of narrative history painting into vernacular, contemporary terms, replacing the stories from antiquity, the Bible, and the heroic past beloved of Renaissance fresco painters with charged disquisitions on modern-day African-American life. Marshall presents us with barbed comments on utopian housing schemes, patriotism, and embodiments of the American Dream, so ravishingly painted, with such eloquent drawing, sensuous manipulation of pigment, gorgeous color, and lush patterning, that it takes us a while to realize that the pastoral idylls before us are not as idyllic as we thought. The Garden Series, for example, reminds us of the high-minded intentions of New Deal–subsidized housing. Marshall’s imagery seems joyful and light-filled: an embracing couple, children at play, men in gleaming white shirts working in a garden. But fierce swipes of paint and stabbed-on patterns, at once seductive and brutal, suggest decay and even danger. Ferocious brushstrokes obscure optimistic slogans and violate the pristine landscape, embodying, in purely painterly terms, a powerful suggestion of the future of public housing.

Ferocious brushstrokes obscure optimistic slogans.

Marshall offers what seems to be a more affectionate, optimistic depiction of urban life in the vast 7AM Sunday Morning (2003, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago). A hip update of Edward Hopper’s tranquil streetscape Early Sunday Morning (1930, Whitney Museum of American Art), the painting finds equivalents for Hopper’s nineteenth-century shop-fronts in a long, one-story liquor store and adjacent beauty salon that stretch across the left side of the enormous picture. A few pedestrians wander through. A pair of taller buildings looms behind, the closer one, residential and undistinguished, the more distant, sleek and corporate. The tall buildings, along with a flock of wheeling pigeons, interrupt a huge expanse of cloud-streaked sky. On the right, the cityscape is veiled by urgent, pale brushstrokes, floating (mostly black) hexagons, and a dazzle of white light—a blinding sun? a reflected flash? A blurred car suggests that the painting was based on a photograph, but why a flash in daylight? We scrutinize details of the apparently straightforward scene more closely, striving to find intimations of meaning in both the imagery and Marshall’s virtuoso deployment of his materials. A comment on incipient gentrification or just an improvisation on a familiar scene?

We find ourselves searching for this kind of larger significance as we move through “Mastry,” aided by wall texts, but mostly guided by the paintings themselves. Marshall’s strongest work insures that the history of recent art in this country, at least, vividly reflects and celebrates the experience of African Americans. But what makes “Mastry” rewarding is not its political or sociological underpinnings, however important or timely they may be. We are engaged by inventive images, compelling drawing, expressive color, and accomplished paint-handling. Subtext or no subtext, Marshall’s a terrific painter. Period.

1 “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry” opened at The Met Breuer, New York on October 25, 2016 and remains on view through January 29, 2017.

2 “Kerry James Marshall Selects” opened at The Met Breuer, New York on October 25, 2016 and remains on view through January 29, 2017.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 5, on page 61
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