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In Untitled (Mirror Girl) (2014), a young woman, voluptuous, luxuriating in her nudity, strikes a pose in front of her star-trimmed mirror. She holds her breasts in her hands to emulate a magazine spread, and she is stunning. An assortment of clothes and shoes decorate the floor beneath her, their colors and textures rhyming with the geometrical patterns across the rug and wallpaper. A cat sits quietly in the background, creating a collage effect—a technique Kerry James Marshall has used throughout his career. An eroticized charge emanates through the woman’s open gaze, and the conditions of the room, where surfaces reflect, absorb, and refract the pleasure she emanates.
As a performance of desire, this painting aptly illustrates the title of this exhibition catalogue of Kerry James Marshall’s paintings: Look/See. The young woman embodies the complicated set of relationships expressed throughout the body of work included in the catalogue. As Marshall himself explains: “I want you to be aware of . . . the act of looking . . . both the act of looking and then locating yourself in relationship to the subject you’re looking at . . . [so] in the case of Untitled (Mirror Girl) . . . can this image stand in for who you would like to be?” (93). In asking this question, Mirror Girl challenges her viewers to do more than look; her self-absorption reflects a sense of beauty that emerges fully formed rather than predicated on an outsider’s gaze. In the climate of anti-blackness that pervades social relations in the United States, there is a tendency to see black life only through a rhetoric of trauma that continues to shape narratives of African American history. It is exactly this politics of vision that Marshall’s Mirror Girl and her companions compel us to see beyond. The dynamic of looking and seeing is a motif that recurs throughout the paintings compiled in this catalogue. Marshall’s black subjects are shown in various settings and range from interior portraits like Mirror Girl to outdoor scenes like Untitled (Blanket Couple) and Untitled (Porch Deck). Here we see a varied set of characters whose attention is always elsewhere.
This dissociation from the viewer heightens the works’ power, for these subjects are both mysterious and seemingly ordinary: standing on porches, before mirrors, embracing and being embraced. What this catalogue makes abundantly clear is Marshall’s commitment to showing the rich complexity of black life. This complexity, predicated on self-fulfilling and self-sustaining experiences, takes us beyond the optics of the gaze to consider the possibilities of sight that in Marshall’s paintings become the means of reimagining black futures. Marshall’s subjects, as Christina Sharpe has termed it, are “living in the wake.”1 In the face of often dire conditions, they express their pleasures, their longings and their pain, but not (only) under the conditions of violence and commodification we seem programmed to expect when viewing representations of blackness. Threading together the Romanticism of Géricault, the figuration of Anthony van Dyck, and the abstraction of Stella, among others, Marshall’s paintings generate a new aesthetic not simply of black survival, but of the beauty and joy of black life.
This aesthetic is not merely a reflection of the range of characters that Marshall incorporates in his paintings. It emerges from his painterly commitments. Articles about Kerry James Marshall often remind us of his early interest in art sparked by visits to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; these early visits, which led to art classes in summer school and college, also made him aware of the lack of black representation in these museum collections, an omission he set out to rectify through artistic mastery. While a more recent touring exhibition of his work was entitled Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, this catalogue of works—created for his first exhibition at David Zwirner Gallery in London in 2014—reveals Marshall’s mastery of draftsmanship and painting and his exciting experimentation as he addresses these canonical limitations. In an interview with Angela Choon included in the catalogue, Marshall reveals not only his process, the rituals of his practice, and his inspirations, but also his deep engagement with black art historiography. He understands his work in relation to a longer tradition of black artists—referencing the Black Arts Movement, for instance—that sought to provide a corrective to the negativity associated with blackness in American life. However, as he points out, movements like this were “insufficiently engaged with the history of art and the Western tradition they sought to challenge” (91). Placing his work in direct conversation with the tenets of modern and postmodern painting, Marshall refuses the marginalized status of black art and the limiting dualisms, such as abstraction versus figuration, that have reinforced this marginalization.
Like Barkley L. Hendricks, Marshall is particularly interested in the “grand tradition” of painting, evidenced in his adroit figuration and compositional structure. His figures and scenes might reference the grand manner tradition of portraiture, as well as the more intimate genre scenes of Dutch seventeenth-century painting. But he is also a colorist—and while this experimentation seems most evident in his blot paintings, we are also given a close-up view of his experimental, collage-like process (a technique he worked with before painting) in a work like Untitled (Studio). In this fictional self-portrait of the artist at work, Marshall brings together several art-historical styles, from portraiture to still life, complete with the tools of his trade (brushes and paint) and the conventions of classical painting (skull, flower, bread) that transform the picture into a kind of vanitas. While Marshall references these historical styles, he is also working through the relationship between pictorial structure and its implications for the subject of representation. While the painting reflects on the relationship between techniques of representation and practices of looking, it also relies on a certain abstraction with its refusal of linear perspective and its geometric arrangement of panels and blocks of color across the canvas. These surface relationships lead us to consider the material ways in which abstraction is “an incidental adjunct of the representational process” (96), and move us further away from delimiting oppositions between representational and abstract painting.
In his catalogue essay, “Chromophilia and the Interaction of Color,” art critic Robert Storr highlights this aspect of Marshall’s process through his evocative reading of the artist’s colorist experimentations. His essay excavates the complexity of Marshall’s surfaces, lucidly revealing their deep historical and art-historiographical explorations. Storr mirrors the aesthetic work of the artist, whose aim is not to (merely) criticize the art-historical canon that has erased, sidelined or limited the ways black art might be read. Storr draws directly from the aesthetic impulse of these artworks to describe how Marshall, along with other painters from the African diaspora, expand the canon through their “sampling and recycling” of the imagery and conventions of Eurocentric art history to formulate what he calls a “postcolonial approach to narrative art” (11). In Storr’s essay, the charged process of looking and seeing offers a methodology for reassessing the power dynamics embedded in the art-historical canon. His aim is to show how things pushed to the margins might step out of those shadows. He also highlights how these seemingly aesthetic judgments are also tied to issues of a social and political nature, with real-life implications for the ways black people can express their identity, and how that identity is seen. The connections Storr makes between redlining—which Merriam-Webster’s defines as the act of “withhold[ing] home-loan funds or insurance from neighborhoods considered poor economic risks”—as a social practice, the geography of Chicago, and the painterly experiments with color that Marshall makes in Untitled (Studio) and Untitled (Red Line) is one particularly powerful example of this analysis.
Exhibition catalogues are often an important starting point for scholars interested in the field of black diasporic art, providing a repository of visual information that might bring together an often understudied artist’s oeuvre, alongside important critical analysis. This catalogue does something similar. Even though Marshall is hardly an understudied artist, he is not yet the subject of art-historical monographs. This catalogue, which includes reproductions of all the work in the exhibition, including his figurative paintings, blot paintings, and works on paper, offers a rare and important insight into Marshall’s artistic practice. The catalogue adds to the scholarship on the artist and helps to expand our conceptions of black diasporic art historiography. While it helps set out a genealogy of sorts, the catalogue also provides a rich reserve of pictorial imagery for scholars to work through some of the current issues facing the field, such as the relationship of abstraction and figuration and the need to more closely examine the aesthetic and formal innovations of black artists. Just as the title suggests, the works in this catalogue compel us to look more closely and to see with more acuity. In Untitled (Crowning Moment), Marshall shows a beauty queen at the moment she is awarded her crown. It is a scene of exaltation that draws on the grand manner portrait tradition to depict a beauty not often idealized in the contemporary United States. This is a powerful image of black joy, pleasure, and adulation, but, like Mirror Girl, it is also a painting that exemplifies how looking and seeing require different viewpoints and provide different outcomes. These are not only counter-images to what is represented in popular culture but are pictures directly embedded and engaged with the tenets of the art-historical canon. This dynamic also describes Marshall’s own relationship to the pantheon of art history. Perhaps, ultimately, what this catalogue shows us is Marshall’s crowning achievement in seamlessly inserting himself into this pantheon so that we can no longer visualize the trajectory of art history without seeing his painted black figures looking back at us.
1. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016).
Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Archaeology/Department of African American Studies, Princeton University