Kerry James Marshall: A New Old Master

Emma Nance 

Art: ‘Asleep’, by Horace Pippin

Editing by Rianna Walcott

We are unable to embed the work of Kerry James Marshall here for copyright reasons. To view the works of art discussed in this review, please click the links provided.

Update 6/11/17: The Seattle Art Museum is scheduled to exhibit Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas. At Artsy you can find more information about Kerry Marshall, including a biography, over 60 of his works, exclusive articles, and up-to-date Marshall exhibition listings.

A riot of domestic hues. We take in the boxy blue couch, the yellow table with the half-eaten meal, the worn, braided rug, the music swirling above the heads of the lovers. We can vaguely make out the tune if we strain and cock our heads, but the song is not meant for us. We are intruding on their private space, and yet she is accustomed to this interruption, so she lets her eyes slide to the left and relaxes into her partner’s body. Faceless and steady, he imperceptibly sways her hips to the rhythm. She exudes subdued serenity. Finally. Alone together. We quietly slip out and leave them to their slow dance.

Slow Dance, 1992-1993, Kerry James Marshall: Mastry 

These are scenes that we rarely get to see: scenes of normalcy, of triumph, of beauty and love and loss. Often, black people and culture are framed as reactions to Western influence and supremacy, not taught and explored as their own distinct cultures. It’s time we changed this two-dimensional representation. 

I had never heard of Kerry James Marshall before January when I went to see his exhibition, Mastry, in the Met Breuer Gallery. Marshall was born in 1955, almost ten years before the landmark American Civil Rights Act, and grew up during an incredibly turbulent era in America’s history (Met Museum Exhibitions). Marshall unflinchingly captures scenes of urbanity, beauty, pride, anger, history, and patriotism with a steady hand, showcasing many facets of the black experience. His paintings firmly establish the rightful place of African-Americans in the tumultuous social landscape of “separate-but-equal” America and beyond. 

Marshall paints all his figures in resolute black without much hue differentiation. Though one might think that this style would anonymize his figures into the darkness of obscurity, it has the opposite effect and actually serves to highlight and accentuate them. Marshall usually pairs this striking blackness with subjects who look directly into the eyes of the viewer, an unsettling effect which disallows the bystander to shy away. For example, in Marshall’s piece, Black Star, a strongly built, nude, black woman firmly holds the edges of the black star in the background and stares frankly at the viewer. Her powerfully built body, unashamed nakedness, and imposingly defiant gaze humble the viewer in a manner that commands attention.

Black Star, 2012, Kerry James Marshall: Mastry 

When I went to see this exhibit, a friend of Haitian descent remarked, “Maybe it’s the lack of black people depicted in my limited knowledge of painting, but seeing so many scenes in which black people were celebrated, normalized, and loved felt scandalous and refreshing. Most of his works [were] extremely colorful but he always used black (instead of a range of browns) to depict black people. I thought that alone was an amazing way for him to show how blackness can be highlighted instead of hidden. The blackness in these paintings never felt like a shadow, or representative of darkness or evil, but rather made the painting pop and speak louder”.   

Another friend of Bahamian descent, remarked, “It’s simple, like black bodies in black paint. It’s super empowering and poetic, especially since marginalized bodies aren’t ever depicted on that scale and that intensity in paintings”.  

I was recently in an English Literature lecture at Edinburgh University that discussed Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Chinua Achebe’s critique of Conrad’s novel. Though Conrad, a Polish man, lived under Russian occupation and understood foreign oppression first-hand, his depiction of black people in his novel not only idealizes colonialism, but also savages black identity into a faceless, dehumanized crowd. This is the view of black culture that we are presented with in traditional arts and literature: black culture as a symptom of Western influence, seen through the lens of colonialism. We are taught the diversity of Europe’s vying forces in their ‘scramble for Africa’, and yet are left to imagine a homogeneous, victimized Africa.  

Achebe is quick to point out “the desire — one might indeed say the need — in Western psychology to set Africa up as a foil to Europe…in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest” (Achebe, 1977). Achebe highlights this clear academic failure: when we are not forcing invisibility upon an entire continent, we are instead using Africa as a lowly contrast to Western achievement. Indeed, this year we have studied just one black author, Achebe; the rest have been white writers, promoting a biased perspective of colonialism. It is clearly highly relevant to promote discussions and practices that diversify perspective, not only in literature but also in art, history, social studies, etc. 

While Art and Art History are the most obvious categories in a university curriculum to study Kerry James Marshall’s work, I believe that we must start earlier. Marshall should be taught alongside Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, and Jean-Michel Basquiat at the very least in secondary school, establishing minority expression in contemporary art discussions. However, Marshall need not be pigeonholed to art; his work is highly applicable to subjects such as History, Literature, Religion, and Sociology, provoking discussions about racism, postcolonialism, black perspectives, intertextuality, and the social fabric of America.  

While being interviewed about his exhibit, Marshall said, “In the entire narrative of art history as we know it, there is not a single black person who has achieved the title of master, certainly not an Old Master. Mastery means that one is able to self-determine, to determine how one wants to be represented, how one wants to be seen… The goal was ultimately to be free, and to not feel compelled to compromise ideals, vision, integrity, in order to just fit in…I didn’t have to abandon the black figure in order to get here” (Met Museum transcript). To Marshall, freedom in artistic expression is the confidence and self-assuredness to paint what you want without compromising your values or simply maintaining the status quo. Only once you have unapologetically “self-determined” your artistic career have you achieved true mastery and freedom. Studying black art should not be considered revolutionary; it is our job to portray the works of more minority artists in the canon.   

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness'” Massachusetts Review. 18. 1977 Web. 2 Mar. 2017.  

Marshall, Kerry James. Black Star. 2012. Met Breuer Gallery, New York.  Web. 2 Mar. 2017. 

Marshall, Kerry James. Interview. Met Museum. 8 Aug. 2016 2 Mar. 2017.  

Marshall, Kerry James. Kerry James Marshall: Mastry. Met Museum, New York. Web 2 Mar. 2017.   

Marshall, Kerry James. Slow Dance. 1992-1993. Met Breuer Gallery, New York.  Web 2 Mar. 2017. 

About the author:

Emma Nance is a second-year student from the US studying English Literature. When she’s not dutifully writing essays and reading for her courses you can probably find her in the Meadows, heartbroken over the fact that her accommodation disallows dogs and repeatedly bewailing that ruff reality. Que sera, sera.  

One response to Kerry James Marshall: A New Old Master

  1. Celeste-Marie Bernier

    Hi Emma! Your post is totally inspirational! I’m a newly appointed Prof and Chair in the English department at Edinburgh and I’m so excited to read your stellar post as I’m working on a number of projects on these artists – I’ve written a book on Horace Pippin that came out the year before last, he’s breathtaking isn’t he? I move from the US to Edinburgh in the summer so it would be lovely to meet up! Celeste

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