“Mastry,” an exhilarating Kerry James Marshall retrospective at the Met Breuer, is a big deal for three reasons: it marks the museum’s blessing of Marshall and, in turn, Marshall’s benediction of the museum, and it affirms a revival of grandly scaled, thematic figurative painting. Marshall, now sixty-one and based in Chicago, has achieved prominence as an artist of universal appeal—he won a MacArthur “genius” grant in 1997—with a particular focus. He has strictly depicted African-American life and experience since 1980, when he made “A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self.” Executed in the antique medium of egg tempera, the painting is in blacks and grays, save for the whites of the eyes, a shirt collar, and a gap-toothed grin. Small in size but jolting in impact, the portrait bears hints of ghastly blackface caricature, but turns them around into astute ironies of a self-aware, unconquerable character—not an “identity,” a term that is as reductive in art as it is in politics, and which Marshall bursts beyond. He doesn’t argue. He tells.
Most of Marshall’s imagery is celebratory, and often at mural scale. His keynote is a commitment to blackness both represented and literal, modelling flesh in pigments of acrylic carbon, ivory, and Mars Black. “School of Beauty, School of Culture” (2012) convenes eight women, two men, two toddlers, and the artist, who is seen in a mirror, his face obscured by a camera flash. The adults sport smart styles of dress, hair, and posture, in luscious colors pegged to a dominant coral and blue-green. Background details done in gold glitter pop forward from the wonderfully handled deep space. Floating free, and noticed only by the children, is a distorted image of Walt Disney’s blond Sleeping Beauty: an ideal that is implicitly, and decisively, shrugged off by the kids’ glamorous mothers and aunts.
Other of Marshall’s subjects include lovers in intimate interiors or lyrical landscapes; artists at work on paint-by-numbers self-portraits; people relishing, or enduring, life in public housing and inhabiting utopian suburbs; and upper-middle-class matrons in living rooms filled with civil-rights-era memorabilia. There are also enlarged panels from Marshall’s raucously Expressionist comic strip about a black superhero, “Rythm Mastr.” A rare Caucasian figure in a show of some eighty works is that of a head severed by an axe-wielding Nat Turner, in a history painting redolent of baroque gore (all those postmortems of David and Goliath) and ambiguously pitched between menace and dread. But the show’s cumulative, epic effect is neither political protest nor an appeal for progress in race relations. It’s a ratification of advances already made.
Marshall’s compliment to the Met is expressed by a show within the show, of works from the museum’s collection that he particularly values. He selected paintings by four modern African-American artists—Horace Pippin, Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, and Charles Wilbert White (a W.P.A. muralist who was an inspirational teacher of Marshall’s in college)—and three African sculptures: a Dan mask, a Senufo oracle figure, and a Bamana Boli (a featureless animal encrusted with “sacrificial” matter, including blood). But most of the works are by dead white men, from Veronese and Holbein through Ingres and Seurat to Balthus and de Kooning, with surprising nods to George Tooker, Paul Cadmus, and Andrew Wyeth. In each case, an intellectual spark leaps to some aspect of Marshall’s art: eloquent figurative distortion, from Ingres and de Kooning; dark tonality, from Seurat and Ad Reinhardt; and theatrical violence, from nineteenth-century Japanese prints. Only one choice baffled me: a blushy Bonnard nude, which feels antithetical to Marshall’s manner. (Is that the ironic point of its inclusion?)
“Kerry James Marshall Selects,” as the sub-show is titled, amounts to a visual manifesto, with which Marshall pays homage to a personal pantheon of forebears even as he shoulders in among them. The gesture confirms him as the chief aesthetic conservative in the company of such other contemporary black artists as David Hammons, Kara Walker, and Fred Wilson, who are given to conceptual and pointedly social-critical strategies. Marshall’s untroubled embrace of painting’s age-old narrative and decorative functions projects a degree of confidence that is backed both by his passion for the medium and by the authenticity of his lived experience.
Marshall has said, “You can’t be born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1955 and grow up in South Central near the Black Panthers headquarters, and not feel like you’ve got some kind of social responsibility. You can’t move to Watts in 1963 and not speak about it.” (The artist’s father, a postal worker, took Marshall and his mother and his two siblings to Watts for a year before settling in South Central.) Marshall’s childhood was marred by violence—friends and neighbors were stabbed or shot with awful frequency—and enriched by a budding enthusiasm for art. His first visit to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in 1965, stunned him. “I went from floor to floor looking at everything, in the same way that in the library I went down the stacks and looked at every art book, without discrimination,” he later wrote.
In 1968, when he was thirteen, a teacher’s nomination won him placement in a summer drawing course at the Otis Art Institute, a school dedicated to relatively traditional training. He set his heart on attending that college upon graduation, but it took him four more years to qualify for admission, two of them spent working odd jobs to save enough money to enter Los Angeles City College, and two acquiring sufficient academic credits there. His already active bent for African-American subjects was confirmed and amplified at Otis, where he took a course in collage with the prominent artist Betye Saar, and was galvanized by reading Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” which directly inspired his “Portrait of the Artist.” The painting, he has said, is, like Ellison’s novel, about “the simultaneity of presence and absence”—about being real but unseen.
A residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem brought Marshall to New York, in 1985. There he encountered the influence of painting-averse post-minimalist and conceptual artists. In 2000, he recalled his renegade response, and what it led to, this way: “I gave up on the idea of making Art a long time ago, because I wanted to know how to make paintings; but once I came to know that, reconsidering the question of what Art is returned as a critical issue.” The reconsideration landed in an improbable place: lessons from the Old Masters applied to the modern American experience. At first, Marshall availed himself of stylistic ideas that had marked the rise of neo-expressionist painting in the early eighties, with coarse figurative images and paint built up in rough marks and patterns that recall the muscular temerity of Julian Schnabel, among others. From Leon Golub, a too little regarded master of violent themes, Marshall adopted the format of unstretched canvas fastened flat to a wall.
His growing ease with rendering space came to fruition in the mid-nineties, with vast paintings of housing projects, such as Nickerson Gardens, in Watts, which had been his family’s home for a time and which he recalls fondly. My favorite work in the show is the Fragonardesque “Untitled (Vignette)” (2012), in which a loving couple lounges in parkland made piquant by a pink ground, a dangling car-tire swing, and an undulating musical staff in silver glitter, with hearts for notes. Marshall’s formal command lets him get away with any extreme of sweetness or direness, exercising a painterly voice that spans octaves, from soprano trills to guttural roars.
There have been other significant African-American painters in recent years, including Robert Colescott, whose somewhat similar engagement with art history ran to fantasias of interracial romance, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose linear panache qualified him as the greatest of American neo-expressionists. But Marshall’s “Mastry” has a breakthrough feel: the suggestion of a new normal, in art and in the national consciousness.