Kerry James Marshall: History of Painting (David Zwirner Books, 2019)

“The vast archive of human-made products looms over my present efforts as both a challenge to push on intelligently and a rebuke of too much self-regard. Youthful innocence as a consequence of ignorance necessarily gives way to an age of obligation, the obligation to wonder at what is, now, worth doing. I’ve been at this for nearly forty years, full time.” – Kerry James Marshall, from Preface

Featuring just 17 paintings by Kerry James Marshall (1955-) – 14 from the exhibition itself – History of Painting, a book published on the occasion of the exhibition at the David Zwirner Gallery in London, October 3 to November 10, 2018, with a brief preface and afterword by the artist, and major essays by novelist, photographer, and art historian Teju Cole (Open City, 2012) and art critic/historian Hal Foster, gives us interesting insights into Marshall’s painterly universe.

History of Painting – giving the book its title – is a sequel of five pop-inflected pictures, in which auction prizes of different artists replace the prizes of everyday supermarket products, showing us the discrepancies between white and black artists, as well as male and female ones, in the commerce of art, but hinting also at the relative absence of female and black artists in the history of art.

Two sets of abstractions of color patches on white fields remind us “that a picture – before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or an anecdote – is essentially a plane surface with colors assembled in a certain order.” (Maurice Denis,1945, quoted by Kerry James Marshall in his preface). 

All 14 works are from 2018, and the ‘solo’ paintings: Untitled (Dog Walker), Untitled (Landscape), Day and Night (a pair), the remarkable Black Boy and Untitled (a semi-nude woman toweling and dressing), are all fine examples of Kerry James Marshall’s art – and of his determination to put the black figure ‘in the picture’, in the art museums, and in the history of painting. 

But the absolute centerpiece of the exhibition (used also for the book’s cover), is “Untitled (Underpainting)”, Kerry James Marshall’s 2018 self-reflexive ‘meta’ painting. (“My motto is: ‘Overthink everything.’ Don’t just do it!” – Kerry James Marshall). A painting discussed by both Teju Cole (1975-) and Hal Foster (1955-) in their respective essays.  

Shadow Cabinet. Teju Cole has found some eye-opening exhibits for display in his magic Shadow Cabinet (the title of his essay), among them Kerry James Marshall’s 1980 painting A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self, opening the essay with a brief text on shadow and substance.

And in the following 27 short ‘bullet point’-texts, Cole examines as many – if not more – subjects, like Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) and her cartes de visite: “I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance” (her own body and the cause of the abolition of slavery).                                 

Or blackness/the color black, as in the scene in Ralph Ellison’s classic Invisible Man (1952), where the unnamed protagonist/narrator at Liberty Paints is set to work making a paint called Optic White by mixing a white paint foundation with ten drops of a particular black chemical. Thus mixed, Optic White comes out dazzling white. Teju Cole: “Dazzling white. The black is in there, though.”  

And then there is The Dark Continent, a phrase some people will use even today. Teju Cole: “Have you ever heard anything so absurd? Africa, sun-stunned and light inundated Africa, described as the ‘Dark Continent’? Something more than metaphor must be at play here”.    

“The term became popular as part of the colonial enterprise of the19th century. It submerged and  effaced thousands of years of interaction between Europe and Africa – this was the kind of distance colonialists needed,” Teju Cole writes. “Something was being pretended at here, some familiarity posing as lack of familiarity, some darkness that was a symbolic representation not of those so-named but of those who did the naming.” Colonialists being the ones ‘in the dark’.

And Kerry James Marshall’s Untitled (Underpainting) addresses a different kind of illusion: “What is under painting, the black that has been there all along, but not seen by them” – Teju Cole.

Underpainting, A Real Allegory. Underpainting is a large picture of black children and adults, including a teacher, in an art museum, the scene doubled in two brown panels – similar but different – , separated by two white bands on which two labels appear: On the left panel it says: Kerry James Marshall, African American painter, and on the right: Kerry James Marshall, American painter.

It is tempting to see Teju Cole’s essay as a portrait of Kerry James Marshall, African American painter, and Hal Foster’s essay, Underpainting, A Real Allegory, as a portrait of Kerry James Marshall, American painter. But that would be to over-simplify matters, even as the focus of Foster’s essay is to place Kerry James Marshall’s work in the tradition of the masters of Western art, like Hans Holbein the Younger (“The Ambassadors”, 1533) and Velázquez (Las meninas, 1656), another meta-painting. Teju Cole, too, mentions him, and Vermeer, Courbet, Manet, a.o.

Just as Foster will discuss major African American texts, like W.E.B. DuBois’ famous notion of ‘double-consciousness’ (from The Souls of Black Folk, 1903), and Toni Morrison’s book-length, groundbreaking essay Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992).   

Even in two earlier ’pop art’ paintings reproduced in Foster’s essays, De Style (1993), set in a barbershop, and School of Beauty, School of Culture (2012), from a beauty salon, there are clear references to the masters. And to popular culture: Sleeping Beauty, from the 1959 Walt Disney film, making an appearance in School of Beauty ... (but seen only by the children in the painting).   

Kerry James Marshall would not object: “I am not trying to dismantle the canon, the museum, or any of that. On some level, the goal is to match … the complexities of things that are already there … It’s less about changing the narrative than it is about participating.”     

And writing (in his Afterword): “I really do believe there is accumulated ‘value added’ from past achievements to artworks I make and those made, by others, in our time.”

KERRY JAMES Marshall is a major artist of his generation. Teju Cole: “Every painter is in the history of painting. I am drawn to those painters who are in a proper present tense. As custodians of the history of painting, they know their place in it. They are just in time. And right on time.”   

UFI// 31 March 2020   

Note: Kerry James Marshall in Denmark. With the large-scale exhibition Painting and Other Stuff at Charlottenborg Kunsthal in 2014 in Copenhagen – also shown in Antwerpen, Belgium, and in Spain in Barcelona and Madrid at Reina Sophia – Kerry James Marshall is one of very few African American artists – Kara Walker (1969-) is another – to have had a solo exhibition in Denmark (see the ten minute interview/monologue with the artist – the questions have been edited out – in the Paint it Black video at