Kerry James Marshall
Embodying the artist’s career-spanning commitment to rewriting the tenets of race and representation, Kerry James Marshall’s Untitled (Painter) from 2008 is a pivotal shift in the canon of Contemporary Art. In the present work, Marshall subverts the hegemonic conception of the artist, forging a commentary on the privileges and assumptions inherent to artmaking, by inserting black female subjectivity into that rarified space. Bringing together the language of abstraction with an unapologetically raced and gendered presence, the present work is an interrogation of the foundations of culture, in the view of the artist, to reimagine the “mythic image of the painter,” and reflect on the nature of art itself (Kerry James Marshall in conversation with Art21, art21.org, Portraiture & Representation, accessed January 28).
Marshall’s composition is divided into three interrelated but visually distinct passages—palette, Painter, and studio, each rendered with a unique representational approach. The stylistic differences between these passages allow Marshall to forge a dialogue between artistic modes through their contrast and interaction in his composition. Describing the series to which the present work belongs, Marshall explains, “the figures in these pictures are represented in a space where they are sort of between abstraction and representation. The palette each figure is holding represents a way in which abstraction is incidental. The palette exists as a kind of an abstract painting. The figure stands behind the palette as a kind of a representational image. And then on the wall behind the figure is the aftermath of the painting process, in which you work on the wall and at the edges of the canvas you end up with this sort of linear abstraction as a residue” (ibid). A proponent of figuration as a proxy for a social agenda, Marshall's inclusion of an abstract visual vocabulary underscores the primacy of his vision and technical excellence, as well as reflects and interrogates the sociopolitical implications of different artistic modes.
Central to the composition, Marshall's Painter stands erect, confidently resting her hand against her hip and holding an outsized palette. Emerging from the ether of her studio, the artist’s Painter is a highly resolved locus in the center of a pointedly sketched out framework. Existing without context except for her self-presentation—her clothing and the prominence with which she displays the tools of her trade, Marshall's subject is the archetype of the artist. Describing his choice not to give the subjects from his series of Painters a specific identity or context, Marshall explains, that “they are outside of time I think. I mean there’s nothing in the pictures that locates them at any particular moment in history per se. They exist completely outside of time because I think this question of representation is not an issue that’s peculiar to this particular moment” (ibid). Without being an explicit portrait, or a singular representation, the present work feels fiercely personal, condensing that “question of representation” into an allegorical manifestation.
Furthering this distancing from specific representations, the Painter's skin is the deep, nearly jet black which the artist has used throughout his oeuvre, contrasting with the creams and pastel tones of her clothing, palette, and setting. Marshall employs this tonality to make race central to his body of work, but also as a means to engage “the entire apparatus of painting as it has arrived in the twenty-first century—its history, materials, discursive debates, emotional resonances, and glaring blind spots—in order to entrench his paintings within the discipline” (Lanka Tattersall, “Black Lives, Matter,” in Exh. Cat., Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, 2016, p. 69). Deeply concerned not just with the imagery of the contemporary moment as a basis for representation, but also the bedrock on which art history, and more broadly contemporary visual culture, is built, works like Untitled (Painter) use black pigment as a vehicle to radically reassess the boundaries of who can participate in cultural production.
In his discussion of the series of Painters which were shown in his 2008 Black Romantic show, the artist explains “I’ve always been interested in this place where popular art or vernacular works cross over and move from the popular realm into the mainstream, critical institutional realm. Certain genres of painting are more privileged and less privileged, and this idea of the Black Romantic, with its positive imagery of black figures, has a kind of sentimentality that is seen by many artists as being deficient” (Kerry James Marshall in conversation with Art21, art21.org, Black Romantic, accessed January 28). Marshall reframes this aforementioned sentimentality, imbuing it with strength, epitomized by the subjects powerful physicality and unblinking gaze. Through his steadfast devotion to figuration, Marshall negotiates space for emotional resonance to live alongside formal innovation, crafting imagery that helps spread open the boundaries of institutionally celebrated modes of artistic practice.
While figuration is the primary means for Kerry James Marshall’s aesthetic, social and political explorations and messaging, abstraction, especially the gestures and signatures of the Postwar abstractionists are a vehicle to further the discourse around painting in the present work. Although the artist’s Painter anchors the present work, the composition is primarily abstract. The Painter’s setting recalls the linear abstraction of Richard Diebenkorn Ocean Park paintings, a concrete environment structured out of more ethereal compositionally elusive, sketch-like mark making. The large palette is itself an abstract composition, dwarfing much of the scene. For the artist, “this notion of abstraction as a means of achieving creative freedom shadows Marshall’s painters, even as their very depiction also embodies an inverse belief—foundational to his larger body of work—in the importance of figuration and the need to paint black figures into the cannon. In these works specifically, Marshall makes black artists commandingly visible, a group that is doubly under recognized in the case of black women” (Karsten Lund in Exh. Cat., Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, 2016, p. 178). In the present work, Marshall’s Painter holds the palette, a symbol of both the artist and his subject’s source of raw creation and an emblem of the notion of painting itself, with Herculean ease. The palette, itself a maelstrom of color, form and texture, is, in turn, a chaotic counterpoint to the highly composed and refined painter. Together, these elements are a reflexive gesture, illustrating painting’s two extremes, and bringing into conversation the potentials inherent to the medium.
Most strikingly, Marshall is able to demonstrate his conceptual aims through his painterly virtuosity and inventiveness. A master of light, the artist captures variations in surface texture and reflectivity with a deft and sensitive touch, shifting from the heavily impastoed palette, to the Painter’s delicate, gleaming jewelry, to her subtly luminescent skin, all within a square inch. The artist resolves these various passages so that they are cohesive in the composition through his singular stylistic focus on bold graphic figures and expressive use of tone. Marshall explains, “Once you have mastered the language of art-making, then you have to try to find ways to speak eloquently with it, and do so with complete control of how much tension you are putting on the spring. You should be able to tweak it, even a millimeter, to get it fine-tuned, and you can’t do that unless you are completely conscious of the devices you’re using all the time” (Kerry James Marshall in conversation with Calvin Reid, BOMB Magazine No.62, Jan 1, 1998). Employing the full host of techniques available to practitioners of the medium , Marshall’s canvas is host to a wide array of chromatic and textural variation, smattered with pastel pigments in greens, blues, yellows, oranges, pinks, whites, and grays—a cacophony of color that appears subtle and refined under the artist’s experienced hand. A painting about painting in the Modernist sense, the present work utilizes the visual cues of its art historical progenitors to address notions of excellence in art, as well as the social condition of black, female painters.
Untitled (Painter) brings together the most aesthetically and intellectually engaging characteristics of the artist’s body of work into one composition, a combination of aesthetic and conceptual gestures rarely afforded by a single work by the artist. Marshall has explained that his “overarching principle is still to move the black figure from the periphery to the center and, secondly, to have these figures operate in a wide range of historical genres and stylistic modes culled from the history of painting...I am using African American cultural and social history as a catalyst for what kind of pictures to make. What I’m trying to do in my work is address Absence with a capital A”(The artist in conversation with Dieter Roeltraete in “An Argument for Something Else,” in Nav Haq, Ed., Kerry James Marshall: Painting and Other Stuff, Ghent 2014, p. 26). Untitled (Painter) is an effort to address this absence and amend it, inserting a powerful and undeniable presence into the canon.
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