Contemporary Art

What Does an Artist Look Like? Kerry James Marshall Asks Us to Reconsider

By Sotheby's
“For people of color, securing a place in the modern story of art is fraught with confusion and contradictions about what and who they should be – black artists, or artists who happen to be black. A modernist has always looked like a white man, in one way or another. Universality has, unquestionably, been his gift to bestow on others.” — Kerry James Marshall

K erry James Marshall’s luminous Untitled (Painter) from 2008 embodies a pivotal moment in the artist’s career-long commitment to redefining race and representation within art history. Into the rarefied, historically white and male space of the artist studio, Marshall places a black woman painter; boldly standing in her painter’s smock, hand on hip, holding the monumental palette before her. An unapologetic figure, she boldly reimagines the “mythic image of the painter.”

Defined by her paint-spattered smock and the prominence with which she displays the tools of her trade, Marshall's subject is the archetype of the artist. There are no contextual clues as to her identity, granting her a timelessness and an authority. Her skin is a deep, nearly jet-black that contrasts with the creams and pastel tones of her clothing, palette and setting. Marshall has used this skin tone consistently throughout his oeuvre. It at once centers race at the core of his body of work, while engaging the history of painting and challenging long-held visions of "the artist."

Vincent van Gogh, Self Portrait as Painter, 1888, in the Collection of the Van Gogh Museum , Amsterdam. Image courtesy of Bridgeman Images.

Marshall divides the composition into three interrelated but visually distinct passages – palette, painter and studio, each rendered with its own stylistic approach, channeling aesthetics from the Renaissance to 20th-century abstraction. With great intent Untitled (Painter) alludes to the long history of artist self-portraits from Velázquez's Las Meninas to the isolated tortured-artist mythology of Van Gogh.

Sculpture of a woman with her face resting on her hand.
Elizabeth Catlett, Phillis Wheatley, 1973, in the Cincinnati Art Museum. Image courtesy of Bridgeman Images.

While Marshall's steadfast devotion to figuration certainly defines Untitled (Painter) providing an emotional and social resonance – much of the canvas is filled with passages that channel the language of post-war abstraction. The studio wall that serves as the back-drop to the portrait evokes the linear abstraction of Richard Diebenkorn Ocean Park paintings, while the whirling motion of the gargantuan palette hearkens to Joan Mitchell’s tempestuously gestural paintings.

White canvas with blocks of color.
Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park No. 49, 1972, in the Collection of Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  

There is a dynamic tension between the maelstrom of the palette and the meticulously controlled and composed depiction of the painter – here Marshall underscores pitfalls in the narrative of the art historical canon. Whereas abstraction has often been heralded as a means to individual expression and artistic freedom, Marshall reasserts the historically imperative need to insert black figures into this canon – which abstraction makes impossible. Marshall’s Painter holds the palette – at once a symbol of Marshall, his subject’s means of creative expression and an emblem of painting itself – with Herculean ease. Together, these elements are a reflexive gesture, illustrating painting’s two extremes of abstraction and figuration, and bringing into conversation the potentials inherent to the medium – including social representation.

A painting about painting in the Modernist sense, the present work utilizes the visual cues of its art historical precedents to address notions of excellence in art, as well as the social condition of black, female painters. Through these multiple stylistic and social narratives, Untitled (Painter) encompasses the core issues at the heart of Marshall's career – an accomplishment rarely afforded by a single work by the artist.

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