Projecting serenity and confidence, the piercing eyes of the sitter in Kerry James Marshall’s Untitled (Self-Portrait) Supermodel blaze with a quiet focus, belying the art-historical, psychological and political gravity anchoring the composition. Meticulously delineated with a dense network of cross-hatched mark-making overlaid with washes of white pigment, the present work showcases the mastery over the building blocks of representation and highly developed technical skill that are so central to Marshall’s practice. Taking the hallowed traditions of self-portraiture, and subverting them through the filters of race, gender, and popular culture, Marshall’s composition showcases his inimitable ability to allude to and radically upend the canon, extracting the tropes under-girding the representation of race and gender in visual art, and reforming them, literally in his own image.
Marshall’s visage radiates with a calm aura, frozen in a barely perceptible soft smile. Embedded in a space that the artist has made the same color as the sitter’s skin, flanked by expressionistic paint washes and hovering, pigment-rich floral detail, the sitter is at once subsumed and distinct from their environment. Marshall’s “supermodel” proxy has flowing, spectral hair that falls in waves, contrasting their rich charcoal skin tone. This semi-translucent hirsute layer partially conceals the silhouette of Marshall’s head underneath, while hinting at the contours of an Afro, parting to highlight the elegant cheekbones and pointed chin of the artist’s feminized appearance. Underneath Marshall’s face, a field of white paint has the names “Kate,” “Kathy,” Cindy,” and “Linda,” incised into its surface, calling out the leading supermodels, so omnipresent in the time the work was executed that they were identifiable through mononyms. Famous for his depictions of black people in the mode of the leading styles of European portraiture, a tradition that Marshall’s subjects were often excluded from, the present work uses that framework in a decidedly contemporary context, inserting an archetype of blackness, in the form of the artist, into the fashion and advertising imagery that communicate power and beauty in the modern age.
In tandem with its nuanced take on its subject matter, the present work showcases a range of stylistic techniques and creative gestures that dovetail to form an aesthetically alluring composition. Marshall extracts intense warmth from his relatively subdued depiction, which projects magnanimity and regal ease. With an encyclopedic grasp over the interaction of skin and light, Marshall conjures a subtle reflectivity through the pressure he applies to the paper support, bringing a near sculptural dimension to the representation. Perhaps hinting at the commentary embedded within Untitled (Self-Portrait) Supermodel, Marshall’s flowing locks are flat in comparison, a temporary facade that is fading and will ultimately disappear, as beauty does with time.
Using the archetypal figure of the supermodel, Marshall engages other archetypes to propose broader questions about the foundations of beauty in culture. Discussing these early and deeply formative works which are critically positioned in the context of the commercial beauty industry, Karsten Lund explains: “Marshall has commented that ‘white figures in pictures representative of ideal beauty and humanity are ubiquitous,’ to the degree that the image of a black figure ‘can never be used as a substitute for what’s beautiful’ and that ‘it has become problematic for people of color to express any real desire for their own ideals of beauty’” (Karsten Lund in: Exh. Cat., Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, 2016, p. 114). Marshall subverts this exclusionary trope through the radical insertion of a black figure into this pictorial tradition. The composition is further complicated by the fact that the artist is characterizing the work as a self-portrait, using himself as a totem of blackness, and asking intersectional feminist questions concerning notions of gender. Less of a portrait and himself and more of an insertion of blackness as distilled into his own image, like all of the artist’s most accomplished works, Untitled (Self Portrait as a Supermodel) addresses the entrenched symbols which bound the realm of what can be represented and how, and radically shifts them to allow for a diversity of voices.
Using the vehicle by which beauty, wealth and status are communicated, the present work is a synthesis of visual elements and conceptual conceits that are rarely brought together in one composition. Emblematic of a body of work that endeavors 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,” Untitled (Self-Portrait) Supermodel is singular in its approach to contemporary culture, enduring as a powerful salvo, breaking the boundaries of who can be considered beautiful (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).
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