Marshall’s America

Almost everything you should want to know about the monumental paintings of Kerry James Marshall is infinitely accessible in a way that the work of past masters could never be. One of the most celebrated painters currently working in the United States, Marshall makes work about African American identity and experience, and the narratives of their history that have been widely excluded from our country’s ever broadening patrimony. He also proves himself a discerning and eloquent ambassador to not only his own work, but to art history and an alternative American heritage.

There is no better explanation or critique of Marshall’s work than what comes from Marshall himself, and a quick Google search yields hours of interviews and video recordings—from a recent lecture at the Smithsonian, to documentary features, college guest talks and semi-formal conversations with museum curators. This is an artist who does not mince words. He holds forth on a vast array of topics—from the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the African American experience, to Hans Holbein, to the extant psychological turmoil of present-day Iraq—examining everything from an incisively self-aware, curious, and optimistic perspective.

And this isn’t even to talk about his paintings currently on view at the National Gallery.

I was scheduled to interview Marshall on June 27, the day before an exhibition of his work opened at the National Gallery of Art as part of their In the Tower series, which focuses on artistic developments since the mid-20th century. Over the past few years, the Tower series has featured Mel Bochner, Nam Jun Paik, Mark Rothko and Phillip Guston, to name a few. Marshall’s work fits uniquely within the series’ ostensible focus on the evolution of the Western artistic tradition.

His work speaks to art history, dealing with subjects from the Renaissance through modernism. But Marshall departs broadly from these institutions commonly featured in the National Gallery, drawing on his inordinate knowledge of African diasporic culture and iconography, as well as alternative and commercial visual languages. While it functions as art (and beautifully so), it also explores a tension between the historically gentrified privilege of fine art and a black American social history on the receiving end of severe economic and cultural exclusion.

“The history and the subtext of race is always present in the United States whether we recognize it or not,” Marshall says. “It’s part of the intellectual air that we breathe. But art has always occupied in a rarified social strata. Most of what we see in museums now was once in somebody’s house—these were all privately owned things that circulated among the aristocracy.”

Born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1955, Marshall grew up in South Central Los Angeles, where he observed firsthand the social tumult brought about by the Black Power and Civil Rights movements. Strongly influenced by his experiences, he developed a signature artistic style in the 1980s that involved the use of figures that are essentially and literally black—flat shades of stark, inky darkness that recall Greek black-figure vase paintings—representing a culture of separation with distinct inner and outer appearances. To this day, his work continues to confront racial stereotypes within the United States, forcing his audience to consider a very basic but difficult question: how do we, individually and as a society, perceive the black experience?

Prior to our meeting, I spent a few hours alone in Marshall’s exhibit, which is composed of 10 paintings and more than 20 preparatory drawings, including the landmark canvas “Great America” which the National Gallery acquired in 2011. The paintings in the main gallery work together to form a patchwork of corresponding icons, figures and allusions. He employs painting techniques as a visual vocabulary, combining physical gestures of abstraction, modernism, pop art and Renaissance influence while stripping them of their inherent intentions. In “Great America,” for instance, a coarse block of blue-white paint that evokes the nonobjective abstraction of someone like Hans Hofmann becomes an antithetical mechanism for narrative erasure, leaving a vacuous hole in the middle of a seascape.

That seascape, however, is the territory of a piece that deals directly with the experience of African slaves forcibly transported by European investors from their homeland to the New World through the Middle Passage. This journey of inconceivable suffering, where nearly two million died at sea, is a great void in African American culture, as Marshall explains it, from which grew enduring cultural attitudes and dispositions. “We can only locate our point of origin at a ‘no place’ in the middle of a vast sea,” he says. “It represents nothingness.”

This abstract mark that floats over the water comes from the Western canon of art history, but Marshall links it to the lost cultural legacy of native African societies. It is an almost literal representation of the “nothingness” that remains, and so it also retains the essential principals of contemporary abstraction. It is a convoluted relationship to both art and history, and one that Marshall makes sure is impossible to understand without accepting them as a single, unified idea.

All of this discussion is about a series of brushstrokes in the corner of “Great America,” forgetting its banners of text, esoteric African symbols, figural allusions and other interwoven Western and African tropes that fill the canvas. As Marshall will be the first to admit, “The point is it’s complicated.”

But I cannot pretend to understand all the connections between Marshall’s cross-pollinated genius, and I cannot distill or communicate the information half as well as the artist himself, which he has abundantly done. His Q&A with curator James Meyer in the exhibit brochure is a wonderful and enlightening dialogue, and each painting in the show is accompanied by a panel with richly informative descriptions. It was all said before I even got to it. As a critic, my job is to hopefully get at the root of an issue, but these roots already seem so beautifully tended.

What do you talk about with a brilliant artist who so creatively and intelligently offers you every avenue into his life’s work before you even sit down with him? It becomes a surprising challenge to just think of anything to say.

Marshall is a leading contemporary artist who represents the future of our cultural inheritance, and leading up to the 4th of July at the end of a difficult and emotionally fraught year of political and cultural turmoil (even by today’s standards), it became an opportunity to reflect on the art and cultural legacy of our American heritage.

I asked him about his early artistic influences—mid-century black artists like Charles White who have been largely forgotten—and he described how he came to terms with the burdens of race in art. “I had to come to terms with the fact that this work is masterwork, but no one else seems to think that,” he said. “Is there a deficiency in the work or a deficiency in the people who validate it? And if my heroes as artists always ended up on the second or third tier, does that mean I am aspiring to be a second rate artist?”

He explained in our conversation the evolution of African American mythology in a way that tied in pervasive issues of violence and crime in black communities as a consequence of oppression, and how it became clear to him through the American invasion of Iraq.

He talked about the perception of primitive art by modern audiences as “less than art,” and the value of protest illuminated by Martin Luther King’s handwritten letter from a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. What is most impressive in listening to Marshall speak is the way he is able to connect art and ideas from different eras and continents into a kind of ecstatic worldview.

Marshall’s exhibit is a landmark moment for the National Gallery of Art, and maybe for art in America. It is the first solo show by a living black artist in our country’s foremost museum of visual art, which is significant for the institution, for the city of Washington, and for Marshall’s own deserving place in history. The lessons in it are not always easy to take, but the exploration and discomfort is part of a process of growth we ought not and cannot avoid.

Kerry James Marshall
A Conversation with the Artist

The Georgetowner sat down with the artist upon the opening of his exhibit and discussed a broad number of topics.

The Georgetowner: Do you try to reconcile a loss of personal history among African Americans in your work?

Kerry James Marshall: There’s a particular difference in the way African Americans experience things like personal history and individual legacy—the whole concept of whether you see yourself or operate as an individual in the world, or if you see yourself as part of a group that has a certain particular history as a whole. Because African Americans are not a part of the individual immigrant experience. Nobody in our group decided to come to America. There was no brochure on the wall that said ‘You would have better opportunities if you left here and went over to this place.’ They weren’t recruiting us for those kinds of purposes. We came here as part of a group with a particular group experience. So you were still an individual, but the laws that determined how you were able to operate within the United States under the experience of slavery were laws that affected the group.

GT: Your work deals with a specific area of cultural history, but it is not traditional history painting.

KJM: In the works in this exhibit there’s a kind of broad sweep of the historical implications of things, and there’s actually less specificity in most of these works than you would find in pictures like conventional history paintings which are usually about a single event.

GT: It takes a lot of class to stand up and simply talk about what your work is these days, which you frequently do, and give specific examples, concede certain metaphors and allusions and let people in. You really seem to want to give people the tools to be able to look at your work, as opposed to perpetuating some self-sustaining mythos of contemporary art.

KJM: I’m not trying to be mysterious, I’m not trying to be cryptic, I’m not trying to confuse people. There’s a way if you take note of all the elements of a picture and you think about what each one of those things are, you start to look at the relationships between those things and other things in the picture and start to assemble what my objectives in the picture are. But there really is no conclusion. My paintings don’t come to conclusion.

GT: I’ve always thought that’s why a lot of painters paint: it’s one of the few careers where you can succeed by simply presenting problems. You don’t have to solve a thing.

KJM: Painting really has no particularly transformative capacity. But it can show you stuff in a configuration you might not have seen it in before. So, my primary objective is to show people things and show them enough to make them think about the relationships between things, in history and in society.

GT: It can be hard to know where to start with your paintings. There is so much happening in each one. For instance: the banners of text throughout so many of the paintings.

KJM: You see that in a lot of early Renaissance and Medieval paintings. A lot of those banners floating around had text on them back then just because there was stuff the artist wanted you to know. You find that in a lot of painting in the 15th and 16th century, particularly in Spanish painting, a scroll or something.

A lot of my paintings start with other paintings. And it starts with a problem that some of those other paintings present. And a lot of the paintings I make are ways of coming to terms with or addressing or reversing in some ways a problem that was presented in another picture. It’s a motivation for making a picture in the first place. So take my painting “The Gulf Stream” in this exhibit. It is based on the Winslow Homer painting [of the same name from 1899, pictured in the panel beside the painting]. The Homer painting centralizes the figure of a black man lost at see in a boat surrounded by sharks.

My painting converges with Homer’s because the Homer painting is a painting about the Middle Passage and the slave trade. So the sharks and the boat in the water and the man sort of adrift, it’s the same kind of picture as mine, even though my painting depicts a pleasure boat. It’s a group of black people out on the lake, there’s a regatta out in the distance. But it’s still a middle passage picture.

GT: And the pelican in the front and storm in the background of the painting, are these then harbingers, though less direct than in Homer’s painting with a roiling sea full of sharks?

KJM: You can see them as a kind of harbinger. But it reduces all of the drama that’s in the Homer painting. There’s none of the drama that’s in the Homer painting, really. So it’s not out of the question to read the pelican as a harbinger, but it’s also a stupid goofy convention of maritime painting, to have a pelican sitting on a pylon. It becomes much more ambivalent in that way. I wanted to really strip away all of the modernist conventions from this picture, all of these gestural effects and the drips and the markings.

GT: There is an art historical phenomenon where artists from a dominant culture can draw inspiration from a less dominant culture and be considered innovative and groundbreaking, like when Picasso copied African masks. But an artist from a less dominant culture is judged as derivative for borrowing influence from a more dominant culture, and often accused of diluting their culture’s long-established artistic traditions.

KJM: That’s a pervasive idea that circulates among all of the people who are among the defeated people. People who have been colonized, conquered, enslaved. It’s part of that whole notion of belatedness. And it comes from the idea that whatever those societies were making before they had contact with the West, that it was not art. It may have been nice stuff, it may have been interesting to look at, we might really even appreciate it for some of its formal aspects. But because they hadn’t codified and theorized those formal developments, then it is not intellectual. It is considered as just simply habit and impulse, absent of any intellectual investment, and this is really the dichotomy between the West and everybody else. That the west was always intellectual, and everybody else operates on instinct and impulse. So even though it might be artistic, it’s not the same thing. When Picasso or Van Gogh or Gauguin borrows from Japanese or African traditions, they are borrowing because they’re making a break with a long history and tradition of Western intellectual investment in what a painting is supposed to look like. Those less dominant cultures, regardless of what the stuff looks like, they don’t have the institutional frame of reference to make their stuff read as intellectual. Black people deal with that all the time.

To that point, if you read the manifesto of Africobra [a Chicago-based artist collective committed to developing work that reflects African American and non Eurocentric cultural and aesthetic sensibilities], its Achilles heel is one line in which they say that black art is not intellectual, it is not art for art’s sake. It has a particular message that is meant to be disseminated among the masses. But that phrase, “It’s not intellectual, it’s not art for art’s sake,” is the Achilles heel. Because what they are really trying to do is set up a distinction between the way the white art world works and the way the black art world works. They are saying that we are emotional, they are intellectual.

GT: An early influence of yours was the black American artist Charles White. How was his work perceived in his time, and did that effect you?

JKM: He had great stature among the African American artists and community, but in the main stream he was almost nonexistent. This is one of the things I really had to come to terms with. When I was growing up I was so overwhelmed by his work. It’s masterful drawing. And I had to come to terms with the fact that this work is masterwork, but no one else seems to think that. If I go to a museum, if I open an American art history book and he’s not there, what does that mean? I had to figure out what that means, because I think this is as good as anything that anybody ever made. So is there something that I don’t know, or something they don’t know? Is there a deficiency in the work or a deficiency in the people who validate it? And if my heroes as artists always ended up on the second or third tier, does that mean I am aspiring to be a second rate artist? And if not, what’s the difference between that and the other level? Those are questions that have to be asked, because race is very complicated in America.

GT: Is that part of the reason why you paint black people that are completely black, with no distinction in the pigment of their skin?

KJM: It’s all tied into the notion that being dark skinned has always been stigmatized in the United States. It comes down to that.

GT: Zora Neale Hurston’s book, “Mules and Men,” told a lot of firsthand accounts of black American mythology, and the heroes of these stories always triumphed through deception and trickery.

KJM: This happens when you develop a culture around the lack of capacity to address things head on, which goes back to the oppression of slavery, Jim Crowe. Everything you do is a feint. That is reflective of a fundamental weakness, and you recognize it. When you can’t employ power and force in the same way as somebody else, you know you’re weak.

If you think about the way crime runs through black communities, I argue that this is also a consequence of this pervasive feeling of weakness and powerlessness. You can beat up the people next door, but if you go outside your neighborhood trying to do that stuff, the force that’s able to be mobilized against you is always overwhelming. Within black communities, the violence rarely migrates outside.

It became clear to me after the invasion of Iraq. What we were witnessing there in the crumbling of societal structure was destruction of the country’s patriarchy. Think of how old those American soldiers were—mostly early twenties, they were kids. The authority of the father was completely undermined by someone who was younger than him, who came in from outside. The reverberations of that through the culture from that moment on are incalculable. If you are a child and see your father being treated like that by another kid, what is a father now? And we ask what is wrong with those people, and we tend to think they are crazy. But they’re not—there’s always a precipitating factor.

GT: Your portrait of ‘Nat Turner with the Head of his Master” [Turner was an American slave who led an infamous slave rebellion in 1831] is your most recent painting in the exhibit, from 2011. It is a pretty gruesome piece, with the dismembered head of Turner’s master lying on a pillow behind the grim looking central figure of Turner. James Meyer, the curator, mentioned that you pushed to have that piece in the show. Why?

KJM: The larger selection of works were chosen by James, and thematically organized. And it works very well. But it leaves out a dimension of the implication of what these pictures all refer to. It’s a certain kind of historical agency that pushes against the notion that black people were simply passive victims of the slave trade and accepted the condition without resisting. I always want to have a space that indicates they didn’t accept it. They never did. There was resistance from the start. It is represented by people like Nat Turner, though he wasn’t the first to rebel like that.

There are also paintings in National Gallery’s collection that have a parallel reality to that picture. Think of David with the head of Goliath. So it’s a way of drawing these distinctions between this painting with a black figure and thematically similar historical paintings that have white figures that do the same things. So you have to figure out: Why do I feel differently about this than I do about that?

When you’re dealing with the history of Jim Crowe and segregation, this notion is something you have to consider. It’s part of it. Which is the precipitating factor for Martin Luther King’s letter from the Birmingham jail. It responds to a letter from white ministers and religious figures that were saying, “Come on now, stop all that protesting, it’s not the way to go right now. Just be patient and eventually it will all work itself out.” But eventually doesn’t have a timeline. Sometimes things have to happen now.

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