2016-10-20 22:46:10
Art Review: Kerry James Marshall’s Paintings Show What It Means to Be Black in America

People say we’re in the middle of a second civil rights movement, and we are. The only surprise is that the first one ever ended. The artist Kerry James Marshall was there for it. He was just a kid then, born in Birmingham, Ala., in 1955. But kids take in a lot.

He was in Birmingham in 1963, when white supremacists dynamited a Baptist church and killed four young girls. He was 9 and living in Los Angeles in 1965 when Watts went up in flames. He remembers all that, just as he also remembers growing up in those years in a loving family: mother, father, sister, brother. Home.

Artists take in a lot, too. Mr. Marshall has absorbed enough personal history, American history, African-American history and art history to become one of the great history painters of our time. That’s the painter you’ll see in “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” the smashing 35-year career retrospective that opens on Tuesday at the Met Breuer.

The first thing you may notice about him as an artist is that he’s an ace storyteller, so good that you realize how rare that is. Sometimes he spells out narrative scenes, even somewhat fantastical ones, straightforwardly as in the sublime 1997 painting “Souvenir I,” in which a middle-aged matron arranges her living room as a shrine to 1960s civil rights martyrs. What’s fantastical is that the woman has glitter-encrusted wings, like an angel.

Just as often, stories are merely implied, and they can be perplexing. One of the earliest of the show’s 72 paintings, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self,” dates from 1980, two years after Mr. Marshall graduated from what was then called the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. It’s a small image — he would later typically work at mural scale — of a bust-length, black-skinned male figure whose contours are barely readable against a slightly lighter black background. His only clear features are the whites of his eyes, and his broad, gap-toothed smile.

You may think, with a twinge of unease, of cartoons, or of old racist stereotypes, or of race as performance: blackamoors, Sambos, Madea. What Mr. Marshall was thinking of was Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel “Invisible Man,” whose African-American hero knows that his color makes him unseeable as a person in white America: He’s a black; that’s it. Mr. Marshall complicates this idea by taking it in two directions: His “self-portrait” is simultaneously recessive and unmissable, with his eyes and his assertive, mock-cheerful, near-skeletal smile that shine like pin spots in the dark.

Black skin is a constant in Mr. Marshall’s art. More than three decades ago, he resolved to devote himself to creating a new, disruptive art history, one that would insert — big-time — the absent black figure into the tradition of Western art, which was a tradition he loved and identified with.

And that tradition is everywhere in his work. He points directly to it in a mini-exhibition, “Kerry James Marshall Selects,” that’s embedded within the retrospective, and made up of historical items he’s culled from the Met’s holdings. They include a 15th-century Holbeinesque male portrait, a gray-tinted Ingres odalisque, abstract pictures by Ad Reinhardt and Gerhard Richter, and a Horace Pippin self-portrait as tiny, and every bit as precious, as the Met’s famous Duccio “Madonna and Child.”

It’s a treat to see these things. And it’s not hard to track down traces of the artists who made them in his work. Always in his paintings, he gives his painter-heroes their props.

And it’s his art you’re here for, and may well want to come back to see again. The show — which originated at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and is organized at the Met by Ian Alteveer, associate curator of modern and contemporary art, and Meredith Brown, a research assistant — verges on being disorientingly rich.

Chronologically, it starts on the Met Breuer’s third floor with a few abstract collages and the 1980 “Self Portrait,” then moves through the career in thematic increments. Early things are texturally dense and tactilely experimental. Mystically-themed pictures from 1992 are done on wood, leather and sheets of paper glued to canvas.

Imagery is similarly layered. The celestial-feeling 1992 painting “Voyager” — a memorial to lives lost on a 19th-century slave ship, and one of Mr. Marshall’s first big history paintings — brings together anatomical prints, Haitian veve emblems, and showers of hand-stamped and painted roses. Some of these also turn up, not at all incongruously — part of the brilliance of Mr. Marshall’s art is that it’s incongruity-free — in scenes of domestic romance, like the 1992 “This Could Be Love,” where a couple undresses for bed as the notes and lyrics of a pop song, Mary Wells’s “Two Lovers,” float over head.

In painting African-American daily life, Mr. Marshall monumentalizes and ennobles it. Ordinary is extraordinary. This is the dynamic in a 10-foot wide picture of terrific wit and gravity called “De Style.” Five figures pose in a barbershop. Three have sensationally sculptural ’dos; the barber-artist responsible is haloed, like a saint.

The painting’s title is multiply coded. It refers to the shop, Percy’s House of Style, and to the princely chic of its clientele. It also points backward to the utopian Dutch art movement De Stijl, which, in the early 20th century, sought to aestheticize the everyday environment and produce universal harmony. Piet Mondrian was an adherent, and the barbershop’s décor is based on his primary-colors palette.

In 2012, Mr. Marshall produced an indescribably fabulous pendant to “De Style” called “School of Beauty, School of Culture,” set in a women’s hair salon. The references are updated (there’s a Chris Ofili poster on the wall), and the politics sharpened (the dominant colors are the red, black and green of the Pan-African flag). It is not to be missed.

Such images represent a conscious effort on Mr. Marshall’s part to rescue the image of black life from a default air of pessimism. But he does not avoid bitter realities. A painting called “The Lost Boys,” done the same year as “De Style,” is a stabbing memorial to the violent deaths of black children. Nine immense pictures installed together in a wide-open gallery on the fourth floor tell a tale of a utopia failed — and worse, betrayed. Five of these paintings, collectively called “The Garden Project,” date from 1994-95 and are reunited here for the first time in two decades. Mr. Marshall has said that one of his motivating ambitions as an artist was to paint black life “in the grand style,” and here he did, in a fusion of autobiography and politics.

Part of the story of black urban life in late-20th- and 21st-century America, and part of Mr. Marshall’s story, is of life in low-income housing projects. Such projects were designed by the government in the 1930s as alternatives to city slums. But the gesture had no follow-up. Once built, economic support was scant and by the 1960s the projects had drastically deteriorated, becoming media emblems of poverty and crime.

Mr. Marshall briefly lived in a project when he was a child and has good memories of it. In “The Garden Project,” those memories collide and fuse with social realities. Landscaped projects in Los Angeles and Chicago (where Mr. Marshall lives) look both idyllic and corrupted. They are painted with photorealist precision, spattered with daubs of pigment that suggest bullet holes.

We see children, among them the young Mr. Marshall with his sister and brother. They play, glance shyly toward us, seem innocent of fear. Adults are not so carefree. In a picture called “Many Mansions,” three men dressed in formal clothes, like churchgoers or undertakers, appear to be either gardening or digging a grave. Bluebirds flutter about; Easter baskets sit on the grass. The distant project towers look blank, dead; the earth seems to bleed.

In the years since 1995, Mr. Marshall has painted many gardens, blighted and edenic, ambiguously shaded. He has painted, with unambiguous seriousness, a gallery’s worth of revolutionaries. In the “Portrait of Nat Turner With the Head of His Master” (2011), the ax-wielding rebel is a kind of biblical hero, a black David turning his back on a dead Goliath whose severed head is one of the show’s very few images of a white person.

And he has painted artists, fictional ones, male and female, with regal coiffures; immense, paint-caked palettes; and paint-by-numbers self-portraits on their easels. As the catalog points out, the paint-by-number craze arrived in the 1950s, around the time the civil rights movement started, which was around the time Mr. Marshall was born. It was a type of painting for anyone and everyone, universal in that way. And although the subjects were fixed, the colors were not; you could switch them around, personalize your look, the way Mr. Marshall taught himself painting, and enriched it, by sampling themes and styles of older masters.

One of his fictional artists seems to be basing her portrait colors on those of the stunning print wrap she’s wearing, which is a painting in itself. Another has depicted himself dressed entirely in pink, though he’s wearing drab green and tan. In all cases, the painting of the face has been left unfinished — in some, untouched, as if that would be the last decision to make. Is it because they don’t know what the colors will be? Or because black is so complex?

You know there would be some interesting choices from this group. Together, they look like an artist-army: mature, sober, purposeful, full of ideas, ready to get great, which Mr. Marshall already is.