Kerry James Marshall

This article was originally published in art ltd., in July, 2012.

Kerry James Marshall’s studio stands two-stories high in the Bronzeville neighborhood, on Chicago’s South Side. From the street, it is non-descript, more like a very tall, brick garage than anything else; there are hardly any windows. It boasts a green lawn and stands near a new crop of condos; down the same street are some old Victorian brownstones interrupted by empty lots. It’s a significant neighborhood in American history. Once known as the country’s “Black Metropolis,” it was the destination for thousands who, during the Great Migration (1910-1930), left the South for Northern industrial jobs. It is identified with a shift in the country’s habit and history: a shift away from slavery coupled with its transition into industrialized labor. Significant musicians and thinkers came from this place—among them, Ida B. Wells, Gwendolyn Brooks and Louis Armstrong. Given the subject of Marshall’s work, his creative environment seems significant. The ultimate site for his upcoming solo show is no less so. This September marks the opening of “Who’s Afraid of Red, Black and Green” at The Secession in Vienna. “It’s one of the first artist-created museums, started by Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele,” Marshall explains. “They were breaking with the academy and tried to start an independent thing where they could go their own way. The Secession is that thing… It’s like the museum for radicals.”

Staying his aesthetic course, Marshall grafts his study of African American history onto the canon of western painting to illicit a critical perspective. In his new work, he has conjoined the Abstract Expressionism of Barnett Newman (particularly his iconic work Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III) with the politics of race. Newman’s trademark zips appear on Marshall’s first three canvases, but the original color scheme—red, yellow and blue—has been replaced by the red, black and green of Marcus Garvy’s Pan African flag. By way of form and concept, Marshall raises the specters not only of Abstract Expressionism, but also several historical African American revolutionaries. It is as if the apolitical, flat picture plane whose “backdrop has become the curtain” (in Clement Greenberg’s words) parts slightly, revealing the social, historical edges of things and bodies. As such, the conviction of the color field, its presumed ability to remain purely aesthetic, anti-anecdotal and sublime is troubled. “You have to embrace [art history] and engage it.” Marshall says. “You can’t let it go unchallenged. It’s not entitled to the privilege of being just adored.”

Marshall is known for deconstructing art historical genres and vernacular cultural tropes; in doing so he asserts himself again and again into the history of art, announcing with dogged determination his intention to be incorporated among the “pantheon of great artists,” Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael—artists that belong to a traditionally exclusive world. Born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1955, Marshall moved to South Central LA at the age of seven—the same year that the United Civil Rights Committee held its first Civil Rights march. Over a thousand people took the streets calling to desegregate schools. Marshall and his family lived nearby the Black Panther headquarters; their move was part of The Second Great Migration, (1941-1970), during which more than five million African Americans moved north and west to cities for work. Just two years after the Marshall family landed, a six-day riot erupted in Watts. 34 people were killed and over 1,000 injured. A year later in 1966, (the same year that Newman completed Who’s afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III) a second Watts riot erupted. Given that timeline, there is something ironic about Newman’s abstract aspirations, for implicit in them is a denial of the body, a departure from material things into some larger (hoped for) universal: a universal that ostensibly neither included nor represented Marshall.

“Who’s Afraid of Red, Black and Green” rebels against pure abstraction, though it does so in stages. First, Marshall proves his ability to match the technique of Abstract Expressionists. The first three paintings—each the same size as the Newman piece they reference—feature massive swaths of color. Walking up to one all-black canvas, Marshall points out areas of varying darkness. “There are three different colors of black in there and they are not mixed. Where there is difference in color it’s basically from the chemical composition. This is a carbon black,” he says, then points to another area of the canvas, “an ivory black” and then another, “an iron oxide black.” He takes a step back. “And the iron oxide black is red-black; it’s made from rust. On top of this carbon black, the red really shows up.” After confronting abstraction, Marshall breaks from Greenberg’s aesthetic to incorporate representation. In the black painting, buttressed by zips, swatches of the United States and Chicago flags billow in front of or behind—it’s not clear which—the thick black sea of color. A highly prominent bronze-eagle finial hovers, as though mid-flight: the only fully cohesive form. Nearby red and green extremes of a block letter X emerge. The second painting, its edges also defined by zips, contains red text, “If they come in the morning” (a reference to Angela Davis’ book of that title), on a red field. These motifs stem from a history of repression and operate like rally cries that channel the Civil Rights movement.

In response to an agonizing absence of diversity in the canon of Western painting, Marshall inserts and asserts the black figure again and again in as many different poses, positions, moods and lifestyles as possible. In Garden Projects, he made large-scale landscapes of city housing projects that incorporate “gardens” into their names highlighting the dissonance between their idealized titles and the neglected circumstances that surround their residents. One such painting, Watts 1963, shows three black children pressing towards the front of the picture plane; white abstract blobs disrupt the otherwise representational landscape behind them like ghosts. Above, Disney-esque blue birds carry a somber banner reading “Here we rest.” In his series Souvenir, Marshall painted middle-class African American living rooms whose inhabitants tend to the memories of Civil Rights figures from the 1960s—paintings that both celebrate history yet remain restrained: the houses he captures are perfectly staged, as if careful attention was paid to each object inside. Marshall is not only a painter, however. He has also made a comic book, “RYTHM MASTR,” installations, video and sculpture: for instance a series of massive rubber stamps that lay down Civil Rights phrases, like BLACK POWER, which become neutered and ambivalent in the gallery setting. Often he incorporates glitter. In Vignettes, a more recent rococo series, he portrays black lovers playing in fields. In response to a book that Taschen put out, “The Great American Pin-Up” (which included no African-American women) Marshall painted black pin-ups. He regularly references other famous paintings in his work, binding his conceptual intent to technique and craft.

Marshall has continually engaged and struggled towards representation. In 1977 he went to Otis, to become a painter. But no one was painting anymore; the art object had been dematerialized, though he rejected that position. Even current abstract works for his show at Secession move toward the body. Two paintings, Black Owned and Buy Black, operate like conceptual bridges between the color field paintings and later portraits in so far as they evoke the economic structures around the body vis-à-vis neon signs fixed to each canvas (and from which each title is derived). He perseveres in this cause because unlike the white body, the black body has never been overwhelmed with images of itself. “We have a whole history of representation in which the black body was not the privileged body. So there was no crisis of representation for me, because the black figure is underrepresented.”

Still, Marshall pushes the same red, black and green motif through every different pictorial style. In this latest “pin-up” painting a woman stands with her back to the viewer looking over her shoulder. Behind her lies a black, green-rimmed star that emanates outwards in green, then red stripes. Her muscular body almost dissolves into the equally dark body of the star but her gaze is direct and unflinching. The combination of her posture against the star’s points is reminiscent of da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Unlike him, her hands hold the star’s points, top and top left, creating a tension: she looks as though she might turn the star on its head.

Hanging beneath the only window in his studio is a large beauty shop painting. While the space described therein isn’t deep, the floor feels raked like a stage. It has glitter. It features many figures, in different postures and in the midst of different action. It is dynamic and alive. Yet there are moments that disrupt the illusion of space, the most prominent being a pink and yellow anamorphic image in the foreground: a reference to Holbein’s 1533 painting, The Ambassadors. A painted poster of Chris Ofili winks deliberately in the back right corner. A central woman squats down near the back of the painting in high heels and a skirt. She has her back to us, bent over to take a picture of the beauty shop through a tall, standing mirror in front of her. A flash of light in the mirror indicates the photo is being taken. She is taking a photograph of the viewer, the audience, gallery or museum on the other side of the canvas. As with the pin-up, a formal interrogation takes place between the figures inside Marshall’s world and those without. “When it comes to representation, the black body is a kind of social and political body. And you don’t think about the frivolous, the pleasurable or the mundane; we don’t really think about those things when we see representations of black people. The goal is for the presence of these black figures to become commonplace.”

A series of smaller portraits will also be included in this show; their color is less saturated, as though referencing the past. The faces are solemn, gaunt and dark. A long time ago they organized their own revolt. “In 1739 there was a slavery revolt in South Carolina near the Stono River. It’s called the Stono Rebellion.” These men took arms and marched down the road from one plantation to the next; they hoped to raise an army of liberated slaves. “The problem was they didn’t really understand the circumstances they were in. They thought they could march down the highway with flags chanting liberty. It came to a bad end.” At the time, their heads were set on stakes along the road as gruesome warnings against revolt. “I make pictures like these because I think the specter of these people needs to be present.”

Marshall doesn’t only conjure the specter of the past; he also transcribes its significance. These rebel heads will now be memorialized in a different light: entered into the history books because Marshall decided to paint them. The portraits remind us that their efforts— combined with countless, subsequent others—made slavery impossible to sustain without exponentially increasing acts of violence. At the same, they still died. Terribly. And slavery—an institution that should have never existed—continued for far too long. “A part of what I’m trying to do is to really understand the history from the inside out. Which means it’s not just about how the thing looks like on the surface, I need to understand how it arrived at that condition. Once you understand how it arrived at that condition, then you have knowledge.”

For Marshall there is no pastoral nostalgia. “I don’t connect with the idea of the self-made individual—the immigrant story,” he says. “Nevertheless you are still faced with the challenge to make something worthwhile and meaningful out of the life you have to live, in a place that is supposed to be designed for that but wasn’t designed for you to do that. I had to prove that you don’t have to be limited by what was imposed on you by an institutional frame.” Yet while he is working as an artist to envision a new future, he also works directly with the past, inserting historical references from the canon, just as he uncovers marginalized figures of African American history. By weaving those threads together, he tries to cull new possibilities: as a way of teaching history and understanding context, but also challenging historical power structures. “That’s a part of my whole project too—to put power in play.”