A towering retrospective: Kerry James Marshall at the Met

Susan Saccoccia | 12/16/2016, 6 a.m.
The career-long aspiration of Marshall is to summon the traditions and techniques of the Old Masters and render the black ...
“The Lost Boys” (1993) by Kerry James Marshall. Photo: Sean Pathasema/Collection of Rick Hunting and Jolanda Hunting/Kerry James Marshall

Even from a distance, one painting stood out among the many iconic works on display at the 2015 reopening of Harvard Art Museums. In this supersized portrait, an artist with a towering Afro and a mask-like, ebony face gazes at the viewer from behind an enormous, multicolored artist’s palette that resembles a warrior’s shield. He holds his paintbrush like a royal scepter and dips it into a dollop of black pigment.

The 6-by-5-foot work, “Untitled (Painter)” 2008, is now among the 80 works by African-American artist Kerry James Marshall in a sensational retrospective on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City through Jan. 29. Spanning the artist’s 35-year career, the show fills 15 galleries on two floors at the Met Breuer on Madison Ave.

Entitled “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” the exhibition debuted at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, not far from the city’s South Side, where the artist has lived and worked since the late 1980s. The show will move in spring to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA), 10 miles from Watts and the public housing project where Marshall and his family lived when they moved from Birmingham, Alabama.

All three museums organized the show. The editor of its superb catalog, which includes writings by Marshall, was MOCA’s chief curator, Helen Molesworth, formerly a curator at both Harvard and the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston.

The word “Mastry” in the show’s title hints at slavery, southern slang, and mastery — the career-long aspiration of Marshall to summon the traditions and techniques of the Old Masters and render the black figure with prominence in the canon of Western painting. His mission has been to fill what he calls the “vacuum in the image bank” and correct the absence of black people as artists, audiences and subjects. His works rewrite both art history and social history.

“Things that we see actually do matter,” the artist said at the Met Breuer opening in late October, noting that images enable people “to imagine the world in the fullness of possibilities.”

Instead of depicting African Americans in scenes of trauma and violence, Marshall’s paintings tell stories of people living ordinary good lives. Some of his subjects, like the male and female artists he portrays in one series, also aspire to mastery, which he regards as a lifelong pursuit.

A recipient of a 1997 MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, Marshall, 61, holds a BFA and honorary doctorate from the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. For many years, he was on the faculty of the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Early on, he embraced narrative painting instead of more fashionable trends such as concept-laden installations. He acquired a deep knowledge of western narrative painting traditions from the 16th century to the current day. Drawing on this knowledge, he quotes iconic images, not unlike a like jazz musician who riffs on a revered line and claims a place in a hallowed tradition by reinventing it.