Precarious Paintings, Precarious Lives: On “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry”

By Francey RussellJune 28, 2016

Precarious Paintings, Precarious Lives: On “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry”

KERRY JAMES MARSHALL: MASTRY, the first museum retrospective of the Chicago artist’s work, opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago just days after the Treasury Department announced that abolitionist and activist Harriet Tubman would be featured on all new $20 bills. Perversely, president Andrew Jackson, owner of slaves, will be on the back of this same bill. Reporting on the announcement that Tubman and Jackson will represent the two sides of United States currency, Akiba Solomon at Colorlines noted that this was no joke, no anomaly: “It’s America.”

Marshall still-life

Still-Life with Wedding Portrait, 2015.

One of Marshall’s paintings — Still-Life with Wedding Portrait (2015) — is an imagined portrait of Harriet Tubman with her husband John Tubman, a free black man whom she married while she was still enslaved. In the painting, Harriet stands in front of her husband, in a blue-green button-up dress with a small pink flower tucked into her hair, arms folded across her chest. Her husband looks out from behind her, his face partially obscured, hands resting gently on her shoulders. The lines traced by her buttons and his fingernails make a cross. Both figures meet the viewer’s gaze, registering both recognition of and indifference to our looking at them. Their eyes, like the eyes of so many of Marshall’s subjects, are self-assured and serious. Both figures are painted with unmixed black, which Marshall has used for his black subjects since the beginning of his career. As he puts it, “the blackness is absolute.”

There are two other figures in Still-Life. The painting itself is not, in fact, a “wedding portrait” but depicts a scene in which two sets of hands appear to be mounting the portrait on a white wall. One pair of hands wears white gloves that cover the skin beneath. The other figure wears one white, one black glove, white sleeves pulling back to reveal black wrists. Still-Life, then, is a painting of an imagined wedding portrait as part of an imagined America that would display Harriet and John Tubman in the honorable space of the museum. Still-Life is both a portrait of this couple and a testament to the fact that there is no such portrait.

Still-Life with Wedding Portrait asks its viewer to imagine what it would be like if we actually hung portraits of the Tubmans in our museums. By including the art handler’s hands, by staging the act of staging, by calling our attention not just to the Tubmans but to their place and placement in America’s history and present, Marshall is clear that we are not there yet. His painting of a painting being hung in the museum reflects on the very conceivability of a certain kind of painting in a museum, suggesting that this idea is still radical and still resisted: this painting cannot yet take its proper place. Of course, to see Marshall’s Still-Life with Wedding Portrait hanging on the wall of Chicago’s MCA — and The Met later this year and LA’s MOCA next year — means that we are indeed living in some version of his vision of America. Marshall himself has made it the case that the Tubmans do take up space in a museum, he is insisting that his imagined America become all of ours.

In fact, this demand animates all of Marshall’s work. Like Still-Life, many of his paintings raise questions by engaging with and redeploying the dignified and dignifying form of portraiture. In the Stono Group series (2012), Marshall memorializes the leader of the Stono Rebellion, the largest slave uprising in the British colonies, which probably most of us were never taught about in history class. The four portraits feature the same man on the morning of his execution, in red, black, and green dress and adorned with yellow flowers, a crescent moon hanging in the light dawn.

In Marshall’s 1995 Scouts series, each of the four paintings features a black child from the shoulders up, in a Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts uniform, with an explosion of white light behind their heads, a kind of intermundane halo. Heavy-lidded eyes look back, the whites bright in contrast to their black skin. The children are pictured as angels or saints. Even though the Stono Group and Scouts series involve no direct reference to their own presence or possibility, the use of a formal device typically reserved for white and European faces effectively raises the same question: what would it be like if we hung paintings like this in our museums?

Marshall scout

Scout (Girl), 1995.

Marshall was born in 1955, in Bull Connor’s Birmingham, Alabama. In 1963, the year of the Birmingham Church Bombing, the Children’s Crusade, and Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Marshall’s family left Alabama for South Central Los Angeles, as part of the Second Great Migration. Just a few years after moving into a house near the Black Panthers’s headquarters in the depressed and disinvested Watts neighborhood, the riots broke out. Around this time, Marshall began taking summer art classes at the Otis College of Art and Design, where he would eventually get his BFA. While the personal, social, and political events of his early life provide the subject matter for much of his work — as just one example, the Garden Project series harkens back to his time in the Nickerson Gardens projects in Watts — at Otis, Marshall was less concerned with expressing ideas or themes through his work than in mastering the forms and materials of art-making. As he said in an interview with BOMB Magazine, “it takes half a lifetime, really, to develop to a point where you can start to speak effectively with whatever the tools are you’re trying to master.” In presenting his work from the 1980s onward, Mastry allows the viewer to track this growth, this refining of a painterly voice, which involves not just the development of personal style but also the ability and willingness to take up adequate space.

Many of Marshall’s most well-known paintings are striking for both their color and their scale. The Salon paintings, for instance, are massive: School of Beauty, School of Culture (2012) is around eight by 13 feet, De Style (1993) is eight by 10. The paintings are at once static and dynamic, with the posing black figures anchoring the eye as it roams over the immense field of color, which, for all its variation, insists on total flatness. In the preview for the MCA exhibition, Marshall described his work as offering a participant’s perspective on black culture, rather than an observer’s. His paintings are dedicated to depicting intimate rather than public life. James Baldwin once wrote that the black person in the United States “is a social and not a personal or human problem; to think of him is to think of slums, rapes, injustices, remote violence.” One of Marshall’s overarching concerns is to stay with the personal and human moments of black life: the hair salons, the bedrooms, the wedding portraits. Yet the, intimate content of his scenes stands in productive tension with their form, the absolute blackness and an austere, almost medieval flatness, which both demands attention and refuses access.

Marshall de style

De Style, 1993.

One of the most arresting paintings of the show hangs across from Still-Life with Wedding Portrait. Black Painting (2003–2006) is a huge monochromatic piece of black acrylic on black fiberglass. While the Salon series and the Garden Project series fill their frames and meet the viewer right at the surface of the canvas, Black Painting is overwhelmingly, disorientingly recessive. It is this work of inscrutable, singular darkness that suggests the most depth. And though the big and bright canvases demand sustained attention and time, Black Painting is more profoundly absorptive and it slows time down even further, reducing the busy rhythm of the color paintings to a single low tone.

Gradually details emerge in silvery outline. The painting depicts a bedroom with, one guesses, all the curtains drawn, fully self-enclosed. A flag hangs on the wall with the phrase Power to the People and a black panther mid-leap. A book sits on the dresser — Marshall’s paintings are filled with books and magazines — it is Angela Davis’s If They Come in the Morning: Voices of Resistance. The most indecipherable detail turns out to be a figure propped up on his elbows in bed, awake in this sleeping scene, alert to something outside the walls of the bedroom and beyond the borders of the painting.

This bedroom is in fact Fred Hampton’s bedroom in the moments before the police raided his house and shot him in his sleep. The police called it a shoot-out, the Black Panthers called it a shoot-in, since every bullet except for one came from the police. Choosing to depict Fred Hampton in his bed allows Marshall to quiet an explosive moment of American history and make it feel private. As with so much of Marshall’s work, Black Painting explores the lives of his subjects, not as headlines or statistics, but as domestic, loving, ordinary persons. Even the most explicitly violent piece of the show, Portrait of Nat Turner with the Head of his Master (2011), takes place in the privacy of a bedroom, a severed white head resting heavily on its pillow.

Marshall has said he wants to get to the point where “it’s no longer exceptional to see black figures in pictures when you go to the museum.” But as things stand, his pictures remain exceptional, and they register an awareness of their own precarity. Like Still-Life, Black Painting questions the conditions of its possibility. Still-Life raises this question by thematizing its own presentation, Black Painting does so by refusing its own visibility. In both paintings, Marshall frames both his subjects and his own work as a kind of open question. The former piece asks us to imagine what it would be like if a painting like it was really hanging in a museum, the latter asks us to imagine what it would be like to really see it.


Francey Russell is a PhD candidate in philosophy at University of Chicago.

LARB Contributor

Francey Russell is an assistant professor of philosophy at Barnard College and Columbia University. She works primarily on topics in moral psychology, history of philosophy, and aesthetics.


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