– Autumn/Winter 2019

Kerry James Marshall: The Painter of Afro-Modern Life

Kobena Mercer

Inclusion is a good norm. The release of energies hitherto pent-up by exclusion lies behind the Afro-Atlantic transmutations performed by such artists as Lauren Halsey, Oscar Murillo and Paul Sepuya, to name a few – yet this cannot be a triumphalist story because the past decade also gave us a neoliberal racial formation that no longer even tries to clothe its violent antiblackness. Untitled (Underpainting, 2018) reveals Kerry James Marshall’s insight into such antinomy. In the mirroring spaces of a beaux-arts museum filled with black viewers, spliced between Barnett Newman zips featuring wall texts, the archival shell of Western art comes to house an energetic scene of civic assembly. The utopian feeling emanating from the scene’s unrealism has everything to do with the condition of unfinishedness, for what leaps out of the visual maze of symmetry and asymmetry is a sense of future possibility that questions the limits of the present. — KM

Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (Underpainting), 2018, acrylic and collage on PVC in artist’s frame, 215.2 × 305.5 × 10.2cm

Over the past fifteen years, Kerry James Marshall has become the history painter of post-Civil Rights USA. In his large-scale canvases, figurative groups placed among scenic backdrops often evoke the utopian aspirations of the 1960s, and in this way his paintings open onto an imaginative or even fictional space in which the relation between past and present becomes the subject for

  1. Houston A. Baker, Jr., Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

  2. Kerry James Marshall, quoted in Arthur Jafa, 'Fragments from a Conversation, June-July 1999', in Eve Sinaiko (ed.), Kerry James Marshall, New York: Abrams, 2000, p.74.

  3. Clement Greenberg, 'Modernist Painting' (1961), in Francis Frascina and Jonathan Harris (ed.), Art in Modern Culture: An Anthology of Critical Texts, London: Open University and Phaidon, 1992, p.308.

  4. K.J. Marshall, quoted in Arthur Jafa, 'Fragments from a Conversation', op. cit., p.29.

  5. Helen Molesworth, 'Project America', frieze, issue 40, May 1998, p.56.

  6. Peter Wollen, 'The Two Avant-Gardes', Studio International, November/December 1975, pp.171-75.

  7. K.J. Marshall, quoted in Arthur Jafa, 'Fragments from a Conversation', op. cit., p.46.

  8. K.J. Marshall, quoted in Wesley Miller, 'On Museums', 25 September 2008, http://blog.art21.org/ (last accessed on 8 February 2010).