Kerry James Marshall, Slow Dance 1992-1993. Acrylic and collage on canvas, 75 1/4 × 74 1/4 in. (191.1 × 188.6 cm). The David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, Purchase, Smart Family Foundation Fund for Contemporary Art, and Paul and Miriam Kirkley Fund for Acquisitions © Kerry James Marshall
The largest museum retrospective to date of the work of American artist Kerry James Marshall (born 1955) is on view at The Met Breuer as a cornerstone of its inaugural season. Encompassing nearly 80 works—including 72 paintings—that span the artist’s remarkable 35-year career, this major monographic exhibition reveals Marshall’s practice to be a complex and compelling one that synthesizes a wide range of pictorial traditions to counter stereotypical representations of black people in society and reassert the place of the black figure within the canon of Western painting.
“It is with enormous pride that we present this examination of Kerry James Marshall’s work at The Met Breuer,” said Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. “With our collection spanning over 5,000 years, The Met is uniquely positioned to highlight Marshall’s deep connection to history. Our visitors will be able to experience the many layers of Marshall’s groundbreaking artistic vision as they explore the influences that are central to his work.”
The exhibition’s curator Ian Alteveer added, "Marshall’s work illustrates the American experience as unimaginable without black history and culture. Through the tropes of traditional painting—portraiture, landscape, and other narrative modes—he builds a conversation around visibility and invisibility. The result is a stunning body of work that is both intimate and monumental."
Sheena Wagstaff, Leonard A. Lauder Chairman of The Met’s Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, noted, “This comprehensive look at Marshall's work aligns perfectly with our priorities for The Met Breuer where we are committed to expanding our thinking beyond established standards. Marshall’s career is based on the central concern of redressing the absence of the black figure in the canon of Western art. Through a deep knowledge of the history of art, he finds his place in it.”
Born before the passage of the Civil Rights Act in Birmingham, Alabama, and witness to the Watts rebellion in 1965, Marshall has long been an inspired and imaginative chronicler of the African American experience. He is known for his large-scale narrative history paintings featuring black figures—defiant assertions of blackness in a medium in which African Americans have long been invisible—and his exploration of art history covers a broad temporal swath stretching from the Renaissance to 20th-century American abstraction. Marshall critically examines and reworks the Western canon through its most archetypal forms: the historical tableau, landscape and genre painting, and portraiture. His work also touches upon vernacular forms such as the muralist tradition and the comic book in order to address and correct, in his words, the “vacuum in the image bank” and to make the invisible visible.
The exhibition’s title is a play on words referencing Marshall’s comics-inspired Rythm Mastr series, and the works included range from the early and iconic—such as A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self (1980) and Invisible Man (1986)—to his newest revisions of traditional history painting. One of these major, recent works—Untitled (Studio) (2014), a monumental picture depicting an artist’s workspace—was recently acquired by The Met. A veritable catalogue of the genres of painting, it combines still life, portraiture, and landscape with trompe l’oeil and abstraction, and includes many references to the Old Masters. The exhibition also reunites the five paintings of Marshall’s Garden Project series—pictures from the mid-1990s that serve to complicate the idea of public housing as bleak or desolate—for the first time in 20 years. Included among these is these is Watts 1963, which depicts the artist and his siblings at play outside Nickerson Gardens, the projects in Watts where the 8-year-old Marshall and his family lived when they first moved to California in 1963. Pages from the Rythm Mastr project, ongoing since 1999, are also featured in the exhibition. These graphic novel panels highlight Marshall’s interest in comics as a vehicle for exploring cultural phenomena, embodied by his band of black superheroes and his incorporation of African American vernacular.