I always know that I’ve seen a groundbreaking art exhibit when images from that show continue to play in my mind. This was the case with the Kerry James Marshall exhibit at the Met. Arriving on Friday night on the closing weekend, I wasn’t surprised to wait in a long line, and there was something wonderful about standing with hundreds of people excited about seeing the artworks inside the doors. As I got closer to entering I could see the faces of those that have seen the show exiting the museum. One woman commented to me, “Don’t worry – it’s worth the wait.”
Kerry James Marshall has done masterful artworks for decades, and this exhibit, Mastry, was significant in that viewers could see 80 artworks arranged on two entire floors of the Met Breuer. During the Met’s video on the exhibit, Marshall was interviewed and stated, “Mastery is an important concept. It implies having achieved a certain level of proficiency that gives you the freedom to do what you want, without fear of the consequences.”
Marshall was born in Alabama during 1955, but his family moved when he was a small child to South Central Los Angeles. This interested me greatly since we are around the same age, but living very different lives 75 miles apart.
The exhibit was curated using different rooms featuring Marshall’s work arranged around themes. His most well-known paintings use portraiture and reference art history using depictions of African Americans featured as the central figures in each painting. The people of Marshall’s paintings are black – making the word black into a statement that is more than the color used on the canvas. Seeing 80 works of art where all of the figures are black in a major museum is startling and gratifying.
Marshall’s work is also a reflection of the socio-political time he was growing up in the South Central Los Angeles area. With few opportunities for blacks during that time, in every facet of life: housing, jobs, education, and political representation, there was growing resentment about the inequalities that resulted in actions across the United
States. In Los Angeles, this came to bear as the Watt’s Rebellion that happened during 1965’s hot August days. My memory as a young teenager was seeing the black billowing smoke from the fires in Watts and then watching the news on television. For those who didn’t directly experience what led to those days of Americans fighting against other Americans, we can reference Marshall’s paintings to see a clear roadmap.
Marshall paints about the frustrations and limitations of being constricted to living in housing projects with genteel names, such as Rockwell Gardens, Wentworth Gardens, or Altgeld Gardens. In each of these paintings the African-American residents of these projects are depicted as caring for the grounds or doing domestic tasks, such as planting flowers, but there is no sense of joy or pride in their faces. In fact, the faces are all depicted with dead expressions.
Although these paintings were finished years after the 1965 Watt’s Rebellion, they reflect feelings of subsumed anger over circumstances that African-Americans were forced to live during that time. The Watt’s Rebellion erupted as just one of many that ricocheted across the US in the coming years.
In most of the major world museums, masters that have been collected are primarily Europeans. We can think about Renoir and his well-known painting, “Luncheon of the Boating Party,” showing a leisurely Sunday afternoon on the river with friends. Kerry James Marshall uses a narrative style and subject matter that parallels this painting. In “Past Times,” Marshall depicts African Americans spending a relaxing day at a park. The painting is large (9.6×13’) and viewers will see an idyllic park scene where black people are playing golf, croquet, and riding in a powerboat on the lake.
A woman sets out a picnic on the blanket spread over the grass and music by the Temptations is depicted as coming out of the cassette player, with lyrics written as a stylistic banner; “But it was just my imagination, runnin’ away with me-It was just my imagination runnin’ away with me,” resulting in an uneasy feeling that we are all looking at a fantasy. Further examination of the painting shows the housing projects clearly visible in the background. Marshall stated this in the Met video: “In the entire narrative of art history as we know it, there is not a single black person who has achieved the title of master, certainly not an Old Master. Mastery means that one is able to self-determine, to determine how one wants to be represented, how one wants to be seen.”
For me, an especially touching artwork was Marshall’s depiction of one of his artist-teacher idols, Charles White. The artist met him when he was attending Otis Art Institute as a 7th grader and while visiting this working artist’s studio, understood for the first time that he could become an artist.
The show is traveling to the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles (March 21 – July 2, 2017) and is worth every penny to travel and see if you haven’t experienced Marshall’s Mastry exhibit.