Can looking at art make us better people? Can art teach us to recognize in others and ourselves a humanity all too often constrained by narrow cultural definitions of beauty and social worth?
Painter Kerry James Marshall has long believed that art has an important social function, and that as a black artist, he should focus on black representation rather than abstraction. In his current retrospective exhibition MASTRY, here in Chicago at the Museum of Contemporary Art through September 25, his decision to engage with European “Old Masters” provokes in viewers recognition that the absence of black figures from Western art history is a moral loss as well as an aesthetic one. By insisting upon black representation and putting figures in dialogue with the great works of European art that exclude them, he also challenges viewers—as the best artists do—to see art, and each other, differently.
In his paintings, black figures challenge viewers to see them. In stark contrast to the Old Masters, who rarely use black in their palettes, Marshall paints his figures with pure black paint, mostly unmixed with other colors except for some highlights where light softly contours foreheads, noses, and lips. Eyes and teeth are sometimes rendered in dazzling whites, or muted greys. Marshall’s engagement with seeing and being seen was sparked, he says in a video accompanying his show at MCA Chicago, by his reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Indeed, the painting that begins the exhibit is the aptly-named Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self (1980), where white eyes and jack-o-lantern teeth gleam in the black field of an indiscernible face.
Marshall’s project of revising what we think we see or know reminds viewers who experience America from outside mainstream culture what it feels like to read symbols of beauty and freedom from the vantage point of struggle and invisibility, and schools viewers used to seeing only from one vantage point what it might be like to see differently. Viewers are forced to acknowledge the subjects of the paintings, and such acknowledgment requires a regard for another that intrudes on the closed world of the individual viewer, in an event not unlike the substitution in the work of Emmanuel Levinas, where “In substitution my being that belongs to me and not to another is undone, and it is through substitution that I am not ‘another,’ but me.” (Levinas, Otherwise than Being). Marshall asks viewers to enter a scene and reflect on the people there. His perspective, while flattened, opens out to viewers, who feel as if they are standing at the edge of the room or the side of the yard. Viewers must look closely to make out the details of his figures, often set against dark or dimly-lit backgrounds. It is necessary to stop, look, and engage with these subjects, many of whom look back, confronting viewers with a direct gaze. This confrontation demands a response, and in this proximity there is the possibility of ethics. “We see you,” the figures seem to say. “Can you see us?”
Marshall likes to complicate our collective sense of what we know by taking familiar holidays such as the Fourth of July and opening up a different way of looking at them by referencing art history. In Bang (1994), a picture that seems particularly timely now, as athletes supporting Black Lives Matter refrain from saluting the flag, and force many to consider the function of public displays of patriotism, a black girl stands in a backyard with her hand placed reverently across her chest, holding up an American flag in front of two boys who also salute with their hands on their hearts. Pink clouds in the foreground are strung together by a banner carrying words from the Great Seal of the United States, “We Are One.” The words on the clouds form the phrase “Happy July 4th Bang,” and overhead another banner carried by doves forcefully declares, “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to god.” Here the promise of American prosperity suggested by these slogans seems realized in the gentle suburban landscape, one where black children safely play amid neat houses and trimmed lawns while their holiday dinner cooks on the grill.
But the painting also references medieval and renaissance religious paintings, lending the patriotic tableau both a holy and an ominous cast. The gentle curve of the girl’s neck as she holds out the flag—the symbol of her faith— is achingly vulnerable. Behind her, a patch of yellow on a garage door makes a halo over her head, and beams of light issue from her brow. She is a martyred saint, or the Virgin Mary, her head at the center of the painting, as it would be in a religious icon. The word “Bang” on the pink cloud just as easily suggests the sound of guns as it does fireworks. The boys look away in different directions, their faces innocent, as the barbeque grill issues a coil of smoke and a garden hose circles the girl like a snake. In the background large sunbeams echo the rays in the girl’s halo, but the sun appears to be setting, and the children are standing on a patch of darkness the shape of a grave. In the foreground, shadows enter the frame and angle towards them.
In another work, School of Beauty, School of Culture (2012), Marshall “schools” viewers to see and understand how the beauty of black women is often haunted and constrained by mainstream culture’s white beauty standards. The scene seems to be a bustling celebration of black women’s beauty, where heart-shaped mirrors on the walls of a thriving black hair salon reflect the words “School of Beauty School of Culture” in backwards letters, and the words “Dark” and “Lovely” are repeated on posters dotting the walls. “It’s Your Hair!” emphasizes one, an encouragement to patrons to claim their style and resist acquiescing to dominant notions about how black hair should be worn. Black women with many different hairstyles move through the space; one looks directly out at us and strikes a classic pinup pose, as if to say, “I am beautiful.” A signed copy of the 1998 landmark album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, with its cover image of a black woman with snaky hair, hangs over a doorway in the center of the painting, echoing the painting’s emphasis on black women’s beauty, lives and experiences, as well as the theme of education.
But something floats in the space between two young children in the foreground: an anamorphic image attenuated to resemble the similarly floating image in the foreground of Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533). In Holbein, two richly dressed men stand amidst their musical instruments, maps, books, and globes, symbols of their worldly accomplishments, while an anamorphic skull, stretched to the point of being nearly
unrecognizable, floats between them in the foreground. The skull foreshortens if the viewer moves to the far right of the painting and looks sideways at it, revealing the classic vanitas theme: death waits for all men, regardless of wealth, stature, or skill. In Marshall’s School of Beauty, the image that haunts the scene is Sleeping Beauty, and she also takes shape if the viewer moves to one side of the painting—the left side, in this case, in a mirror-like reversal of Holbein, hinted at by the reversed letters in the mirrors above the salon. Although the adult women in the picture seem unaware of Sleeping Beauty, the child at the center of the picture sees her clearly, and actually stoops to see past her to the little girl on the other side. Unlike Holbein’s skull, Sleeping Beauty casts a shadow in the picture, and her blond hair, blue eyes, and white skin shadow this scene celebrating black women’s beauty. School of Beauty, School of Culture teaches viewers to make the effort to look differently at the painting, much as Holbein teaches his viewers to move to one side, making the effort to look differently at his painting. In Marshall’s case, he is asking us to reverse the look we have learned from “Old Master,” to recognize that Sleeping Beauty haunts this scene, but to make the effort to see her, and look past her white beauty ideal, as the little child does, and see all the beautiful black women searching for their own reflections.
Kerry James Marshall asks viewers to recognize the ways in which Anglo-European culture has limited artistic representation and ideals of beauty to the images and experiences of white subjects. As a remedy to this, he offers ways of seeing that expand the notion of which bodies get to be represented as beautiful and inspiring. By insisting that black subjects belong in museums, galleries, and high art, he enlarges cultural assumptions of what constitutes the beautiful, the human, and the divine, and this is a supremely wonderful thing.
This video accompanies the exhibition Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Kerry James Marshall: Mastry is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, April 23–September 25, 2016, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 25, 2016–January 29, 2017, and at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, March 12–July 2, 2017.
Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.