Sunday, February 5, 2017

Kerry James Marshall: Mastry and the Segregation of Art Worlds

I presume that others of you have complained that you need a different doctor for whichever muscle or limb bothers you or figuring out which of the dozen olive oils you are supposed to buy on the grocery shelves.  So it is in the art world.

We see headlines that the art market is booming because an auction in contemporary art did well or maybe that just a few paintings brought records.  But that does not mean that all contemporary art is doing well.  What about Native American Art?   What about 21st century Design?  What about art by African Americans?

I don’t even remember learning about African American art at university except maybe Jacob Lawrence one of the few African Americans to make it into my Art 1 course.  Of course, the problem is that we make these distinctions and that you have to take a separate course, if it exists, in these different areas. And you thought that it was only Asian art that you were missing?

Artists want to be known as Artists without the modifiers.  Thanks to the Met Breuer museum in New York I was introduced to Kerry James Marshall.  Actually, I might not have gone to see the show if it had not been brought to my attention by Nancy Hoving, widow of the Metropolitan Museum Director and medievalist , Tom Hoving.  I thought if Nancy recommended it I should take a look and I am certainly glad I did.

The exhibition Kerry James Marshall: Mastry was organized by The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  It was co-curated by Helen Molesworth, Chief Curator, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Dieter Roelstraete, Guest curator for the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; and Ian Alteveer, Associate Curator, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Kerry James Marshall was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1955, grew up in Los Angeles, went to Otis College of Art and Design in LA, worked in museums in New York and now lives and works in Chicago.  In his own words, “You can’t be born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1955 and grow up in South Central [Los Angeles] near the Black Panthers headquarters, and not feel like you’ve got some kind of social responsibility. You can’t move to Watts in 1963 and not speak about it. That determined a lot of where my work was going to go…”

The show is a retrospective on 35 years of Marshall’s art placing black figures in a medium where black figures are rarely seen.  As I looked at many of the monumental canvases I was struck by the dense blackness of the figures and had a reaction quite different than I might have had to white people.  It was by no means negative but it took some getting used to because they are solid black making some features of the people very difficult to read without great concentration.  I have no idea if African Americans feel the same way because I only have my own perspective.  A great example of what I am speaking of is in a painting called “Could this be Love, 1992” lent by a private collector courtesy of Segalot, New York.   They are in my mind, haunting figures, more shapes than portraits that you might see on the street.

Marshall’s “Past Times, 1997” where the credit line reads, Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, McCormick Place Art Collection, Chicago is part of a series of paintings of public leisure in Chicago.  Note the high-rises in the background.  It makes me think of one of Tom Hoving’s singular achievements when he was New York City’s Parks Commissioner before becoming Director of the Met.  He opened Central Park to all, making it a place that people would flock to on weekends.  I had spent my life as one of the few who played and biked in Central Park and frankly I lamented no longer having my private place where others did not go.   Still I did like to see so many more enjoying what I always had to myself, particularly the families who celebrated the Puerto Rican Day parade with picnics and outdoor barbecues, which made the whole park smell inviting until the latter were banned.

An apt picture to close with is “Untitled 2008” from a private collection courtesy of Segalot, New York.  I presume the artist thinks this painting needs no explanation.  It is, of course, about looking into the future or getting lost in nature.  To me it recalls paintings by Caspar David Friedrich (German 1774-1840).  Here are illustrations of the Marshall and  “Two Men Contemplating the Moon” by Friedrich in the Metropolitan Museum.

The exhibition presents a lot of social commentary which you can already see in Past Times but generally I have avoided that subject here.  if you get to see the show you won’t miss it.  For me it is the common values between the black and white experience that resonate in Marshall’s work.  The exhibition has closed at the Met Breuer but you have another chance to see it at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art from March 3 to July 3, 2017.

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