Spring Art Preview: Kerry James Marshall's Black Whole

Battling art's blind spot

"You can't be born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1955 and not feel like you've got some kind of social responsibility," Kerry James Marshall told a curator in 2005. "You can't move to Watts in 1963 and grow up in South Central near the Black Panthers' headquarters and see the kinds of things I saw in my development years and not speak about it."

When Marshall spoke at MOMA last year, he began with the Supreme Court's pro-slavery Dred Scott decision and its relation to the current administration's embrace of the "Full Spectrum Dominance" doctrine (which asserts a U.S. right to do anything necessary to maintain unilateral military supremacy of the world). Not your standard artist's slide talk, but it was vintage Marshall, lifting historical moments up to the light to expose how the powerful build Potemkin villages of legality to enforce their dominance, whether over individuals, races, or countries. Discussing his 1998 "Mementos" installation of sculpture, painting, and printmaking at the University of Chicago, which portrayed murdered '60s activists as disparate as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, he pointed out that marching for civil rights "got you killed as quick as being a black nationalist would get you killed."

Marshall's historical, political, and racial subjects are as far-ranging as his media (which also include film and comic books). In a recent e-mail interview with the Voice from his Chicago studio, he explains: "There is such scant representation of the Black body in the historical record, that I believe I have a duty to advance its presence using every means at my disposal." That body confronts you in 1986's Invisible Man, a warm-toned black figure (with white eyes and teeth) on a cooler black ground, a minimalist riff on Ralph Ellison's book. Compare this to Malevich's 1918 oil painting Suprematist Composition: White on White, that famous white square on a white ground that occupies pride of place at MOMA. Marshall notes that abstraction is not an avenue truly available to him, because "non-representational work does not address this important problem" of the black figure's absence from most of art history. He continues: "An unrequited love of art history haunts me, and I believe, most Black artists, who know deep down they will never achieve the status, in history, of a Jackson Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning, or Jeff Koons. . . . It matters that the history you are compelled to acknowledge reinforces notions of your inferiority with the absence of any meaningful achievement contributed by people who are like you."

A pointed bucolic: Marshall's Vignette #10, 2007
Courtesy Jack Shainmen Gallery
A pointed bucolic: Marshall's Vignette #10, 2007

And yet Marshall does not let polemics obscure his art. "I don't sacrifice the beauty quotient in order to make a point," he emphasizes. In his mid-'90s "Garden Project" series, huge paintings depicting Chicago housing projects such as Rockwell Gardens and Wentworth Gardens, Marshall dealt with the irony of these pastorally named warehouses for the poor by amping up the color and jamming the canvases with text, graphics, and inspired paint handling—flowers drip down a chipped brick wall—to convey vibrant, if circumscribed, lives.

Marshall's powerful compositions represent a tough hide stretched over deep emotional and intellectual matrices. He once wrote and drew a complete comic book, Rythm Mastr, which features a black hero (a rarity in mainstream comics) who combats lawlessness with drum beats that unleash secret powers from within African sculptures. Marshall taped the printed broadsheets to the glass panes of museum vitrines, using the light shining through his lively, double-sided layouts to create a mural veering between literally layered narratives and abstract collage.

His upcoming "Vignette" paintings depict couples in bucolic poses cribbed from the pleasure grounds of Fragonard and other French purveyors of decadent leisure. But Marshall has leached the color from his scenes; rather than riding swings in leafy glades, his lovers make do with flirting across chain-link fences. In Vignette #3, wan pink hearts flutter in the air, forming a compositional link to grisaille flowers, while a young girl's hoop earring is echoed in a series of arcs and loops that cascade bewitchingly throughout the composition—something lovely in a denatured idyll. Jack Shainman, May 22–June 21, 513 W 20th, 212-645-1701.

Spring Art Picks

'Dan Flavin: The 1964 Green
Gallery Exhibition'
March 6–May 3

Minimalism is getting long in the tooth. This uptown space is setting the Wayback Machine to late 1964 to recreate an installation of Flavin's fluorescent sculptures that took place at the legendary Green Gallery, where director Richard Bellamy showcased seminal pop and minimalist artists. The original show was a turning point for Flavin, who had previously mounted his light pieces on painted wood; for the Green show, he used only the fixtures themselves, transforming commercial products more familiar from seedy showrooms or hospital corridors into transcendent art. Zwirner and Wirth, 32 E 69th, 212-517-8677

Rob Conger
March 13–April 12

You wouldn't expect a technique handed down from Grandma to be cutting-edge, but Conger's large latch-hook-rug portraits of 20th-century inventors transforms knots of yarn into pixels. In the image of Dr. Robert Adler, inventor of the remote control, the scruffy texture imparts a homey static to the scientist's cadaverous mug. Other works spotlight current media mavens—Tim Russert's florid face is rimed with purple highlights—and there's also a pop-up book, Blow Your Wad, a primer on financial dysfunction. Mixed Greens, 531 W 26th, 212-331-8888

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