Spring Art Preview: Kerry James Marshall’s Black Whole

Marshall's historical, political, and racial subjects are as far-ranging as his media.


“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.”

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

Devorah Sperber: ‘Mirror Universe’
March 20–April 26

Although the press release discusses “how consciousness and the act of seeing create the illusion of a stable, predictable, singular universe,” what you really need to know is that this exhibition is based on the Star Trek episode “Mirror, Mirror”—the one featuring a “savage parallel universe,” replete with evil Dr. Spock and scheming Captain Kirk. Sperber uses threaded glass beads of varying opacities to simulate that “Beam me up, Scotty” moment, and shaped mirrors to transform distorted figures into the familiar icons. For TNG fans (you know who you are), the holodeck has been re-created from 9,600 spools of thread. Caren Golden, 539 W 23rd, 212-727-8304

McDermott & McGough
March 21–April 26

Is that Tippi Hedren wedged into a wood-paneled corner, eyes upturned in terror? (Note the staccato rhythm of her red nails.) Judging by the POV placement of the hand in another canvas, Late Night #3: Lizabeth Scott, 1967 (2007), it’s you who’s holding the lit match for the femme fatale inside that console TV with the shiny knobs. These slick new oil paintings from a duo famous for ransacking the past—and for their Victorian toggery—channel both the studio system’s contract sirens and those bygone days when broadcasters first began downsizing the big screen for the late-late show. Cheim & Read, 547 W 25th, 212-242-7727

Lots of Things Like This
April 2–May 10

Curated by McSweeney’s mastermind Dave Eggers, this show gathers 50 works by artists who make crude images with funny texts appended. No, it’s not a rejection collection of cartoons from The New Yorker, but stuff hanging on the wall. One example from Tucker Nichols: a childish painting of a pistol accompanied by the block letters “HEY LADIES.” And another: Kurt Vonnegut’s silkscreen of a tombstone that reads “Life is no way to treat an animal.” apexart, 291 Church St., 212-431-5270

‘Frederick Kiesler:

April 18–July 24

Philip Johnson called Kiesler “the best-known non-building architect of our time,” and this collection of vibrant drawings and schemata for work ranging from avant-garde stage designs to an egg-shaped “Endless House” is a chance to see one of the 20th century’s most fertile design heads in action. Kiesler (1890–1965) was born in Austria but did much of his work in America, including the biomorphic open-air plan for Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery and a “Vision Machine” for Columbia University, which attempted to demonstrate the process of perception. The Drawing Center, 35 Wooster, 212-219-2166

‘New York Cool’
April 22–July 19

One of the Grey Art Gallery’s typically erudite exhibitions, this show focuses on the various movements swirling through New York in the 1950s and ’60s. Here are Frank O’Hara’s beautifully scrawled poems, illuminated by Norman Bluhm’s splashy gouache strokes; Ilya Bolotowsky’s and Robert Goodnough’s Mondrian-inflected geometric abstractions; Seymour Lipton’s lively, biomorphic crayon drawings; Nicholas Krushenick’s chromatically intense “Iron Butterfly” prints; and a large, gestural canvas by Elaine de Kooning. Add a Milton Avery seascape and a big Louise Nevelson wall relief, and this group reminds us that there was more than ab-ex and pop happening in Gotham back in the day. Grey Art Gallery, 100 Washington Square East, 212-998-6780

‘Double Album’
April 23–July 6

The press release for this show, featuring Mexican Daniel Guzmán and Canadian Steven Shearer, promises an investigation of “the pitfalls and appeal of prolonged male adolescence.” (Appeal?) Both artists were born in the ’60s, and their work shares a fascination with the music of their youth. Shearer’s octagonal, wood-paneled Activity Cell With Warlock Bass Guitar is filled with plush red cushions and looks groupie-ready; Guzmán’s red skull on a paint-spattered can forms a striking totem. The duo’s wide-ranging visual dialogue will take over the museum’s entire second floor. New Museum, 235 Bowery, 212-219-1222

‘Jeff Koons on the Roof’
April 29–October 26

Here is kitsch writ large for the Met’s inviting roof garden, courtesy of Mr. Sincerity (despite the porn shoots with his ex-wife, you get the impression that Koons truly loves the aesthetics of childhood). One piece to be wary of: Balloon Dog (Yellow). This huge stainless-steel canine may make you laugh or cry or bark like a dog. Metropolitan Museum, 1000 Fifth Ave., 212-535-7710

Kadar Brock
May 1-31

Brock’s kick-ass abstractions combine slathered planes of acrylic flashe with neon-bright spray-paint grids that race over the edges, implying a larger space beyond—but still part of—the canvas. This is high-energy stuff, exuberantly conveyed, and while he cadges everyone from Howard Hodgkin to Mel Bochner, this young painter distills the visual tumult of his own age into something other than a goddamned video game. Buia, 541 W 23rd, 212-366-9915

Hilary Harkness
May 1–June 28

This is one for the boys, or at least those who think like them. Harkness’s models on stilettos are rough trade indeed, leggy doms and subs cavorting in harm’s way in meticulously detailed oil paintings of crowded submarines, battleships, and other homo-erotic interiors. The latest piece features a mining camp where the lusty hijinks continue in sluices, outhouses, and covered wagons bathed in tawny light. Mary Boone, 745 Fifth Ave., 212-752-2929

‘Eminent Domain’
May 2–August 29

A group of contemporary photographers shoot New York at the margins: In Thomas Holton’s photo of the Lam family’s ramshackle Ludlow Street apartment, detergent bottles, plastic clothes hangers, and a bouquet of roses in a stained bathtub vie for attention; a passenger plane seems ready to land on the shingled roof of a Queens house in Bettina Johae’s Meadowmere; and the striped façade and gray warming trays heaped with potatoes and punctuated by naked lightbulbs create a formal smorgasbord in Zoe Leonard’s Red and White Restaurant. New York Public Library, Fifth Ave. at 42nd, 212-930-0830

Greg Drasler
May 15–June 27

Drasler often depicts the insides of things—rooms, steamer trunks, cars—giving his paintings a vaguely voyeuristic feel. Green Screen (2007) features a bulbous sedan with the passenger door removed and the rear wide open, exposing the broad seats; the roof has been cut away to allow movie studio lights to illuminate the interior. Painted in bright colors, Drasler’s empty spaces are unsettling, as if waiting for private encounters that all the world will see. Betty Cuningham, 541 W 25th, 212-242-2772

Anthony Patti
May 15–June 14

When you learn that Patti grew up in Jersey and was trained as a custom car and boat mechanic, a sculpture such as 2005’s Born to Run—a six-foot-long fiberglass hot rod with an engine so bloated it obscures any view through the windshield—seems just the ticket. The tumescent curves, high-gloss-orange paint job, and thrusting exhaust pipes embody testosterone rage. Prolonged male adolescence indeed! Virgil de Voldere, 526 W 26th, 212-343-9694