Art History of Painting by Kerry James Marshall

In an ambitious new show Kerry James Marshall presents abstract and figurative paintings with Pop Art paintings. “I don’t want to be subjected to the will of somebody else, imposing upon you what you can and can’t do.”

“This is my Pop Art Painting”, says Kerry James Marshall with an infectious laugh whilst pointing at a work that features auction results presented in the format of a supermarket circular. The American artist gives an impassioned walkthrough of his new exhibition ‘History of Painting’ at David Zwirner. Marshall is an enthusiastic and articulate speaker about his work and craftsmanship. He often begins to discuss his paintings with a question.

“In the end, what do artworks end up as?” Marshall asks rhetorically. “They end up as objects that can be traded among people and among institutions. They circulate in the culture as a commodity too. Why isn’t that a reasonable subject for a painting? This work is really an intention to make this painting as interesting as any other painting”.

The auction paintings are named after the title of the exhibition. As paintings they might not be as exciting as the figurative works in the show, but I read into them as an interesting comment on the current art market. The discussion in the media about works of art is not so much about the works of art themselves anymore but about the prices they bring at auctions and who buys them.

Opposite the painting hangs an abstract work of blocks floating against a white background that echoes Mondrian’s ‘Composition With Colour Fields’ (1917).

“What is this?” Marshall asks. “This is the basic manifestation of what it means to make a painting. What is a painting? The artist and writer Maurice Denis said; ‘it is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order’. Period. The idea that you construct a picture like this, that alone is satisfying enough. To hold your interest for a reasonable amount of time. This is the conclusion I came to when I made this painting. This is more than enough, satisfying to me to hold my attention for a reasonable amount of time”.

The show also includes Marshall’s large scale figurative works. The highlight of the show is a large sepia coloured work comprising two groups of children sitting on the floor of a museum listening to a guide. Marshall focuses, just like the photographer Thomas Struth in his ‘Audience’ series, on the experience of museum visitors looking at art with the work itself not shown in the picture. The painting looks like a diptych as the viewer is looking at the side of two walls on which the paintings in baroque frames are hanging. The children are positioned on the left and right side of the canvas facing the painting. It works like a mirror; the guide is almost reflected. There is also something identical with the wall labels positioned on the painting with one difference. The left label reads African American, b 1955, on the right label, the word African is omitted. The labels also make you ponder whether we’re looking at a painting within a painting. Is Marshall suggesting that the children are looking at two of his paintings on display in a museum housing historical Western Art?

In all of the works there are many details to discover and they are an expression of how Marshall loves to paint. There is sheer delight in how he painted the light green leaves of a tree, the bright pink dog leash or insects sitting on a wire netting in a setting that remind you of the film ‘Rear Window’.

During the walkthrough Marshall also posed the question how the paintings in the show are connected. He explained that he seeks to make work as a whole human being. Everything he is interested in is available as a subject for the work that he wants to make.

Marshall doesn’t impose any rules on himself. As he is interested in figurative and abstract painting why shouldn’t he present them in one show? He lets no one tell him what he can and can’t do in his art. And when he encounters obstacles in his way, what does he do? In an interview with Mark Godfrey, he said: “I have to figure out what the strategies are to get me around those obstacles. It’s up to me to figure that out. Nobody else is supposed to do that for me.” At the end of the walkthrough I asked Marshall where this proactive mentality, taking charge of your own destiny come from? Is it something that his parents taught him?

“In part. My father said to me once “If there is a something that a man made, you can make it too”. I need to know how things work. There are enormous benefits to knowing how things work. I don’t want to be subjected to the will of somebody else, imposing upon you what you can and can’t do. In my childhood I was taught a valuable lesson. That lesson was that it was up to me to take responsibility for myself and that I couldn’t count on others. Children can be rather sadistic and cruel. If you are half a step behind other kids, the consequences can sometimes be somewhat dire. Growing up in Birmingham, Alabama we used to run all over the place and we played in tree houses. One day my friends and I climbed to the top of a tree house. They all got there before me. I was lagging behind. On the climb up, they were dropping burning matches on me. I let go, dropped down onto a board that had a nail in it which went straight into my foot. My friends had to come down and carry me home, which they did. What that showed me is that you must be able to catch up, keep up or be in the lead. You can’t be left behind. You have to make sure that you are able to match what everybody else is doing. That’s what I learned from that experience and through everything else throughout my life”.

Marshall is generous in his answers and went on. “When I applied for Otis [Art Institute], I had to submit my portfolio. I bumped into a group of students at the school. One of them, a graduate student, asked me what my portfolio entailed? I told him that it comprised a little bit of this and a little bit of that. He said, “You just messed up. You probably won’t get in because that is not what they want to see. They don’t want to see that you can do many different things, they want to see one kind of thing”. I was worried to death. However, I did get in [laughs]. These experiences, for me, taught me that you have to figure out a way to put yourself in a position where people can’t claim more about what you’re doing than you do. You can’t have it. It is not their responsibility to carve out a space for you. You have to claim your space in a manner that cannot be denied. That’s literally how I started out.”

Written by Thierry Somers
Works: Kerry James Marshall, Untitled, 2018, 215.5 x 154.5 x 7 cm, © Kerry James Marshall, Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner (window painting); Kerry James Marshall, History of Painting (May 16, 2007), 2018, 184.3 x 153.8 x 7 cm, © Kerry James Marshall, Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner (Pop Art painting); Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (Small Colours), 2018, 92.8 x 77.5 x 7 cm, © Kerry James Marshall, Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner (abstract painting); Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (Underpainting), 2018, 215.2 x 305.5 x 10.2 cm, © Kerry James Marshall, Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner (museum painting)

Kerry James Marshall: History of Painting” until November 10, 2018 at David Zwirner London.