Full-scale retrospectives of living artists are usually propositional, assessments on the fly, open-ended in interpretation and elastic in conclusions. After all, the artist is still working, and one can’t blame curators for hedging their bets a bit, as if they’re evaluating something incomplete and understand that there’s a way to go before they can put the final bow on it. But not this one; this superb retrospective of Kerry James Marshall’s work felt like being at a Rembrandt or a Titian retrospective, so stately a march, so digested and clear in focus and trajectory that it seemed to have installed itself (that’s a sign of good curators, yes?). Room succeeded room almost on their own impetus, Marshall’s strong clear vision becoming a strong clear mission, a narrative that had twists and turns, but never a flinch in its logic and direction.
As it concludes its five-month run (!) in Chicago on September 25 before heading to the Met Breuer in New York (October 25, 2016 – January 29, 2017) and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, (March 12 – July 2, 2017), this exhibition systematically and intelligently documents Marshall’s commitment to the deepest examination of the African-American experience. He overlooks nothing: its triumphs and tragedies, its contemporaneity and history, its narrative both of individuals and communities and their defining positions in their own story and that of America, all expressed with such convincing clarity as to offer a people’s primer. Marshall’s core “mastry” (he might slang it up, but a fully parallel mastery to what could tersely be called museum art is precisely his ambition) is to embrace and achieve the rhetorical tropes of traditional history painting: large-scale canvases, monumental heroic figures (even if not always heroes/heroines), allegorical symbols, condensation of narrative to core visual elements, attentiveness to drama, etc.. And in doing so, somewhat as Diego Rivera accomplished in Mexico, he creates a rich tapestry of historical fact and genre folklore that essentially becomes a history in itself.
The paintings that solidified his reputation, those smart images from 1994-95 that flayed the upbeat administrative rhetoric underpinning urban public housing projects in LA and Chicago (the first, the city where he was raised and educated, the second his home for the last 30 years) juxtaposed their idyllic descriptive names (for example, Better Homes, Better Gardens of 1994, or Untitled (Altgeld Gardens) of 1995) with our bitter knowledge of the promises they failed to fulfill. His obsession with pictorializing history, with making it of enveloping scale, a la French Salon painting of the 19th Century or prototypes in artists such as Velázquez or Rubens, acknowledges that today museum scale invites museum placement, and that for much of art history doing something large was a potent sign that it aspired to a public instead of a private audience.
Marshall has remained steadfast to all this for more than 30 years, and there is no place at the American feast for which he will not claim (and usually earn) a place for inclusion of the African-American experience. The bucolic pleasures of indolent middle-class recreation (Past Times, 1997), the presence of black artists in every niche in the art world (Untitled (Painter), 2009), the heartrending legacies of inner city violence (Lost Boys, 1993), even America’s art history, all can be occupied and made inclusive. If Edward Hopper’s Early Sunday Morning of 1930 is an American modernist icon, why not Marshall’s 7am Sunday Morning, (2003), set in the Bronzeville section of Chicago? The barber shop, the beauty shop, young love, the artist and his or her model, the Civil Rights movement, individual historical exemplars (and some victims), all these and more represent the less represented within the underrepresented-bourgeois and middle-class African-Americans going about their lives (often allegorically), rather than the negative stereotypes so often the pervasive fare of mainstream media and political discourse. Marshall can, when he wills, bring the ambition and propaganda skills of the Renaissance and Baroque history painter to the concerns of the genre artist and portraitist. Marshall is, after all, a painter, and he set himself, from his time at the Otis College of Art and Design, to imbibe its history, learn its techniques and to pit himself relentlessly against and within the traditions that have comprised it for the past 700 years-the figural, the narrative, the monumental. Those traditions came to represent, as he was coming of age in the 1970s and ’80s, another exclusionary site he would have to work into submission. Marshall demanded mastery of himself, and has achieved it, and as a result, this might be the finest one-person exhibition I’ve seen this century.