No matter your political persuasion, 2016 is most likely a year that you’ll be happy to leave behind. It wasn’t all celebrity deaths, natural disasters, and acts of terrorism, however—2016 was also a year in which many artists of color were finally given the acclaim they deserve. One such artist was Kerry James Marshall, whose exhibition “Mastry,” which opened at the Met Breuer last October and is set to close January 29, is the painter’s largest museum retrospective to date. The show highlights the work of a man born in 1955 in Birmingham, Alabama, who like many African American artists of his generation, has never been given his due by the art world. Finally, his time has come; and there’s no better way to ring in the New Year than by visiting his paintings, which make visible what has been so often obscured in our culture—the figure of the black American.
The first thing you may notice about the exhibition, which includes 72 paintings that make reference to various movements in art history, is that Marshall’s work is fun to look at. As complex and saturated with narrative as the work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, each figurative painting is a novel of sorts, containing enough detail to keep a viewer occupied for an afternoon. Souvenir I (1997), for example, depicts a woman rearranging vases on a marble tabletop in a fancy room; her arm is replaced by a golden phoenix ring redolent of Cleopatra. On the wall behind her is a poster mourning the losses of JFK, Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. The woman could be the owner of the house; likely, she is the cleaning lady for a family who outwardly supports civil rights, but even in their own home, relegates lesser work to colored people. In this era, white women left their children at home with women of color so that they could advance in corporate America—the message in the painting still feels timely, and pointed. Layers of meaning exude from the single flat canvass; even still, it’s as satisfying to look at as an episode of Mad Men is to watch for the sheer beauty of the setting.
The figures in many of Marshall’s paintings are so black that they almost appear to be shadows; their formlessness reminds us of how black figures have been left out of the traditional canon of art history. But the depth of the blankness also calls to mind the soul, which is invisible, but all encompassing, and ever present. In Slow Dance, two entwined black figures haunt the very room that they occupy; in A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow Of His Former Self (1995), the artist’s face is a black hole whose only visible features are his teeth and the whites of his eyes.
Marshall’s own work is complemented by “Selects,” a small show embedded in the retrospective that contains works curated from the Met’s permanent collection by the artist himself. They include paintings by Paolo Veronese, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Hans Holbein, Romare Bearden, Frank Stella, Gerhard Richter and Willem De Kooning. They are all works that have affected Marshall’s own practice, but they also lay bare his academic knowledge of art history. The mini exhibition serves as a glimpse inside of the artist’s mind, but they also make visible lesser known works by famous artists in which black figures are the main subject. These include Andrew Wyeth’s Grape Wine, which depicts a black man with his eyes closed against a deep burgundy background, and Walker Evans’ Pedestrian in Print Blouse, Detroit, which shows a black female figure very much as worn down by labor as the white Allie Mae Burroughs, who is perhaps the photographer’s most famous subject.
The Met Breuer is housed in the former Whitney Museum of American Art, which first opened to the public in 1966. A modernist temple, the building was supposed to contain the best of American art; but for too long, the best of American art meant the best art made by the white male artist. This is no longer the case, but a lot of work needs to be done to revise damage done in the past by the act of omission. Marshall’s retrospective establishes him not only as one of the best African American artists of his generation, but also as one of the best American artists of the 20th century; finally, a step in the right direction.