By Olivia Nathan
Kerry James Marshall’s retrospective at the MET Breuer, rightly titled “Mastry”, is a collection of his earliest and latest figural paintings which continue to focus on the African-American experience. In the beginning of his college career at the prestigious Los Angeles art school, Otis, Marshall painted “A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self”. Displayed in the first room of the exhibition, the canvas is completely black and burnt umber except for a pair of white eyes, a smile of missing teeth, and a shirt collar. At first glance, the small portrait is disturbing in its evocation of blackface and racist cartoon, but becomes gentle and sad the longer you look.
Small Pin-up (Finger Wag) (2013)
Painting, 76.2 X 60.96 cm.
Materials: acrylic, pvc
Photo courtesy of M HKA Ensembles
The exhibit moves with Marshall through his development into an authoritative and continuously conversational painter. The middle of the show hosts a collection of selected pieces from the MET’s archives which Marshall studied and emulated while at Otis. The pieces range from Ingres and Holbein to deKooning, Jacob Lawrence, Japanese woodblocks, and African sculpture. The display of vastly different works in the same space, essentially an exhibition within an exhibition, raises endless questions about how to connect a dead white man’s oil portrait to an African Dan mask.
In the next room hung perhaps Marshall’s most classically influenced 2012 work “School of Beauty School of Culture”. Set in a vibrant, shiny beauty salon filled with gleaming, too-glamorous black women and their children, Marshall paints himself into the piece in one of the mirrors but hides his face with a camera flash. The photo-ready women look directly out at the artist and viewers, unaware of the crooked head of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty hovering above the tiled floor of the foreground and outlined in glitter. The allusions to Velazquez’s “Las Meninas” and Hans Holbein’s “The Ambassadors” puts Marshall in conversation with traditional, revered art, while at the same time inserting a traditionally unseen subject: the African-American woman.
Although enamoured with the majority of his paintings, I found my favorite in one of the last rooms– “Small Pin-up (Finger Wag) (2013)”. In accordance with the rest of his works, the female figure’s skin tone is darker than the background with almost imperceptible gradations of black in her face. She stands in a lace bra and G-string, hand on hip and her other hand with one finger in the air, wagging. As I smiled up at her, a woman beside me turned to her companion and said, “An amazing exhibition of social commentary.” But it is not– Marshall paints black domestic life with subtle deftness and produces figures like my pin-up crush. She does not comment on her marginalized role in fine art; she simply takes her rightful place in it.
The MET Breuer is located at 945 Madison Ave, New York, NY 10021, Kerry James Marshall retrospective until January 29, 2017
Olivia Nathan is a junior at Barnard and an Opinion Editor at Barnard Bite.