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An exhibition of the work of Kerry James Marshall on view now at the National Gallery of Art is remarkable for two reasons. First, he’s one of the most celebrated artists working today. His paintings reflect darkly on an American dream viewed through the lens of the African-American experience. The show is also noteworthy because it’s the first solo show of a living African-American artist organized by the gallery. We speak with the artist and an art critic.
- Kerry James Marshall Artist
- Tyler Green Producer, host and editor, Modern Art Notes; columnist, Modern Painters magazine
Scenes From “In the Tower: Kerry James Marshall”
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAn exhibition of the work of Kerry James Marshall is on view now at the National Gallery of Art. He's one of the most celebrated artists working today. His paintings reflect darkly on the American Dream, putting the experience of African Americans at the center of a tradition that has long excluded it. The show is also noteworthy because it's the first solo show of a living African American artist organized by the National Gallery of Art. Kerry James Marshall joins us in studio. He's the recipient of a McArthur Genius Grant, as well as a national endowment for the arts fellowship among other honors. Kerry James Marshall, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. KERRY JAMES MARSHALLWell, thank you for the invitation.
NNAMDITyler Green also joins us in studio. He is an art journalist. He writes and edits the Modern Art Notes blog and he's the U.S. columnist for Modern Painters magazine. He also hosts a weekly podcast for Modern Art Notes. Tyler Green, thank you for joining us.
MR. TYLER GREENThank you.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call, 800-433-8850. Have you see the Kerry James Marshall exhibit at the National Gallery of Art? You can shoot us an email to email@example.com or send us a Tweet at kojoshow. Tyler Green, walks us through visually what we're seeing when we go to the Tower at the National Gallery of Art for this exhibition. Describe the work and the style.
GREENThere are two ways to enter the exhibition. One is to come up the elevator and you come out into a hallway of drawings and preparatory works for Kerry's very large paintings. And then as you enter into the main gallery, the Tower galleries at the National Gallery of Art are -- it's a remarkable space. It's a huge space with a very high ceiling. Paintings need to be big and strong and full of physical presence to command a space and Kerry's do.
GREENAnd what you see when you get there is the work of an artist who has spent his career substantially addressing the art historical cannon and inserting African Americans into it in ways that African Americans had for centuries -- or Africans had for centuries been left out of it.
NNAMDIKerry, allow me to be specific. The first painting of yours acquired by the National Gallery of Art is called Great America. Can you talk a little bit about that painting and what you were looking to say to express with it?
MARSHALLWell, the painting Great America is actually a meditation on the middle passage, which was one leg of the journey on the Atlantic slave route between Africa, North America and Europe. And that space of the middle passage is the kind of place where we think of as -- that African's made the transition from being Africans to being slaves, and then also to being Americans or being citizens of the Caribbean.
MARSHALLAnd that space is a space of a kind of trauma. It's the place where you were sort of cut off from the culture you had, from the ancestors you had, from the history you had and then reprogrammed in some ways to be the beast of burden that slavery transformed people into.
NNAMDIHistorical themes are the center of much of your work including a number of the works in this current show at the National Gallery. Can you talk a little, for example, about your paintings depicting images related to the slave trade? You obviously feel that's very important.
MARSHALLWell, there's a way in which you -- as an African American you have to come to terms with what the slave -- the history of slavery means to you, and whether or not you believe there are still experiences that we have now that are a consequence of or the result of having gone through a system like that. And so the fact that that history is so little discussed and rarely represented in the historical record here means that it's a period that needs to be paid more attention to. Because if it's not paid attention to then the chances of sort of resolving whatever are the implications of that were become less and less and less available to us.
MARSHALLAnd I have a belief that sort of not knowing your history, not knowing a significant -- having a significant familiarity with it is a weakness that I think makes us, on some level, incapable of moving forward and achieving the kind of equality, I would say, that a lot of the struggle of black people since the institutionalized system slavery has denied us access to. And so if we mean to be equal, in all of the ways that I think that's important, then one of the dimensions of that equality is the kind of knowledge of who you are, where you came from and how you arrived at the place that you find yourself.
NNAMDIYou're not only expressing my thoughts better than I do in your art, you're also expressing them better than I do in words. We're talking with Kerry James Marshall. He is an artist whose work is on view now at the National Gallery of Art. He joins us in studio along with Tyler Green. He is an art journalist. He writes and edits the Modern Art Notes blog and he's the U.S. columnist for Modern Painters magazine. He also hosts a weekly podcast for Modern Art Notes.
NNAMDIWe're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Do you think our major art institutions reflect the diversity around us, 800-433-8850? Tyler, can you describe some of the imagery at work in these paintings and talk about how you see this work affecting the individuals who view it?
GREENSure. One of the things that Kerry does wonderfully is he minds our history for imagery, poses, themes, ideas. And then places African Americans or African figures in that work. So one of the pieces at the National Gallery of Art is the paint called Splash. Am I getting the title right?
MARSHALLOh, called Plunge.
MARSHALLIt's a painting called Plunge.
MARSHALLI was in the neighborhood. And the main figure in the painting is an African American whose at a pool.
MARSHALLWell, you know what? We could actually -- instead of calling the figures in the paintings African American, I think it might be more appropriate to say they are black figures...
MARSHALL...really because they...
NNAMDIThey're really black figures.
MARSHALL...because they really are black figures. And blackness is not a condition of African Americans only. I mean, it refers to a much larger cultural body of black people as they exist, not only on the continent of Africa but in the Diaspora, meaning in North America, in the Caribbean and in South America. So in a way the fact that they are as black as they are becomes emblematic of Africans as a people, you know, black people as a culture.
GREENAnd unpack that for a moment. What Kerry means when he talks about the blackness of the figures is his way of painting black skin is acutely flatly extraordinarily black.
NNAMDIThere is almost no variation in the skin tone when you look at the figures that Kerry -- however there's a variation in those figures and their features, distinctions that you bring out more subtly.
MARSHALLOh, absolutely. Absolutely. They are -- well, even as they are all represented with -- as essentially black, they are all still individually delineated as separate figures. They are not the same figure repeated over and over and over again. Each one of those has its own distinct and individual qualities and its own distinct personality. So that you can still be a black person and still retain an incredible amount of individuality at the same time.
NNAMDIA painting called Gulf Stream recalls a 19th century painting by Winslow Homer of a black man in an open boat after a shipwreck surrounded by sharks. But you turned that on its head. You reversed the circumstances in that case. Talk about that.
MARSHALLWell, a part of what I wanted to do with that picture was to -- as a kind of reversal really is to take out all of the drama -- I mean, to take out the tragedy, to take out the sense of impending doom that the Winslow Homer painting represents. And then to reverse that in a way and sort of place the figures also in the -- that painting is also a kind of meditation on the middle passage because formerly if you look at where the boat is located in the picture, it's located in the middle distance of the painting.
MARSHALLAnd so that's another kind of a middle passage. But if you look at the people in the boat and what they are doing, it's like -- as opposed to the Homer painting, they are engaged in what appears to be sort of a leisurely...
NNAMDIThey're having a good time.
MARSHALL...they're having a good time out on the boat. I mean, it's -- they are on their way to join a regatta that's actually in the far distance as opposed to sort of one step away from annihilation.
NNAMDIYou often talk about your work, your themes as focused on the middle, the in between on ambiguity. Can you talk about what the middle means for you?
MARSHALLWell, but, you know, this is a part of what I think is -- you can argue maybe sort of a condition of being a black American.
NNAMDIWhat Du Bois talks about.
MARSHALLIt's the double consciousness that Du Bois talks about. You are at all times constantly aware of yourself, not only as a black person but also as an American. But an American in a context in which your full participation and acceptance into the American family has been contingent and often denied or refused. And so the very idea that black people, from the moment they came as slaves, have been trying to -- have been petitioning the American government and American society to grant them the same rights and access and privileges that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution was written to extend to anybody who was an American citizen.
MARSHALLThe fact that black folks have had to fight for that creates the kind of ambivalence about where you stand and what your position in the American family really is.
NNAMDIHence the focus on themes of the middle. Tyler, we're very familiar with many of these images, compositions and figures from the art historical cannon, if you will. What does that familiarity mean and how do we view a version of these images that is unexpected?
GREENIt's one of the great things about Kerry's work, is when we look at many of his paintings there are parts of them we recognize. You know, a little light goes off in the back of our head, oh that's familiar. And as you look at them, the image becomes familiar and the reference he's making becomes clear. It's kind of -- prompts our visual memory in a way that reminds us that the story or some of the stories that we know from our history that blacks have been excluded from them.
GREENI mean, I know one of Kerry's favorite examples is of the 19th century, early 20th century pastoral or Arcadian painting. You know, Luncheon on a Grass, Bathers by a River and so on. And, you know, so these are the paintings by Manet and Matisse that help us form our idea of what beauty is, what recreation is. And I think that we kind of forget how kind of smoothly that is all moved into our imaginations as kind of what wonderful leisure time and what wonderful beauty is.
GREENAnd so when Kerry updates those paintings by putting black figures in them, all of a sudden we realize, oh, what wasn't there before.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Do you see yourself represented in art in museums and galleries whether you're a woman, Asian, Native American, African American? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We're talking with Kerry James Marshall. His work is on view now at the National Gallery of Art. He's the recipient of a McCarthy Genius Grant as well as a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship among other honors.
NNAMDITyler Green also joins us in studio. He is an art journalist who writes and edits the Modern Art Notes blog. Tyler, Kerry James Marshall created a series of paintings in suburbia in the 1990s which are particularly resonant. Several of them are in this exhibit. Can you describe what we see, for example, in the painting titled Our Town?
GREENWe see a suburban neighborhood in the background, a very crisp suburban neighborhood. And we see black children running and playing in the foreground. And it's an image of suburbia that is strikingly absent from art even in the last 30 or 40 years. And it presents a new way of thinking about suburbia, how -- why those black children are there. Does it have to do with them having -- you know, do they live there or do they have another relationship with the neighborhood? It's a contemporary history painting.
NNAMDIThis follows a group of paintings you did earlier based on public housing projects with the word garden in their names. Can you tell me what you wanted to say by depicting suburbia in the way that you do?
MARSHALLWell, one of the things Tyler just said a while ago was how infrequently you encounter the image of black people engaged in activities that seem to be leisure and pleasure oriented and or depictions of black people in the environment we call the pastoral. I think I had something cut off. But anyway, the absence of representations of black people in the pastoral scenes. But in the suburban paintings, the paintings like "Our Town," which is a play on the Thornton Wilder play "Our Town," the questions that have to based are some that Tyler just raised.
MARSHALLIt's what is the relationship of those children and the figure of a woman who is presumably the mother in the background who is waving as they ride and run away from there, but what is -- what really is their relationship to that neighborhood. I mean, whose neighborhood is "Our Town"? I mean, and what we know from history is that a lot of neighborhoods, a lot of really middle-class and upper-middle-class neighborhoods that had at one time been all white neighborhoods, suddenly become all black neighborhoods after a few black families start moving in, and then those neighborhoods tend to turn over and change.
MARSHALLAnd so it's possible that some of those neighborhoods that had been white at one time could become ours in a sense, and that's part of what I wanted to suggest with that picture. Except the ambivalence and ambiguity in the painting is that you can't tell whether the woman who is there waving at the children is a domestic who is working in the house of her boss, or if it's -- if she's waving them off from their own home.
NNAMDITyler, what strikes you the most in those same suburbia paintings?
GREENThat they're suburban. You know, I think that it's really easy to forget that until the last generation or two of American artists that African-Americans didn't represent themselves in American art. You know, if you go back to the mid-19th century, the slavery era, the most prominent African-American painter is a guy named Robert Scott Duncanson. He lives in Cincinnati, so really the far west at that time, and Duncanson paints landscapes. He's not painting people.
GREENIt is not really until Kerry's generation, and an occasional painter before that, such as Jacob Lawrence or collagist, Romare Bearden, who are creating the story of how African-Americans are portrayed in our country's own art.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. If you'd like to call, the number is 800-433-8850. Have you seen the Kerry James Marshall exhibit at the National Gallery of Art? Do you think our major art institutions reflect the diversity around us? Give us a call. 800-433-8850 or send email to email@example.com. You can send us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Welcome back. We're talking with Kerry James Marshall. He is an artist whose work is on view now at the National Gallery of Art. He's the recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant as well as a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship among other honors. He's joined in studio by Tyler Green, an art journalist. Tyler writes and edits the "Modern Art Notes" blog. He's the U.S. columnist for Modern Painters magazine. He also hosts a weekly podcast for Modern Art Notes.
NNAMDIWe're inviting your calls at 80-433-8850, email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We got an email from Sophia who said, "I saw the exhibit shortly after it installed at the National Gallery, and it's wonderful. I wrote a paper and selected Mr. Marshall as my artist to study in art appreciation class. As an African-American woman learning about the artist and learning to interpret the meanings behind his work as well as his background and motivations behind the work are a great experience. I hope to meet Mr. Marshall in person one day. If in D.C., please go see the exhibit. Viewing on paper or only online doesn't do the masterpieces justice. They're very powerful." I guess, Tyler Green, you'd say yes.
GREENYeah. They have a whole lot of presence.
NNAMDIWe talked earlier about the blackness of the figures that Kerry James Marshall invokes. I didn't ask you, Tyler, what do you see in how those figures are portrayed, and how we as viewers perceive them.
GREENThey are figures -- so we're so used to seeing, you know, in European paintings, you know, 19th, early 20th century, white -- whitish figures, and you just kind of take the physical presence of the figure for granted. And then in Kerry's paintings where the figures are so coal black often, there is a whole different relationship between the figure and the landscape, and figures and/the field, the figures -- and because of that flat blackness, it really makes me anyway, think about the presence of the figure in the field in a different way, and in a way that moves my eye through a painting differently.
MARSHALLWhich is a part of the point.
NNAMDII was about to ask, how did you embark on that so to speak?
MARSHALLWell, there are two reasons why I do that. One is that I use the figures in the paintings as rhetorical devices. They are -- because when we speak about who we are, we talk about ourselves in rhetorical terms. We say we are black people, we are black Americans, you know, they're white Americans, you know, they are Asian Americans. We use a rhetoric of description to define who we are. And so what I did essentially was just to make that rhetorical device concrete.
NNAMDIWell, we got on email from Brenda who says, "I just fell madly in love with Kerry for pointing out the difference between blacks and African-Americans. The phrase African-American for me is a scourge of our time. Kerry's paintings point out of universality of the black experience which is more inclusive and expansive." Was that your intention?
MARSHALLThat sounds about right to me. But that -- it's true. Because if we think -- because there -- it's like Jamaicans are black, Haitians are black, Brazilians, there are black Brazilians. They are not -- the fact that they are all black people doesn't mean that they are black Americans. And so I think if you take the phrase black Americans, it is -- it's more inclusive, it's more expansive, and it seems -- it contains the culture and the presence of black people anywhere you find them.
NNAMDIYou were born in Birmingham, Alabama, 1955. Your family then moved to South Central Los Angeles.
MARSHALLWell, we moved to Watts first.
NNAMDIOh, okay. Both of those places are touchstones at different points in the civil rights movement. Um, can you talk a little bit about how that shaped you in your work?
MARSHALLWell, you know, I think coming from Birmingham at the time that I did -- we moved from Birmingham in 1963, but I was only seven and a half years old. I was just going to turn eight in that fall because my birthday's in October. But so the civil rights movement in Birmingham didn't really have a profound impact on me because I think I was too young to even know what was going on, and because I lived in a neighborhood that was all black, you know, it just didn't -- we didn't encounter any kind of confrontation because, you know, we were home effectively, you know.
MARSHALLAnd we had family and our friends and our relatives, and we were home. But when we moved to California and lived in Watts, we moved to the Nickerson Garden projects there, and then from there we moved into South Central L.A. And then when the Watts riots took place, then everything changed because by then I was a lot more aware of things that were politically in the world. You have to remember we had just come from 19 -- November of 1963 when John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
MARSHALLIn '65 the Watt riots took place, and that was all around us, you know, so we -- I was able to experience that directly. Not only experience that directly, but then the consequences of the Watts riots was something that had a really profound impact on the way I was going to see the world, and that was in part because when the riots take place, you have no idea as a child what the precipitating event was that caused it. So all you see is this maelstrom of activity swirling around you and you look up and every store in your neighborhood is on fire.
MARSHALLBut in the aftermath of that, you now no longer have any stores in your neighborhood to go to.
MARSHALLAnd so now you have -- right. Now you have to think about what the implications of that because you don't know how it started or what caused it, but you can -- you have to deal with and live with the consequences. Now that's a big deal. Now, we were also really close to the Black Panthers head quarters on Central Avenue, and I want to Carver Junior High School which was also -- in South Central which was also the site of tremendous student uprisings and protests during 1968, and '69.
MARSHALLYou know, in 1969 the L.A. Police Department had a shootout with the Black Panther party on Central Avenue. Well, that was -- I was a witness to that directly, you know, because it sounded like the Vietnam War was going on outside our school.
NNAMDIIn your neighborhood, yeah.
MARSHALLIn the neighborhood. So those kinds of things really shaped my perception of my relationship to the American ideal. And so on some level, I -- these things constituted a loss of faith, and plunged you into a cycle of confusion where you really had to start to figure out what's going on in the world. I mean, if Marvin Gaye will remind us...
MARSHALLReally, what's going on, because it's -- it seemed like everything was coming undone.
NNAMDIAnd that's reflected in the work you see from Kerry James Marshall. Tyler, we got an email from Laura who said, "Love Kerry's work but Martin Puryear the first African-American to exhibit at the National Gallery?" You wrote about the fact that this is the first show of a living African-American artist organized by the National Gallery of Art. As I -- as she points out we should clarify, it's not the only exhibit of an African-American artist ever shown there.
GREENIt's not the only exhibition. Martin Puryear, of course, grew up in Washington, in southwest Washington. Lives today in the Catskills. The National Gallery did not organize the Puryear show. The Museum of Modern Art in New York did. I think that was at the National Gallery in 2008 or so. The National Gallery has been with us since, what, 1941? And it wasn't until 1990, I think that the National Gallery exhibited a living contemporary artist. That was a drawings show of Jasper Johns.
GREENSo yes. This is the first time the National Gallery -- the curator on the show is the James Myer at the NGA.
MARSHALLWell, but the important thing about this show though is not that it's -- I'm the first at the National Gallery period, but it's the first in the tower space, the first living African-American artist in the tower place was Mel Bochner whose show was there the year before. Now, prior to that, that tower space had only been used to show the work of artists who were deceased.
NNAMDIHere is the reaction to that of Paul in Mitchellville, Md. Paul, you're on the air. Go ahead please. Paul, are you there? Well, Paul -- I can't hear Paul right now, but he said he had stopped going to the National Gallery of Cart -- hi Paul, are you there?
PAULYes, I'm here.
NNAMDISpeak for yourself, sir.
PAULYes. Thank you very much. Thank you for the program. As I told your screener, I stopped going to the National Gallery of Art about 15, 18 years ago. I was a fine arts major, attended HBCU, and can tell you the stories of Picasso and Ruben and Caravaggio and all of the European artists, and didn't learn anything about black artists until I was a grown man, over 40 years old. Didn't see any discussion of Tanner or Douglas or Mailou Jones, or (unintelligible) so I appreciate what you're doing there.
PAULIt's absolutely fantastic. I will get to the -- I will go back to the National Gallery of Art now to see this show.
NNAMDIWell, glad would could get you back, Paul, thank you very much for your call. Tyler, the omission of major cultural institutions, however, extends beyond African-American artists.
GREENYeah. The National Gallery has had its issues over the years with the presentation of non-white American artists. When they reopened their American art galleries five or six years ago, I think only one or two paintings were by non-white male artists. One was a painting by an artist named Joshua Johnson, a so-called folk art painting. It's absolutely marvelous. It might be the best thing in the American art galleries.
GREENAnd over the years only two or three or four of the paintings in the west building American art galleries which go roughly from the Colonial period up until, you know, the thirties or forties. You know, those galleries have been overwhelmingly dominated by white male artists. Often only two or three paintings by women or non-white men in those spaces.
MARSHALLYeah. The thing -- and you can -- you can start to see in the east building though that things are starting to change and there -- there's a lot of representation of artists of color and broadly speaking. But I do have to say, I was over at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art the last time I was in Washington DC and I hadn't been through that gallery in a long time. And I'll tell you, when I -- walking through that gallery, through that museum though, I said this is what an American art museum is really supposed to look like.
MARSHALLBecause not only did I see a lot of work by a variety of different artists, from Hispanic artists to Native American artists, to African-American artists, but you saw a lot of pictures that had all these people in them too. And that's really an important -- that's really an important element of the experience of going to the museum. I mean...
NNAMDIThis show at the National Gallery of Art is not your only major exhibition this fall. You've got a big exhibit traveling in Europe as well. Tell us about that.
MARSHALLI do. I do. I have an exhibition that opened earlier this month is Antwerp, Belgium, and it's a show that's going to travel there. It's going to travel from Belgium to Denmark, and from Denmark to Spain.
NNAMDIYour art extends beyond painting, drawing, and sculpture. You've also been a set designer on several films.
MARSHALLI have. As a matter of fact, I was the production designer on "Sankofa," which is film made by Haile Gerima.
NNAMDIRight here form Washington DC. Yes. That's a friend of mine.
MARSHALLAnd I was a production designer on Julie Dash's film "Daughters of the Dust."
NNAMDIGreat film. You say, however, back to this middle theme, we only have about 30 seconds left, there's some ambivalence for you about being the first living African-American artist at the Solar Exhibition at the National Gallery. Can you talk a little bit about that?
MARSHALLWell, you know, the -- it depends in some ways on how you see yourself, I mean, how you see your success. I mean, if it's -- if -- if my presence at the National Gallery is an achievement that means that they somehow sort of crossed the threshold and solved the problem and resolved a set of issues, then that's one thing. But if my presence there now means that space has opened up so that other artists and other artists of color will now be more likely to be considered, then my exhibition there has achieved something.
NNAMDIKerry James Marshall. He work is on view now at the National Gallery of Art. Thank you for joining us. Tyler Green is an art journalist. Tyler, thank you for joining us. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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