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History Painting as a Slow Read

Discussing Kerry James Marshall’s Bang on loan from Progressive
Nadiah Rivera Fellah, Associate Curator of Contemporary Art
October 27, 2023

On April 1, a major installation of artworks was unveiled in the contemporary galleries. A centerpieceof the rotation is the new addition of Kerry James Marshall’s Bang (1994), which came to the museum through a generous loan from the Progressive Insurance Corporation. Nadiah Rivera Fellah, associate curator of contemporary art, spoke with H. Scott Westover, Progressive’s curator, about the history and imagery of the painting. 

Nadiah Rivera Fellah (NRF): How did this work come to be in Cleveland? 

H. Scott Westover (HSW): Progressive Corporation acquired this artwork in 1994, and at that time, the piece was purchased by Toby Devan Lewis [Progressive’s founding curator], expressly for the grand opening of the new Progressive headquarters in Mayfield Village, Ohio. She had done a walkthrough of the building as it was being constructed, and the building was designed in part to house an art collection. Kerry James Marshall also had a solo show at the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art [now MOCA Cleveland] in 1994,so his work was featured in Cleveland the same year.

NRF: Of Kerry James Marshall’s paintings, why was Bang chosen for Progressive’s collection?

HSW: Our audience [at Progressive] is impressed by the transformative capacity that artworks have. They become new again in each era or in each sociopolitical circumstance, so that history, in a real-time way, updates the artworks. An artwork that is questioning patriotism or taking an incisive look at patriotic behavior by a group of children has the potential to do that. In a sense, children are in a vulnerable position when we are introducing them to social patterns and norms that we want them to follow because they’re often expected to do things or perform behaviors before they fully understand them. We know these young children of color [in the painting] are marginalized in other ways, so their performance of patriotism becomes especially unsettling. Marshall’s depiction of the hyper-synthetic suburban environment almost seems unreal. When you look at the painting, you wonder, do they live there, or are they visiting? I imagine the artist is pleased with that ambiguity. So we understood that these are concepts that are going to recur time and again, and that as history plays out, this painting will continue to be reborn.

NRF: So there’s a timelessness to the work, in that the painting is continually activated by historical circumstances and contemporary conversations?

HSW: Yes. What is it to show solemn patriotism, and can you show respect around the flag without saluting it? Because it’s not clear who among the children is the most fervent and who among them is merely performing patriotism. It’s possible that even one or two of them are not interested at all, or don’t know enough to care. Their facial expressions and body language are super rich and complex in this way. Within the first year of Progressive acquiring Bang, Marshall visited [Progressive headquarters] for a site visit. His best statement during that visit, and a quote that we continue to reference, was: “Art is a slow read.” He talked about himself as a history painter, and history painting in general, and how large-scale canvases capture many facets and senses of a period within one grand scene. He challenged us to explore the painting for all its nuances to get a fuller picture, kind of like reading a book. And he said do it slowly.