Investigating the way things come to be what they are—and visualizing how they might be something different—lies at the heart of Kerry James Marshall: Works on Paper. Comprising 12 four-by-eight-foot panels, the large-scale woodcut anchoring the show exemplifies what Marshall has characterized as his counter-archive. “All my life I’ve been expected to acknowledge the power and beauty of pictures made by white artists that have only white people in them,” he once explained. “I think it’s only reasonable to ask other people to do the same vis-à-vis paintings that have only black figures in them. That is part of the counter-archive that I’m seeking to establish in my work.”1 Marshall went on to make a subtle qualification to the notion of a counter-archive: “In fact . . . my work is not an argument against anything; it is an argument for something else.”2
Unfolding in a cinematic progression from left to right, the woodcut takes us from a bird’s-eye view of a suburban grid, past the facade of a building adorned with a window box of flowers, and into an apartment where we encounter a group of six black men casually socializing in a pink-walled living room. From the scattered empty plates, it appears they have consumed a meal. One man serves another a cup of coffee, a play on the gender roles that typically appear in such a scene. By the seventh panel, we begin to travel down a pink corridor, peeking into a tidy bedroom along the way.
This scene is notably plain in nature and quiet in tenor, which is central to its function as a counter-archive. The year Marshall completed the work, he noted that in contrast to images that present African American men “as somehow threatening, somehow violent, somehow irresponsible, somehow nihilistic and alienated,” he wanted “to show that representations of African Americans can be incredibly mundane, that they can be ordinary and they don’t have to be event-filled or anxiety-laden or about political activism. They can just be a picture. Period.”3 By emphasizing the mundane over the remarkable, Marshall creates a picture with which his viewers are likely familiar and into which they can easily project themselves. This invitation is reiterated in the work’s size and the scale of the imagery, which relates to that of a human body and thus allows for a physical correspondence between the viewer and the figures.
Complementing the woodcut, a selection of drawings spanning Marshall’s career reveal his reliance on techniques associated with old master traditions, even as his art questions many of the ideals that those traditions support. A series of close-up studies of hands directly relates to the tradition of anatomical studies through which artists since the Renaissance have attempted to develop a lifelike depiction of the human figure and to refine certain gestures and poses. The two versions of Untitled (Study for Sofa Girl) (2014) show Marshall developing a composition by experimenting with different line types and textures and by adjusting the placement of his subject’s limbs as she reclines. Across the iterations of Untitled (Stono Drawing) (2012), Marshall varies his handling of light and shadow—the classical chiaroscuro technique—in relation to the tonalities of the figures’ skin. An architectural schematic reveals his meticulousness in mapping spatial perspective—another age-old strategy associated with classical representation—to frame the elements in the composition.
Paintings, Marshall has asserted, “don’t just happen . . . you are making one decision after another, trying to get at something you think is important.”4 Through his paintings, Marshall has become one of the most acclaimed and influential artists of his generation, offering alternative narratives to the ones he studied in art history survey books. These drawings reveal his process of dissecting, analyzing, and mastering that history in order to redirect it.
In conjunction with Kerry James Marshall: Works on Paper, a selection of works from Marshall’s ongoing comic book series Rythm Mastr (1999) are on view at the downtown branch of the Cleveland Public Library. In these prints, he animates the history and mythology represented by traditional African sculpture, developing an array of black protagonists. This presentation was designed in part as recognition of the role that public libraries played in Marshall’s early formation as an artist.
Cleveland Art July/August 2018