The morning after an electrifying talk at Tate Modern and a record sale at Sotheby’s of his painting 'Past Times,' Kerry James Marshall has lunch with his wife, the actor, director and writer Cheryl Lynn Bruce, Angela Choon, Senior Partner of David Zwirner, and Luncheon’s editor Frances von Hofmannsthal over lovage pie and asparagus at the Rochelle Canteen at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London. They discuss his life’s work and his upcoming show ‘History of Painting’ at David Zwirner, London. They are sitting at a corner table looking through Kerry’s US retrospective catalogue Mastry, published in 2016.
ANGELA CHOON: So I’ve opened the book to this [work]: 'Heirlooms and Accessories,' from 2002.
CHERYL LYNN BRUCE: It’s from a famous photograph of a lynching of three men.
KERRY JAMES MARSHALL: Double lynching of two men. There would have been three, but the other guy… got saved.
CHERYL: The crowd that’s looking [at the lynching] has three women in it.
KERRY: It’s a well-known photograph [of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana, in August 1930, taken by Lawrence Beitler].
CHERYL: There’s a book – a really terrifying book – of lynching photographs. Not every victim was a black male, but most of them were.
KERRY: It’s photographs of lynchings that were made into postcards. A white man, James Allen, started collecting these postcards that were sent through the mail.
CHERYL: Those events were often publicized as events to attend.
KERRY: They were a spectacle. A form of entertainment.
CHERYL: Yes, a spectacle. James Allen was a ‘picker’, and he would go to estate sales, yard sales and buy things, furniture and whatnot. One time he bought a desk, and just stored it, but when he was ready to sell it, he had to clean it out. When he went through it, he found a postcard of the lynching of a white man – a famous lynching of a Jewish man named Leo Frank, who was accused of having killed a young girl, a child in Georgia. And he was lynched. And this picker began to search for those kinds of postcards and found a number of them, through various means – he’d have flyers up at estate sales and laundromats and antique stores. He put together a collection. In 1910, the United States Post Office finally prohibited the mailing of them, but up until 1910, they could go through the mail – and did – because they just needed a postage stamp. They were sent as mementos by people who had attended [the lynchings], and so that’s how you get that picture – because somebody did go, and took a picture.
KERRY: The underlying story is that there was never any fear of prosecution – so people were fairly comfortable having their picture taken; they weren’t worried about being sent to jail for participating in a murder because extrajudicial killings of black people was all but legal. If not legal, it was certainly sanctioned…
CHERYL: …And that’s why the picker began collecting them, too. He said, this is a part of American history that we really don’t acknowledge, but it’s blatant, and it’s there, and it’s documented, and it was sent through the mail… The title is 'Heirlooms and Accessories' – many black men were hanged for having been accused of molesting or raping, or even looking at a white woman. Some of them just for looking or speaking. And often it didn’t matter if there were any witnesses to the alleged transgression, because there was no way to defend them.
(The waiter comes with menus, and apple and ginger juice is ordered to drink.)
ANGELA: Let’s talk about what you’re doing now: your work for the exhibition in London, ‘History of Painting’ [David Zwirner, London, 3rd October–10th November 2018].
KERRY: It’s the history of painting as it relates to the period after my retrospective [‘Kerry James Marshall: Mastry’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2016–17]. Once you’ve had a kind of summing up of your career as an artist, how do you continue? There’s something that seems sort of final about retrospectives. I mean, it could signal the end of a lot of things, and if you’re at all concerned about generating more momentum, to propel you forward into other things, the situation could get really difficult. And so, in a way, the title of the show is kind of a challenge to myself, a way back into the work in the studio after all the public obligations associated with following the retrospective. You could make an argument that it is a grand, arrogant, claim to address the history of painting. On another level it’s a way of setting yourself up for failure, because the scope of the show suggests something so large – but it seems to me the only way forward is to take up a challenge that seems so outsized as to present you with the real possibility of a massive failure.
ANGELA: There are a few paintings that you have made [since] the retrospective that seem to be self-referential, or about people being aware of themselves looking at art on the walls…
KERRY: I talk a lot about art history, and most of the work I do refers to the idea of it being an artwork or being a painting. The title of the first show we did together [at David Zwirner, 2014], ‘Look See’, was about subjects in a picture that presented themselves to be looked at. That’s always a driving motivation in what I do. I don’t know how to do anything that isn’t self-referential in terms of its relationship to art in the art world and museums, and to art history. It should be clear that very little of the work I do is really about me – it’s about me making pictures; it’s about why you would continue to make pictures; and what the pictures do; and the subjects of the pictures, and whether the subjects are aware of themselves being images represented, to be looked at. So with ‘History of Painting’, I want to at least take a stab at examining not only the origins of painting as a practice, but also the endpoint of what paintings end up being after their original use has been exhausted. Paintings become commodities that simply get traded on the open market, and for a lot of artists that outcome is troubling because we still, I think, hold on to a romantic idea that there’s something kind of sacred about the practice, something deeply personal – that there’s a value in artworks that is not only intrinsic, but that they maintain in perpetuity. And that artworks are things that cannot, in fact, should not, be commodified.
On some level I want to acknowledge a fallacy regarding artistic exceptionalism – that artworks somehow are an exception to every other rule that governs the way cultures and societies operate. I don’t really believe that making artworks is particularly exceptional in its own right. We really are, however, trying to produce extraordinary things. So much of human history has been invested in the making of things like that – so if we acknowledge that, where does the value we assign to things that are made now derive its substance? Where does the legitimising authority come from? Especially governing the practice of making paintings – and whether painting is still a viable, or a retrogressive activity. Painting, since at least the late 1960s and early 1970s, has been highly contested, we always have to make work that’s self-consciously aware of these critiques, as well as of the enjoyment these works generate in people who still go to museums and galleries.
I’m trying to look at the fundamentals of the practice. If you look at some of those Palaeolithic cave images where people made handprints by simply spitting colour around the hand, creating a silhouette – that’s painting in its most fundamental and rudimentary form. So I [intend] to start with works that operate on that rudimentary level. Some of the works that I’m planning for the show will have their origin in things I did when I was a child. You know, the way you really start to become excited about the possibilities of making images. I want to start there, and move through the way in which those things become more sophisticated as they become associated with, and related to, philosophical, critical and historical ideas.
So: how do you move through from these basic, rudimentary beginnings, all the way up to what we think of as some of the most sophisticated ways of thinking about what a painting is, philosophically? How do you go through that and end up at a place where the object has become a commodity?
ANGELA: Do you want to talk a little bit about this piece, 'Untitled (Sotheby’s Sale)' ?
KERRY: That image is a prototype of the paintings I’ve done that are based on how easily paintings circulate through the auction market.
ANGELA: We are sitting here the day after the historic Sotheby’s New York auction [where Kerry’s painting 'Past Times,' 1997, sold for a record $21.1 million].
ANGELA: The source for Sotheby’s Sale was a super-market flyer, the kind you would have posted under your door talking about the sale items for that week.
KERRY: In a way, the work I’m doing now is the fulfilment of a series of propositions I laid out in 2005 when I [exhibited my] first sale-circular auction-house paintings. The show was supposed to be a retrospective. But I didn’t want to do a show that was a survey or retrospective, because I didn’t think the body of work I’d done at the time was deep enough.
ANGELA: Where was the show?
KERRY: It was at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, [which is] where the ‘Mastry’ show began ten years later. So it was another ten years after that first retrospective was proposed that I thought I was ready to make a show that could function as a retrospective. But in that [earlier] show, all I did was to lay out a series of propositions about things that I might be able to do in the future. I set up a series of prototypes that I was going to return to later and flesh out as fully developed ideas and paintings. That first group was actually fairly simple. I was beginning by taking liberties with the original sale-circulars and treating them like you would if you were doing a painting. One of the things that makes a painting different from advertising is that paintings do more than advertising is allowed to do. A painting doesn’t have to really be effective – it doesn’t have to sell its subject in the same way. A painting can try to do three or four things at once, where advertising only has to do one thing well.
ANGELA: So, you’re working on one painting on Christie’s, one on Sotheby’s, one on Phillips?
KERRY: …And one on Swann. These three [Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips] are the dominant auction houses today. Swann happens to be one of the only auction houses in the States that has an auction sale focused exclusively on African American art. You rarely see the work of African Americans showing up in most of the other mainstream auctions. So, initially, when I started that project, one of the things I wanted to do was to highlight the absence of work by African American artists in auctions of that level.
ANGELA: Except for last night.
KERRY: Well, except for last night. Of course, things change. But there’s still the reality that black artists are not active in the market at the same level as other artists because there’s no history of there being a deep market interest in the work of African American artists – and not only in the market, but also institutionally. But that’s not what I’m focusing on now with this group of work; it’s sort of moved beyond that to the more general way in which the artwork as a commodity circulates through these auction houses.
(Pause. The waiter arrives to take the food order, lovage pie, bream and seasonal asparagus and salad.)
KERRY: One of the other things we can talk about is the survey show, ‘Mastry’, and the implications of that title – why I chose it, and the relationship between that title and the new ‘History of Painting’ show. Those two things have a lot in common. When we’re introduced to the idea of art, one of the foundation concepts you encounter is that of the ‘Old Masters’. But what does that term really mean? It has to do with the way in which the art world as an institutional structure was organised from the 13th, 14th, 15th century on, where artists became artists through a process of apprenticeship with a master artist who [was] already a member of the guild, already a professional. You had to earn your right to participate in the trade by going through a period of apprenticeship, and there was a particular process of gaining proficiency in the craft. You started out learning how to grind colour, prepare surfaces, transfer drawings that the master made. When you started drawing, you didn’t draw from life, you drew from casts and copied familiar patterns. At the end of the apprenticeship, you produced a ‘master piece’.