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A ‘supremely enjoyable’ show of new work by Kerry James Marshall

A pair of grand rococo frames, mirror images of each other, curl towards us from a diptych. In each panel, the back views of two young people are caught in the instant of arrival. He is cool, alert, body twisting to take in the scene, hands casually in the pockets of a white fleece. She is static, hair a sweeping coil, hands clasped behind her back, legs tapering from the fringe of a black and white mini dress to gleaming sandal straps and heels.

We gaze with them into a gallery, pictures hung salon-style high, filled with darting and absorbed viewers, children, teachers, poseurs, fashionistas, wanderers, receding in turn to further galleries, more people. Some are silhouettes, some rounded, beautifully modelled. Some mirror one another in each panel, others are unique. Every figure is black.

Kerry James Marshall’s “Untitled (Underpainting)”, the outstanding new work in David Zwirner’s supremely enjoyable exhibition of 2018 paintings, is a museum-quality picture about museums and looking: how we look, who looks, what these things tell us about our society. The work joins Marshall’s iconic series depicting black figures in imagined scenes of leisure and pleasure, including the picnic “Past Times”, sold to rapper P Diddy in May for $21.1m — record for a living African-American artist — and “Untitled (London Bridge)”, acquired by Tate in April.

As monumental and engaging as these, the new work differs in colour: underpainted with a layer of burnt umber — a Renaissance technique — it glows a warm brown, and is monochrome, executed in shades of white, cream, brown, black. So, although the composition is meticulous and rewards detailed scrutiny, the underpainted tonality makes it appear unfinished, a work in progress — terms that could also describe the representation of black people in art, or the presence of black visitors in museums.

Thirty years ago, Marshall set out to create a “counter-archive” of paintings of black subjects to hang in museums. Now, following his first American retrospective "Mastry," 2016-17, the project comes to fruition and opens out in inventive, ambitious ways.

Just returned from Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum display paired with Tintoretto’s “Susanna and the Elders” is a majestic untitled painting of a black woman in pink knickers, hair in a turquoise towel, bending to select a yellow garment from her clothes rack. We, the voyeurs, peer through a window into a well-lit apartment in a brownstone building, bricks delineated with smooth precision, casement, meshed grill, drainpipe all reiterating the verticals and horizontals of the modernist grid.

That formality recurs in the impressive imaginary portraits “Day and Night”. Half-length meditative middle-aged figures, the woman holding a mug, the man a glass, rest their arms on a ledge, as in Renaissance compositions; their heads are framed by a rectangle of sky above the structural anchor of another windowed brownstone. Black everyday experience here attains Old Master gravitas and charm, with colour contrasts both a painterly device and political tool: the blackness of the figures heightens the crystalline sky or glowering purple twilight, and announces, Marshall has said, “that blackness is non-negotiable [and] unequivocal”. Marshall primarily uses three blacks — carbon black, from soot; Mars black, from iron oxide; ivory black, from burnt bone, all blacker than actual black skin tones. In the large painting further presenting normal black life in urban settings, “Untitled (Dog Walker)”, a decoratively flattened figure, ebullient in striped shorts, striding forward with her dog, it becomes even clearer how Marshall’s pictures depend on blackness for chromatic pattern and even play of light, bouncing off black skin, making it luminous and vibrant.

They also toy with flatness and depth, wonderfully orchestrating space — the blocks and pavements receding behind the dog walker — and games of abstraction, as in the series “History of Painting”: black-outlined rectangles on saturated grounds imitating supermarket flyers but advertising instead auction results, asking us to consider how value is assigned.

Abstraction and figuration, artifice and representation, painterly formality and political agenda, were always fluid and inseparable for Marshall. Visionary and virtuoso, he began painting in the 1980s, rejecting both that decade’s irony and neo-expressionist indulgence. Instead, his work declared, simply and confidently, that it was too early to declare figurative painting dead before it included black lives.

That agenda, far richer than identity politics conceptualist strategies, looks back essentially to modernism: via post-cubist space to Manet painting modern life. And as for Manet, though for different particulars of social radicalism, artifice is the point; many scenes of leisured black lives are indeed fantasies. In Marshall’s assured compositions they are also calls to action: putting such paintings in museums is one step to making fact the imagined tableau in “Untitled (Underpainting)”, of a museum full of black visitors. No artist calls out more eloquently than Marshall for a major European museum retrospective.

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