Kerry James Marshall: History of Painting
Published to accompany Kerry James Marshall’s groundbreaking solo exhibition of the same name at David Zwirner in 2018, History of Painting helps navigate the artist’s masterful vision. Specially commissioned texts by essayist, photographer, curator, and author Teju Cole and eminent American critic Hal Foster elucidate Marshall’s paintings, their making, and their contexts in unprecedented ways.
“If I’m going to do this show,” the artist explained in an interview with Luncheon magazine, “and it’s going to be based on the idea of the history of painting, then I have to address it in its totality—landscape, still life, portraiture, abstraction, and history painting. But how do you do those things now, and really make those things as interesting as they can possibly be? How do you do them so that they also, at the same time, seem to be engaged with not only their function, but their origin?"
Reflecting on the interrelationship of elements in Marshall’s work, Cole writes in “Shadow Cabinet:”
“‘What is your substance, whereof are you made, / That millions of strange shadows on you tend?’ In Kerry James Marshall, substance and shadow merge, as in a total eclipse, transfiguring the perceptual landscape…. [He] is looking for what’s not there… [he] is looking for what is there but not seen by them. That’s it. Marshall wants to ‘address absence with a capital A.’”
For Hal Foster, whose essay “Underpainting, a Real Allegory” situates Marshall’s work within the context of art history:
“These paintings conform to his [the artist’s] vow, made as a teenager, to depict only black figures, and so to do what he could to redress the relative absence of these subjects in traditional art... The men and women in De Style and School of Beauty are styling, and so is Marshall in his picturing of them... The introduction of new content into old forms has often produced important shifts in modern painting, as when Baron Gros injected unshriven bodies into the exalted space of history painting in his Napoleon at the Battlefield at Eylau (1808), or when Géricault disrupted the proper genre of the portrait with his improper pictures of the insane, or when Courbet adapted images d’Épinal, or Manet Japanese prints, or Degas photographs, or Picasso African sculptures. In one way or another, these ‘avant-garde gambits’ were steps outside high art that also counted as moves within it. With Marshall it is different: on the one hand, his black subjects are deep inside American culture, central to many of its greatest inventions; on the other, even as he participates in the grand tradition of painting, he registers the difficulty of doing so for a black artist.”