A painting by Kerry James Marshall called Untitled (Woman Looking Left), dated 2016

Kerry James Marshall:
Untitled (Woman Looking Left), 2016

 

The work of the celebrated American artist Kerry James Marshall (b. 1955) reveals and questions the social constructs of beauty, taste, and power. At the center of his oeuvre is the critical recognition of the conditions of invisibility long ascribed to Black figures in the Western pictorial tradition. 

Made in 2016, Untitled (Woman Looking Left) is a strong example of what the artist calls a “counter-archive” that brings Black figures back into this narrative. While depictions of white figures doing everyday tasks appear throughout the history of western art, Black figures have been largely excluded from such scenes. As Dieter Roelstraete notes, the portrayal of these quotidian situations in Marshall's work is “Fundamentally about representation and rendering present, about being seen and making visible.” 

A painting by Kerry James Marshall, called Untitled (Woman Looking Left), dated 2016.

Kerry James Marshall

Untitled (Woman Looking Left), 2016
Acrylic on PVC panel in artist's frame
24 5/8 x 21 7/8 x 3 3/4 inches (62.5 x 55.6 x 9.5 cm)

This painting incorporates several allusions to the history of painting and its various genres, including the female figure and abstraction. Portraits painted in profile and three-quarters profile became popular in Quattrocento Italy as they simultaneously conferred an air of dignity, refinement, and grace on their subjects (almost exclusively white women). 

An unexpected abstract element within Marshall's otherwise realist composition interrupts a straightforward reading of the scene. In catching the viewer's gaze, it diverts attention from the main subject, who herself is already looking away.

A painting by Leonardo da Vinci, titled La Belle Ferronnière, dated 1490–1496.

Leonardo da Vinci, La Belle Ferronnière, 1490–1496. The Louvre, Paris

Leonardo da Vinci, La Belle Ferronnière, 1490–1496. The Louvre, Paris

Underscoring the idea of visibility in Untitled (Woman Looking Left), Marshall uses chromatic black—that is, paint appearing to be pure black but actually containing various pigments—to depict a Black figure. Other prominent colors in the composition, including red and green, reflect a palette the artist has returned to on numerous occasions that loosely evokes the colors of the Pan-African flag.

A composite image featuring, on Left: Clyfford Still, PH-971, dated 1957, and on Right a detail from Kerry James Marshall's Untitled (Woman Looking Left), dated 2016.

Clyfford Still, PH-971, 1957; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (left); Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (Woman Looking Left), 2016 (detail, right)

Clyfford Still, PH-971, 1957; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (left); Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (Woman Looking Left), 2016 (detail, right)

An Installation view of Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, at Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, dated 2017.

Installation view, Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 2017

Installation view, Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 2017

“There's a complicated exchange between the subject in the picture and the subject who views the picture. The artist wants to set up a negotiation between the two in order to draw attention to something. And what I want you to be aware of in these pictures is the act of looking. It's both the act of looking and then locating yourself in relationship to the subject you're looking at.”

—Kerry James Marshall, 2014

A Photo by Lyndon French of Kerry James Marshall, dated 2020.

Kerry James Marshall, 2020. Photo by Lyndon French

Kerry James Marshall, 2020. Photo by Lyndon French

“I gave up on the idea of making Art a long time ago, because I wanted to know how to make paintings; but once I came to know that, reconsidering the question of what Art is returned as a critical issue.”

—Kerry James Marshall, 2000

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