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“Showtime” at the Met for Kerry James Marshall: All that Glitters…?

It’s no wonder that Chicago artist Kerry James Marshall, a youthful 61, murmured, “Showtime,” as he strode through the Met Breuer’s press scrum yesterday, turned to the crowd that filled the lobby, and raised his arms triumphantly before making introductory remarks at his highly anticipated retrospective:

Kerry James Marshall with Ian Alteveer, the Met's associate curator of modern and contemporary art Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Kerry James Marshall with Ian Alteveer, the Met’s associate curator of modern and contemporary art, co-curator of the retrospective

There had been so much fervid media acclaim, in advance of the show, for the nearly 80-work, two-floor display that I wondered if my own deficiencies had caused me to feel unexpectedly disappointed by Kerry James Marshall: Mastry (opening in New York today, to Jan. 29, after having appeared at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago).

I had been captivated by Marshall’s feisty painting, below, when I saw it last March in Unfinished, the Met’s inaugural show at the Marcel Breuer-designed facility from which the Whitney has (at least temporarily) decamped.

This painter’s portrait was back again for the retrospective.

All photos by Lee Rosenbaum

Kerry James Marshall, "Untitled," 2009, Yale University Art Gallery Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Kerry James Marshall, “Untitled,” 2009, Yale University Art Gallery

But I felt less partial to Marshall after yesterday’s press preview because too many of the monumental canvases in this inadequately edited show seemed to cross the line between grandiosity and bombast. A more selective representation, focusing on his most powerful works, would have made a more forceful impression.

Leading the adulatory chorus for Marshall, ahead of the show’s opening, was the NY Times, with two advance pieces, plus a video interview conducted by artist and fellow Chicagoan Theaster Gates, not to mention a jump-the-gun rave review by Holland Cotter, appearing some five days before the public could actually see what he was writing about. The bigger the buildup, the greater the letdown.

Along with another black artist who works in monumental dimensions, Mickalene Thomas, Marshall loses me when he tarts up his paintings with glitter (abundant in the red hearts and gold flowers in painting below, although hard to discern in my photo):

Marshall, "Unititled (Vignette), 2012, Collection of Martin Nesbitt & Anita Blanchard

“Untitled (Vignette),” 2012, Collection of Martin Nesbitt & Anita Blanchard

Part of Marshall’s project, as the label for this painting tells us, is “to create narratives of black life that eschew violence or trauma in favor of normalcy or sweet fantasy.” Sentimental bordering on insipid, these pastoral idylls, like the one above, as well as other cloying portrayals of courting couples, are the least interesting parts of this display.

In Marshall’s most profound pictures, tragic stories of victims, martyrs and rebels gradually unfold as you take time to decipher what’s going on. It’s hard to discern these details in my photo, but the painting below includes the dates of death of the two “lost boys” of its title. The “fruits” on the tree (with its trunk wrapped in crime-scene tape) contain bullets. In the left hand of the standing male figure is a pink gun. The radiant cherub with orchids at its feet is a votive statue.

What seems at first like child’s play (note the balls in the foreground) morphs into a tale of horror:

"The Lost Boys," 1993, Collection of Richard Hunting and Jolanda Hunting

“The Lost Boys,” 1993, Collection of Richard Hunting and Jolanda Hunting

But in the painting below, Marshall turned the tables on me, defying expectations. The image below at first reminded me of the encampment for the homeless that I had just seen, to my shock, alongside the Cross Bronx Expressway. The banner wrapped around the tree in the center, bearing words referring to real estate covenants, gave me the impression that the two huddled figures had been evicted. I interpreted “HERE I AM” to mean, “Don’t callously ignore me”:

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“Campfire Girls,” 1995, Collection of Dick and Gloria Anderson

Apparently I got it all wrong. According to the label, this painting depicts “two girls wrapped in blankets…enjoy[ing] a backyard campout” in the suburbs. The sign at the top indicates that they are “confidently staking a claim for their place in the world,” in what the label describes as “a scene that runs counter to mainstream depictions of black childhood.” Were my own eyes clouded by “mainstream” stereotypes? Was that dissonance an intended effect of this picture?

Two widely separated works in the show, among its most powerful, grapple with Nat Turner, who famously led a slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831. Like other sightings of saintly images in mundane circumstances, this is Marshall’s vision of Turner’s ghostly physiognomy appearing in the pale stain on a wooden plank:

"The Face of Nat Turner Appeared in a Water Stain (Image Enhanced), 1990, Collection of Elliot and Kimberly Perry

“The Face of Nat Turner Appeared in a Water Stain (Image Enhanced),” 1990, Collection of Elliot and Kimberly Perry

Turner reappears in with fearful intensity in the glowering, blood-curdling portrait, below. Behind him is the only white face that I recall seeing in the show—the gruesome depiction of his former master’s severed head. The murder weapon, an ax, remains in Turner’s right hand:

"Portrait of Nat Turner with the Head of His Master," 2011, private collection, courtesy Segalot, New York

“Portrait of Nat Turner with the Head of His Master,” 2011, private collection, courtesy Segalot, New York

On a lighter note, the show includes a group of alluring compositions devoted to artists at work in their studios (like the one at the top of this post). I particularly admired a recent one, below, acquired last year by the Met. The viewer stands in the shoes of the artist, who is painting a profile portrait, left, of the woman sitting on the right. The artist’s assistant looks directly at the unseen artist (in this case, the viewer), as she adjusts the sitter’s head. A nude male model watches from behind the unfinished painting and another appears to be dressing behind the red curtain.

"Untitled (Studio)," 2014, Metropolitan Purchase

“Untitled (Studio),” 2014, Met Purchase

The daubs of paint on the artist’s table and the paintbrushes transform their surfaces into lively abstract paintings:

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Part of the money for the purchase of “Studio” came from the Met’s Multicultural Audience Development Initiative Gift to diversify cultural content and outreach. Maybe some of that outreach should extend to the press—overwhelmingly white at the preview, notwithstanding the artist and his subject matter.

For a subsection of this show—“Kerry James Marshall Selects”—the artist got to “handpick works from across the Met collection that are at once touchstones for his artistic life and inspirations for his practice,” in the words of the press release.

To me, the most interesting parts of that display were the works by black artists that Marshall uncovered. Of this self-portrait by Horace Pippin, Marshall wrote: “Any artist would be happy to reach the level of maturity embodied in this small picture”:

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Horace Pippin, “Self-Portrait II,” 1944, Bequest of Jane Kendall Gingrich

Among the works of African art that Marshall has picked from the Met’s collection is an oracle figure of wood, cloth, feathers and tar from Cȏte d’Ivoire. (It was impossible for me to get a good photo of this, because of the case’s reflections.)

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Senufo peoples, “Oracle Figure,” 19th to mid-20th century

I knew what this eerie ceremonial object was, because I had written for the Wall Street Journal about the oracle figures in the Cleveland Museum’s Senufo show last year. But visitors will have a hard time finding the identifying label at the Met Breuer. It’s not on the pedestal, but on the wall to the right of the painting of a Bonnard nude, seen below at left:

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Judging from the grin that almost never left his face as remained in the galleries, entertaining all questions, for the entire press preview, the artist himself couldn’t have been happier with the outcome. As he said at the beginning of his remarks, “‘Met’ means ‘museum.’ This is where I always wanted to end up—thankfully, while I’m still living….To be here is very magical experience.”

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