Kerry James Marshall’s American Dream

Walking through the galleries of “Mastry,” the two-floor Kerry James Marshall retrospective at Met Breuer, the newest branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I flash on James Baldwin’s quote: “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” Certainly Marshall’s paintings, which I have visited three times in the last month, are profoundly American – proudly, gorgeously, and defiantly so. In a swoon of silver, brocade, and funeral banners, they embody the beautiful resistance that our country needs most right now – the civil rights movement that never really ended, the revolution that has just begun. More than that, these paintings ask us to join the party.

Born in Alabama in 1955, Marshall moved with his family to Los Angeles in 1963 – a classic midcentury migration of African American clans. He has said that his infatuation with Marvel comics began around the same time that he visited the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and certainly both influences are evident in his work. Also evident is the Civil Rights movement, which grew up right along with the artist, often in the same place. He was in Birmingham when four young girls were killed in a bombing of a Baptist church, and was living in L.A.’s Watts section during its 1965 riots. Remaining in that city during his early adulthood, he knew founding members of the Crips gang and studied at the Otis Art Institute, where he opted to become a representational painter who queries tropes of beauty as well as the eye of the beholder. Marshall has so much to say about the gaze. Continue Reading →

Salutations and Solar Returns

Today is my solar return, though according to the Christian calendar my birthday is tomorrow. I share this day (technically January 19) with three women whom I consider geniuses, cultural alchemists, phoenixes who make art from their ashes so as not to waste an inch of this Earth’s precious resources. Sweet and sour Janis Joplin died young—she burned herself right up at age 27, talk about economical—but Dolly Parton and Cindy Sherman keep reinventing themselves with a pixie purity and a fulsome smarts that I only hope is my true legacy. Continue Reading →

This Land Is Our Land

For five days I’ve been stuck as fuck while writing about “Mastry,” the Metropolitan Museum of Art retrospective of the work of Kerry James Marshall. This is a stressful time in my personal life, and a more stressful time in our young country. Right now what’s saving a lot of us is art. For sure that’s true for me: film, dance, music, and fine arts, especially this retrospective, which I’ve seen three times. So it seems fitting that in the same week that an evil empire is entering office and we are commemorating the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I’m struggling to do justice to the brilliance of Marshall, who grew up with the civil rights movement and who doesn’t labor to fit black folks into the Western art canon so much as to fit that canon into the larger context of the African diaspora. Continue Reading →

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy