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 →