´╗┐The main attraction at the Met Breuer these days is “Mastry,” the big Kerry James Marshall retrospective that has recently moved there from the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and which will travel to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, this spring. But for those who went to see it up to the day after New Year’s, I was giving this advice: First, go upstairs to the fifth floor, where you’ll find an exhibition of some 70 works by Paul Klee, all culled from a group of 90 donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1984 by the German art dealer and collector Heinz Berggruen.

There were a couple of reasons to start with Klee. The first was scale. The works of the great Swiss modernist are all quite modest in size; they invite you to come in close to appreciate their nuances. Most of Marshall’s paintings, by contrast, are on a grand scale, as befits his ambition to create a kind of contemporary history painting, and they are best taken at some distance. But the more important reason to have seen Klee first was that it might have helped you understand Marshall better. The two artists share more in common than might be apparent at first sight. An encounter with Klee’s delicate balances—between earnestness and wit, didacticism and playfulness, representation and abstraction—could give you a keener appreciation for Marshall’s poise in handling similar dichotomies. The arrow ostentatiously pointing to a seemingly random spot in Klee’s Stricken City (1936); the funny mix of embarrassment and pride on the face of the titular figure in Boy in Fancy Dress (1931), almost invisible amid a mosaic-like grid of little colored rectangles; the abstract narrative of Episode Before an Arab Town (1923)—­ I couldn’t help but think that Marshall might feel a kinship with any of these, or even that the tiny gouache Temple Gardens (1920) could have supplied the compositional template for one of Marshall’s own “Garden” paintings, grand and bannerlike though they may be.

Of course, Marshall can elect his own affinities, and he’s done so in a small exhibition of works from the Met collection that he’s installed to the side of his own exhibition. It doesn’t include Klee, but it’s a catholic mix, ranging from modernist abstraction (including a lovely, lyrical 1950 Ad Reinhardt that makes you wonder how he ever turned into the implacable maker of nearly uncommunicative black paintings within just a decade) to Renaissance allegory (such as Albrecht Dürer’s celebrated 1513 engraving The Knight, Death, and the Devil). And then there’s the pantheon of great postwar African-American artists—Jacob Lawrence, Roy DeCarava, Romare Bearden—as well as Japanese prints and African sculpture.

Some of Marshall’s choices seem idiosyncratic, such as his inclusion of a painting by the corny American magic realist George Tooker, or Jean-Auguste-­Dominique Ingres’s strange grisaille remake of his own famous Grand Odalisque (though this might explain something about Marshall’s interest in how color can function as a fiction or artifice). However, the message of the side exhibition is clear and helps us understand what Marshall is up to: remaking the art museum.

Marshall has emphasized again and again that his goal as a painter has been to put images of black people in a place of prestige in the museum—and not just the contemporary art museum, but the “encyclopedic museum” of our minds that covers the great sweep of history. “I had never seen a grand, epic narrative painting with black figures in it,” Marshall has argued in the past, “and that’s the kind of painting I became interested in making— pictures in the grand manner…. All my life I’ve been expected to acknowledge the power and beauty of pictures made by white artists that only have white people in them; I think it’s only reasonable to ask other people to do the same vis-à-vis paintings that only have black figures in them.”

Helen Molesworth, one of the exhibition’s curators (along with Dieter Roelstraete and Ian Alteveer), takes such statements as evidence that Marshall’s work is best seen “as a form of institutional critique, a profound querying of the museum through its most privileged object: painting.” But Marshall’s statements don’t sound that way to me, nor do I think his works uphold the proposition.

Marshall’s work is critical, but his implicit criticism of the museum for its representational deficiencies doesn’t amount to a criticism of its legitimacy as an institution, or of the centrality of painting to that institution. Instead, his paintings offer what might be called an affirmative critique: His presumption is that the museum can and should offer tenable exempla of artistic “power and beauty,” but that it would better fulfill this role by being more inclusive, on the proposition, as Molesworth and her fellow curators write, “that all citizens deserve to be represented.”

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Marshall was born in 1955 in Birmingham, Alabama, but he grew up mostly in Los Angeles, where his family moved to in 1963. He graduated from the city’s Otis Art Institute in 1978 before moving to Chicago in 1987. At the institute, Marshall’s teachers included two important African-American artists: Charles White, who had been a WPA muralist, and Betye Saar, an assemblagist whose works often challenge the absurdity of racial stereotypes. In retrospect, Marshall’s mature work might be seen as a synthesis of their seemingly disparate approaches, bringing together White’s idealism and Saar’s incisive wit. Another important teacher and influence in his early years was Arnold Mesches, a New York–born painter who treated contemporary social issues with a minatory, sometimes lurid surrealism.

Marshall is something we haven’t seen for a while, at least in a very convincing way: He is what Baudelaire called for 171 years ago, a painter of the heroism of modern life—and the fact that the heroes of modern life are black may not be accidental. Their very thriving, Marshall’s paintings seem to suggest, is heroic, and he finds his heroes in barbershops and camping grounds, working-class living rooms and public parks, coffee shops and artists’ studios. That figurative painting might be the way forward would not have seemed the most obvious path for a young black artist of Marshall’s generation. While it’s true that he was a slightly younger contemporary of painters like Julian Schnabel and Francesco Clemente, who were making a mark with figurative works at the beginning of the 1980s, most of the outstanding black painters of the generation preceding Marshall’s own—Frank Bowling, Ed Clark, Sam Gilliam, Howardena Pindell, Jack Whitten—were committed abstractionists. They would have agreed with Bowling that art could best move forward not by representing what already exists, but by twisting existing realities into different, perhaps unrecognizable forms, managing “time and time again, despite inflicted degradations, to rearrange found things, redirecting the ‘things’ of whatever environments in which Blacks are thrown, placed, or trapped.”

All the more unfortunate, then, that Marshall seems determined to disparage the work of black abstractionists, averring that “the impulse among black artists to dispense with representation must have been driven by a wish to be like their white contemporaries,” and insisting that these artists were necessarily stymied by “the idea of belatedness, [which] prevented them from being recognized as significant contributors to the art-historical record.”

Marshall himself has gone on record as wanting his work to be seen as “a continuation of painting as it was practiced from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries,” and so it’s unclear why he would see “belatedness” as an obstacle for other artists but not for himself. In any case, many of his most brilliant moments come just when he gives himself over to abstraction. The gorgeous 2003 Chicago cityscape 7am Sunday Morning is descriptive enough on its left half, but its right side becomes an excuse for a kind of light-infused geometrical abstraction that, I believe, pays homage to the unexpected beauty of the moment. Dare I speak of a moment of transcendence? There are things that can’t be represented, only evoked.

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Great art, of course, can grow from contradictory ideas, and my complaints about Marshall’s sermonizing on abstraction would be irrelevant if the authority of his ideas weren’t magnified by the power of the works he’s made. A couple of recent untitled “blot” paintings—symmetrical compositions of splotches in luridly acidic color, like Rorschach tests reinterpreted after Gerhard Richter—suggest that Marshall was justified in his early recognition that his future would not lay in abstract painting. Yet his particular approach to figuration could never have evolved without it; neither could his “redirecting” of found imagery so that it becomes something other than previously intended. Marshall was right when he argued that “we would never have heard of Bearden had he not abandoned abstraction for the representational collages with which he has become synonymous,” and something similar can be said of Marshall himself; but this is a matter of the individual artist’s personal capabilities and inclinations and not a matter of artistic or sociopolitical necessity.

Given the idealizing, “black is beautiful” cast of much of Marshall’s work, it seems a mistake to call him a realist in any but the loosest sense: His work depends on an understanding of modernist experiences of abstraction and collage for the power of its epic figuration. Marshall’s very manner of depicting black people refutes naturalistic representation. Blackness, in these paintings, is more of a sign or a code—indeed, an abstraction. As Lanka Tattersall points out in the exhibition catalog, “The figures in the majority of Marshall’s paintings are not various shades of umber, ochre, and sienna, pigments that more accurately match the skin tones of people of color.” Instead, Marshall paints his people with a hue that is literally—and almost uninflectedly—black. This is blackness as an idea, not an empirical visual reality. As Marshall himself once explained, “I see the figures as emblematic; I’m reducing complex variations of tone to a rhetorical dimension: blackness. It’s a kind of stereotyping, but my figures are never laughable.”

It’s just a short step from these emblem­atic black figures—solemn, monumental—to Kara Walker’s grand-scale black cut-out silhouettes, but it’s a step that Marshall would not take. Walker’s silhouettes can, in their own obscene way, induce a nervous laughter. Her art spares no one from indignity; it offers no heroes. In an almost nostalgic way, Marshall upholds the idea that a positive stereotype can be promoted, one in which “extreme blackness plus grace equals power.” For Walker, the fantasy of unitary blackness does not hold out a promise of redemption; it is always mired in abjection. Marshall’s work gets its power from precisely the hope that the opposite might be true—a hope that in the present seems distinctly less tenable than it did when his show opened at the Met Breuer back in October.

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But if the protagonists of Marshall’s paintings often radiate a sense of seriousness and dignity, he also places these grave figures in pictures that are filled with sly wit and willful incongruity. Consider an untitled painting from 2008, showing a painter who stares straight out of the canvas at the viewer while holding the traditional attribute of his profession, a palette—but this palette is enormous, bigger than the artist himself.

There’s something absurd about it. Whatever message you try to derive from it (the black painter must heroically uphold a vast tradition that challenges his very strength to sustain?) seems so much less compelling than the outrageousness of the image as an end in itself. The painter has his brush trained on a big spot of black paint, as if he were loading up the brush to paint… himself? The implication, then, would be that while appearing to stare out at us, the viewers—challenging us—he is perhaps instead staring at himself in a mirror, preparing to paint a self-portrait. And yet, despite this figure being at the center of both the painting and the work in progress, he is, in a way, merely the support for the most eye-catching part of the painting: the colorful mass of nonrepresentational paint that covers his palette, a sort of gestural abstraction in itself. Here, representation and abstraction seem to be making sport of each other, and one is left wondering what the aspirations of a painter could amount to.

I don’t think that’s it exactly, and yet the painting suggests that the power of representation is not sufficient to escape the conundrum of belatedness that, in Marshall’s view, bedeviled many of the black abstractionists. The outrageous self-possession of his woman portrait painter is not, after all, undermined by the presence of the apparently ready-made canvas behind her: Someone realized she was important enough to make a paint-by-numbers kit of her. Or maybe she designed it herself. Either way, the formidably stern, uncompromising expression on her face as she stares defiantly at the viewer doesn’t suggest that she will be easily denied.

For Marshall, it seems, the strength of a painter is the ability to absorb all the ironies with which history has burdened her while retaining a blunt, enigmatic authority. It’s a formula that fits his own art perfectly.

Barry Schwabsky

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