The following article was originally published in Art ltd’s summer issue, in 2012. See below to connect to the original link.
Vignette (La La La), 2008-2012, Acrylic and mixed media on panel, 72″ x 60″
Photo: courtesy Koplin Del Rio, Culver City
Kerry James Marshall’s studio stands two-stories high in the Bronzeville neighborhood, on Chicago’s South Side. From the street, it is non-descript, more like a very tall, brick garage than anything else; there are hardly any windows. It boasts a green lawn and stands near a new crop of condos; down the same street are some old Victorian brownstones interrupted by empty lots. It’s a significant neighborhood in American history. Once known as the country’s “Black Metropolis,” it was the destination for thousands who, during the Great Migration (1910-1930), left the South for Northern industrial jobs. It is identified with a shift in the country’s habit and history: a shift away from slavery coupled with its transition into industrialized labor. Significant musicians and thinkers came from this place–among them, Ida B. Wells, Gwendolyn Brooks and Louis Armstrong. Given the subject of Marshall’s work, his creative environment seems significant. The ultimate site for his upcoming solo show is no less so. This September marks the opening of “Who’s Afraid of Red, Black and Green” at The Secession in Vienna. “It’s one of the first artist-created museums, started by Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele,” Marshall explains. “They were breaking with the academy and tried to start an independent thing where they could go their own way. The Secession is that thing… It’s like the museum for radicals.”
Staying his aesthetic course, Marshall grafts his study of African American history onto the canon of western painting to illicit a critical perspective. In his new work, he has conjoined the Abstract Expressionism of Barnett Newman (particularly his iconic work Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III) with the politics of race. Newman’s trademark zips appear on Marshall’s first three canvases, but the original color scheme–red, yellow and blue–has been replaced by the red, black and green of Marcus Garvy’s Pan African flag. By way of form and concept, Marshall raises the specters not only of Abstract Expressionism, but also several historical African American revolutionaries. It is as if the apolitical, flat picture plane whose “backdrop has become the curtain” (in Clement Greenberg’s words) parts slightly, revealing the social, historical edges of things and bodies. As such, the conviction of the color field, its presumed ability to remain purely aesthetic, anti-anecdotal and sublime is troubled. “You have to embrace [art history] and engage it.” Marshall says. “You can’t let it go unchallenged. It’s not entitled to the privilege of being just adored.”
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