Monday, November 28, 2016

Kerry James Marshall: Mastry at the Met Breuer

It is extraordinary to be given a museum retrospective as a living artist, and after seeing Mastry, the Kerry James Marshall retrospective at the Met Breuer, he truly deserves it. With paintings of portraiture, landscape, and tableaus, Marshall gives us the complexities of African American identity in America. With the current rise in visibility of xenophobia, hatred, and racism in America today, now more than ever it is imperative that we recognize the failings of the Western art historical canon to include people of color. This retrospective deftly creates space for black people in the canon, making the invisible finally visible.

One of the earliest works, A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self, is a small and an almost completely monotone self portrait; the face is so blackly painted that the eyes and teeth almost jump off the face. It is a powerful, haunting portrait that presses us to think about what we think of as blackness, because it shows us a caricature (alluding to white minstrels who donned blackface in the 19th century) of blackness.  

School of Beauty, School of Culture
Acrylic on canvas
107 7/8 × 157 7/8 in

From this point on we see Marshall’s figures becoming more naturalistic and realistic. He also scales up to a more monumental size. Past Times, 1997 is an idyllic scene of aristocrats enjoying a picnic in the park, playing games and riding in boats on a pleasant lake. The pastoral scene directly references the rococo, but reinventing it for the modern viewer; to show black people as aristocratic elites expands art history to include the African American experience.

School of Beauty, School of Culture, painted in 2012, directly references many art historical traditions as well. In this painting, a beauty school comes to life with different characters in a colorful interior scene. Marshall can be seen in the mirror in the back of the painting but obscured by the flash of his camera, a reference to Diego Velรกzquez’s Las Meninas. An anamorphic image of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty is a direct reference to the anamorphic skull at the bottom of Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors. Many other art historical tropes are stitched together in this painting of a common staple of African American life, so that it seems that art history has been molded to at last depict the black experience.

Kerry James Marshall: Mastry

On view until January 29th, 2017
The Met Breuer
945 Madison Ave.


  1. This is an excellent review of this retrospective, and your writing is very clear and easy to understand. I know exactly what you’re talking about in each piece with no confusion, and I think all of the points you make are very well stated. Perhaps you could add a little bit more about what truly brings the “African American experience” into these pieces, as it’s really well-illustrated in most of his paintings. Your art historical references are spot-on as well, and really gave me a deeper understanding of his pieces. All in all this is a really fantastic review!

  2. I think your review explains the exhibition really well, the references are very effective and the explanations of the cultural issues behind the artworks are very clear. Maybe you could elaborate just briefly why you chose the artworks you are referencing, specially because there are so many in the exhibit.