Visions of a Knowledge Becoming: An Analysis of Three Paintings by Kerry James Marshall
Margaret Anne Hines Undergraduate Art History Thesis Maryland Institute College of Art - Baltimore, MD April 22, 2016
Thinking thought usually amounts to withdrawing into a dimensionless place in which the idea of thought alone persists. But thought in reality spaces itself out into the world. It informs the imaginary of peoples, their varied poetics, which in them transforms, meaning, in them its risk becomes realized. Culture is the precaution of those who claim to think thought but who steer clear of its chaotic journey. Evolving cultures infer Relation, the overstepping that grounds their unity-diversity. Thought draws the imaginary of the past: a knowledge becoming. One cannot stop it to assess it nor isolate it to transmit it. It is sharing one can never not retain, nor ever, in standing still, boast about. -Édouard Glissant, P oetics of Relation1
Slave ships rolled across the Atlantic Ocean, launched the black diaspora, broke the world in half, catalysed Modernity, and never stopped moving.2 Phantom boats were resurrected after the invention of the cotton gin spurring the second Middle Passage to the Southern United States beginning in 1793.3 The boats sail through the paintings of James Mallord William Turner and Winslow Homer [Figures 1 and 3].4 Slave ships rolled through the lyrics of Jazz and American Blues music in the early 1900s, Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 1. 2 Paul Gilroy, Small Acts: Thoughts on the Politics of Black Cultures, (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1994), 178. Gilroy quotes Toni Morrison, who poses that, “...modern life begins with slavery…,” continuing “slavery broke the world in half, broke it in every way” Morrison poetically speaks to the tragedy of the black diaspora. Morrison follows her statement with “broke it in every way,” asserting the theoretical notion that the world was mostly divided into separate chunks of contained cultures before the mass movement of slaves around the world. Morrison speaks to the crumbling of these definable boundaries, eventually leading to our neo-colonial, creolized, contemporary world. 3 From the exhibition, Slavery, DuSable Museum, Chicago, Illinois, October 2015. “Phantom boats” representing the psychological state of traumatic betweenness as thousands of slaves were forced to take another daunting and dangerous journey. 4 Alexander Nemerov, "Ground Swell: Edward Hopper in 1939," American Art, Fall 2008, 50-71, www.journals.uchicago.edu (December, 2015); Kerry James Marshall, Gulf Stream, acrylic and glitter on canvas, 108x 144 inches, 2003, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Marshall’s Gulf Stream [Figure 4] illustrates his awareness and relationship to the history of nautical painting as proven by visual reference to Winslow Homer’s boat in Breezing up, while sharing the title of Homer’s The Gulf Stream. 1
exemplified by Kokomo Arnold and his contemporaries, singing, “this big ship is a-rockin’, an’ my body’s filled with aches an’ pains./ Now, if I git ‘cross the Atlantic Ocean, good people, I will not live to Spain.”5 The boats rocked waves that resonated throughout the Jim Crow era from 1890-1965 and the assassinations of black leaders in the 1960s-70s.6 The slave ship exists as more than a historic symbol; it is the foundation for racism in America, emoting past trauma and presenting a violent schism between origin and home. The slave ship is a “thought [that] draws the imaginary of the past: a knowledge becoming” that continues to mold the American identity.7 Some contemporary black artists such as Isaac Julian [Figure 5], Mark Bradford [Figure 6], Kara Walker [Figure 7], have reclaimed the boat motif.8 Kerry James Marshall takes the image of the boat even further by allowing the idea of the slave ship to “[space] itself out into the world… [informing] the imaginary of peoples, their varied poetics.”9 Marshall’s inclusionist manner parallels that of the Martiniquan writer Édouard Glissant by taking on the “chaotic journey” of thought, avoiding cultural tropes and providing a place for past and present to persist in paint.10 Marshall’s work exemplifies the Glissantian concept of creolization through its simultaneity and multiplicity of time and space, where origins linger in the contemporary scenes.11 The
Kokomo Arnold, “Big Ship Blues,” song, 03:11, May 1938; James Lincoln Collier, The Making of Jazz: A
Comprehensive History. (London: Macmillan, 1981), 59-64. Arnold is an example of the relevance of the slave ship in early American blues. Collier goes into detail about the significance of creolization and the slave ship in American Jazz music in The Making of Jazz: A Comprehensive History. 6 Slavery, DuSable Museum, Chicago. 7 Glissant, Poetics of Relation, 1. 8 Kara Walker, Bureau of refugees’ (Milano: Charta, 2008). Also see Looking for Langston, DVD, directed by Isaac Julian (Sankofa Film & Video, 1989). 9 Glissant, Poetics of Relation, 1. 10 IBID 11 Ulf Hannerz, “The world in creolization,” Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, 1987, 546-59, http://links.jstor.org (December, 2015); Ernest Cashmore and Michael Banton, Dictionary of Race and Ethnic
“infer[red] Relation[s]” found in Marshall’s work expands the orthodox concept of Modernity and injects the whitewashed walls of the fine art world with an omnipresent blackness.12 The three unstretched, acrylic paintings Great America [Figure 8], Plunge [Figure 9], and Voyager [Figure 10] make specific references to the black diaspora through communal boat iconography as well as an expansion of the concept of the slave ship. All three works dive into the imaginary space of the horizon line visualizing betweenness through palpitating visions of the Atlantic Ocean and a conflated sense of time and origin. Phantoms of the boats that first set sail in 1525 continue their course through the American psyche, across contemporary politics and culture and pitch into the monumental paintings of Kerry James Marshall, revising the concept of Modernity by presenting the viewer with a vision of Glissant’s unity-diversity.13
Relations, (3rd ed. London: Routledge, 1994), 94; Glissant, Poetics of Relation, 11; "Other Cultures Within: Beyond the Naming of Things," in Culture, Performing Arts Webcasts, produced by The Library of Congress; Sandra Anderson, Collins Dictionary (9th ed. Glasgow: Harper Collins, 2007). The etymology of creolization is deeply connected to colonialism. Glissant argues in Poetics of Relation that “creolization is not a fusion, it requires that each component persist, even if it is already changing.” Intrinsic to creolization is the concept of constant evolution. Glissant is quoted in "Other Cultures Within," explaining further that “creolization is unpredictable: one cannot calculate its consequences… Sameness is fixed being, diversity establishes becoming.” Marshall’s work can hold as an example of Glissantian creolization because of its myriad of influences throughout history that are revealed on the canvas simultaneously, each maintaining their historical origin while creating new meaning within the context of relation within the painting. 12 Clement Greenberg, "Modernist Painting," in Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology, ed. Francis Frascina and Charles Harrison (London: Chapman, 1988), 5-10; Glissant, Poetics of Relation, 1; Kerry James Marshall, “An Argument for Something Else,” interview by Dieter Roelstraete, Aesthetic Justice (Antwerp, London: Nav Haq, 2014), 136. Greenberg defines his orthodox interpretation of Modernism in his critical essay “Modernist Painting,” contending that “the essence of Modernism lies… in the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence...Modernism criticizes from the inside, through the procedures themselves of that which is being criticized.” Greenberg continues, claiming Kant as the first Modernist for his implementation of self-criticism and makes direct reference to Hegelian Dialectics. In “An Argument for Something Else,” Marshall shows his awareness of art history and orthodox Modernity as he discusses how to place blackness into the realm of masterful art and art history. “Whitewashed” refers to art history’s lack of black representation as discussed by Marshall himself: “I go to a museum… look at all the art that’s there… and all I experience is absence. Not only are black people largely absent from the history of representation that is on display there, we are also outside of the domain of mastery.” 13 Glissant, Poetics of Relation, 1. Glissant defines his term, unity-diversity, as an evolving state of being that is established when “evolving cultures infer Relation.”
In Great America deep black coloring chars the five people and the strip of a distant horizon line giving them a shared unified complexion. The horizon serves as a second purpose if viewed less literally as land stretched across the water, but instead figuratively as an expansion of an imaginary non-space of the demarcation between ocean and sky. In large bodies of water like the Atlantic horizon lines don’t exist as real spaces - rather as a moment of change, a moment in-between only penetrable through the imagination. The black, wobbling horizon line functions to emphasize the concept of betweenness itself and as an optical implication of kinship amid betweenness and African Americans. Water takes up most of the picture plane in Great America with a few inches of deep blue sky on the upper, left third of the picture sets the scene in space. The color of the water appears lighter than the sky hovering between a solid cobalt blue and a watery cadmium-yellow teal, reflecting a disorienting interpretation of light. The depth of the water is unclear. The cramped picture and the downwards perspective allows the engulfing plays of atmospheric light and color in the water to envelop its viewer. A far off sun peaks around the singed black sliver of horizon, sprouting sharp, thin rays into the small sliver of visible sky. Small, mountain shaped clouds overlook the painted scene from the upper left side of the canvas, balanced by two submerged, swollen dark blue patches in the water below. Their sodden forms float with a gloomy sense of danger like heavy storm clouds about to give birth to a monsoon or terrifyingly large jellyfish silently floating through open water. On top of the of water rides a strange, skinny boat reminiscent of a carnival ride carrying four passengers in bikinis and hair caps. The boat originally contained five people [Figure 11]; however, one person
seemed to have tipped overboard. The fifth person bobs behind the boat, faceless and genderless, only their head surfaces the water. Light blue water surrounds the crown like a thick, jagged neck brace. The head is still, fixed into the painting, but the ring of misty, teal-blue water around it indicates a thrashing movement. A transparent illustration of a ghost atop the water restates the painterly depiction of simultaneous amusement and anxiety. Marshall imbues Great America with layers of psychological, painterly, and illustrative multiplicity. The possible violence indicated by the seemingly drowning figure along with the ghosts that gawk and gape creates an uncanny line back through history to the black diaspora. The drowning black body is inextricably linked to the thousands of black bodies tied down with “balls and chains… underwater signposts [that] mark the course between the Gold Coast and the Leeward Island. Navigating the green splendor of the sea-- whether in melancholic transatlantic crossings or,” just like a carnival ride rolling through the casual afternoon, “glorious regattas or traditional races of yoles and gommiers-- still brings to mind, coming to light like seaweed, their lowest depths, these deeps, with their punctuation of scarcely corroded balls and chains.”14 Analyzing Great America alongside Glissant’s poetic telling of the black diaspora emphasizes the power of Marshall’s visual ambiguity and his combination of fun and terror. The Atlantic provides a dwelling place where amusement and horror coexist - the surface may serve as an unassuming expanse of water, but amidst its unexplored depths rest the thousands of black bodies long deteriorated out of their ball and chains. In Great America the
Glissant, Poetics of Relation, 6.
murky teal washes of paint that waver about the water, and the sun’s reflection that slithers out onto the ocean in a thick coil of cadmium yellow rope visually contradict the idea that this is a scene of tranquil water, and implies a great, glowing fire that boils beneath. Glissant states, “what kind of river, then, has no middle? Is nothing there but straight ahead? Is this boat sailing into eternity toward the edges of a nonworld that no ancestor will haunt?”15 As Glissant poses these questions, so Marshall paints boats gliding on water, water represented by strokes of acrylic that physically embody a void, an abyss. Similarly to Great America, water dominates the picture plane in Plunge, but this time in a poolside scene. The edge of the pool in Plunge illustrates the idea of an oceanic horizon through alternating tiles picturing boats and life preservers. The white and blue tiles arch down towards the lower left corner suddenly disappearing into the water in an exaggerated sense of perspective. Misty puffs of bushes coagulate on top of the ground, separating the pool area from the outside world, which fills the very top foot of the painting with a powder blue sky. Twelve yellow, white, and black oval shapes overlay the painting, at first reminiscent of star charts. Each ellipse contains either an X or a Y faintly written within; thus, the floating objects also appear like an enlarged genetic map. The mostly yellow ovoids that punctuate the picture plain speak to both star charts and to DNA, chromosomes, the internal body. Marshall emphasizes the encapsulation of the space with a stark white gate on the left hand side with a large pink-white sign reading “Private.” The presentation of a microscopic space that fits into the body
Glissant, Poetics of Relation, 7.
conflates with the concept of the macro space of star charts and “ATLANTIC OCEAN,” not overlayed in giant, dominating ellipses, but rather crammed into the lower left corner of the painting. The pluralism presented by the macro and micro spaces, and the imaginary, illustrative horizon line bring home the fact that this painting belongs both in real and imagined space. There are two figures in Plunge: one stands prominently on a diving board with her back to the viewer, while the other bobs in the water to the left of the standing figure. The latter figure consists only of a chalky beige head and blurry arm arching up above it. Blues seep into the watery figure allowing it to get visually lost in the complex picture plane, unlike the the main figure painted in defiant detail who waits poised in the second between standing and diving. Blues of water, sky, and shadow consume most of the large canvas in Plunge. Three pure white, candy cane shaped poles hover across the center, horizontal line of the canvas. All three are inscribed with light gray, thin lettering: the first reading “SWAN,” the second reading “LAY OUT,” while the third says “BACKYARD,” and “ONE AND A HALF.” Viscous white paint drips over the water, which holds several loosely painted, undefined and seemingly submerged, light blue circles. Remnants of a large compass take up the left quadrant of the pool articulated by an off-center cross, a yellow ring dissolving into the dark blue, and the “N” for North and the “W” for West. The the S and E are deluged by the light blue, vertical strokes of paint that culminate in the lower left side of the pool-- punctuated by a translucent white rectangle. A tiny green, yellow, and red toy boat points towards the words “ATLANTIC OCEAN” that curve around the corner of the pool. Vibrating lines of wake display the boat's motion as they tumble out
from either side and disperse into the dark blue water. Marshall ensures that the viewer makes the connection between his poolside painting and the Atlantic Ocean; the toy boat may roll over the wake of a casual swimmer, but its South West journey across the “ATLANTIC OCEAN” points to a greater narrative: slavery, “...a debasement more eternal than apocalypse,” creating a multiplicity in the painting.16 Rather than water, a glaring white sky dominates Voyager’s canvas. The surface has been worked and re-worked, held together by pluming patches of light pink, blue, and gray. Thin lines create crossroads through the white, simultaneously dividing it up and patching it back together. The thin paint feels amorphous, kinetic, malleable, even more so than the opaque, cobalt blue water below where coils of solid paint, applied with a large, dry brush, signify water in the context of the painting, but actually appear opaque. The presentation of water as a definite and definable stroke of acrylic reminds the viewer of the materiality itself and elicits another example of simultaneous multiplicity - this time in the signified and the signifier. The skull prominently displayed at the bottom center of the image reminds the viewer of the water’s power despite the docile waves that rivvit beneath the boat. The skull signals a normally unseen memento mori, cast out, wrapped in the “...womb abyss,” the silent sage of the sea.17 Marshall signals invisible aspects of the deep ocean, while creating a multiplicity of time in the sky. Four ellipses arch from the lower left side to the upper right side like the path of the sun in simultaneous snapshots. Each wobbly, circular shape has a dark yellow perimeter which fades to white in the center; the first ellipse can barely be seen as it pokes out
Glissant, Poetics of Relation, 6. IBID
from behind the waves. The horizon line seems logical at first: thick strokes of cobalt blue meet a chalky white sky with drifting patches of light pink, yellow, and blue. However, the black abyss that consumes the upper foot of the painting calls into question the logic of the overall space. The white sky bubbles upwards; plumes of pink, red, and blue balls lift from the gauzy white into blackness; remnants of a rainbow peer from the haze in the upper left and right sides. Some of the bubbles are surrounded by thick, black line - tendrils of the black abyss reaching forward to isolate the white. Marshall pluralizes time and space in his paintings, ripping open the seams between ground and background, history and the now, one time of day and another. Paintings are still. Even the click of a camera denotes a tiny increment of time, but paintings can capture a single moment, can articulate a still horizon line between one second and another. The perspective and iconography place the viewer in the imaginary horizon line, skimming the water along with Marshallâ€™s characters, hovering between two infernos: then and now. Marshall texturally confuses sea and sky, ground and background. The people in the painting carry multiple, hybridized meanings, just as the water does. Behind the mast stand two charcoal black legs, strong and muscular. A blue pattern curls its way up the sail like a tree or spouts of water, painted where the figure would be, hybridizing the human. The primary figure, a woman, leans forward in the very front of the boat wearing a blue dress and holding an oval, white, wreath-like shape over her head, framing her face. The oval blooms with white and pink paint, contrasting the womanâ€™s charcoal black skin. Her physical body remains intact; however, the conflicting ideas she
conveys also function to hybridize her, just like the figure behind the sail. The painting’s narrative suggests that the oval she hangs around her neck most likely represents a life preserver. She sits towards the front of the boat, a human skull sunk beneath her in the “womb abyss” that can easily take her life just as it has taken so many black lives before her. Danger lurks within the narrative of Voyager. However, her expression seems to be one of peace. The puffy, white oval seems more like a wreath of flowers, recollecting visions of a black madonna, a purity, a beauty. The main character in Marshall’s Voyager simultaneously conveys danger, holiness, death, and leisure. Great American, Plunge, and Voyager all contain chopped up figures, dissected by sea and sky. Great America and Plunge show partially submerged figures, while Voyager dissects the secondary figure, but then hybridizes it with a swirling plant motif common in a his work. In the painting Great America, the sun peaks around the horizon signaling that it is a time in between, either dawn or dusk. Plunge lacks a sense of light and darkness altogether except for the disorientingly deep shadows beneath the two large beach umbrellas. Rather than lacking time, Voyager shows several times all at once, articulated by the multiple suns that arch across the sky. The viewer is witnessing moments of multiple betweennesses. The three paintings teeter between dark and light just as the people in Great America rock back and forth between the darkness of the cave they once came and the light mesh of water they glide across. The woman in Plunge stands patiently with her arms above her head waiting to dive into a pool, or an abyss of stars, or the “ATLANTIC OCEAN,” or the tiny liquid facets within her own body, and all of them at the same time. The figures in Voyager sail between two abysses; one in the
depths of the water, the other in the darkness of the black sky. The figures in Marshall’s paintings exist, charcoal black, in multiplicities, within the traumatic narratives of their ancestors and their current, everyday life, placing them in an impossible, non-space of betweenness: in their own psychological horizon line.18 Captured in the moment between then and now, Marshall’s boats disrupt the Western, orthodox understanding of Modernism, history, and identity.19 The art critic Clement Greenberg defines Modernism in his critical essay Modernist Painting and asserts that “the essence of Modernism lies… in the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence… Modernism criticizes from the inside, through the procedures themselves of that which is being criticized.”20 Greenberg’s conception of Modernity in fine art emanates Kantian self-criticism and exemplifies, in its form, a Hegelian dialectic.21 Just as Hegel puts forth that culture can
W. E. B. du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (United States: Maestro Reprints, 2011); Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Mask (New York: Grove Press, 1967); Henry Louis Gates, "Critical Fanonism," in Tradition and the Black Atlantic: Critical Theory in the African Diaspora (New York: Basic Civitas, 2010), 83-112. For more than a hundred years many black thinkers have put forth concepts of psychological multiplicity for people of African descent. 19 David Summers, “E. H. Gombrich and the Tradition of Hegel,” in A Companion to Art Theory, ed. Paul Smith and Carolyn Wilde (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 2002), 139-149. “Western, orthodox understanding of Modernism, history, and identity” directly references Gombrich’s interpretations of Hegel and Gombrich’s assertion about understanding history and one’s place in history through the evolutionist (Hegelian) tradition of assuming that “periods” of art history are essentially different from one another. Whether these periods are overarchingly interpreted in terms of general progression (materialists), or nonteleogoically in the kunstwollen or geistesgeschichte approaches, both use essentialism; thus, as Summers puts it, “works of art become more concretely historical, not less, and explanation exclusively in terms of a single principle not only diminishes the study of history, it takes its own place in the history of Romantic historiography.” Marshall’s deployment of simultaneous multiplicity deters essentialization and breaks the progressive form of Hegelian dialectics. 20 Greenberg, "Modernist Painting," 6. 21 Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The phenomenology of mind, trans. J. B. Baillie (2d ed. New York: Humanities Press, 1964); Greenberg, “Modernist Painting,” 6. Greenberg specifically says, “I conceive of Kant as, the first real Modernist” then continues, “the self-criticism of Modernism grows out of… the criticism of the Enlightenment,” indirectly referencing Hegelian dialectics in his description of Modernism’s progressive form, explaining that “Modernism criticizes from the inside, through the procedures themselves of that which is being criticized.” 18
edit itself down into an ideal state, into divine Truth, Greenberg states that Modernism is a self critical mechanism that ideally whittles itself down into “purity,” where the artist trajects towards autonomy.22 In the same decades that Greenberg idolized specific white, mostly male, artists who fit his desired path towards artistic plasticism, Glissant posed an entirely different method for understanding history with his concept of Relation. Glissant championed a different philosophical objective, creolization, a “...process of expansion rather than reduction,” believing that “perhaps creolization is becoming one of our present day goals” not only “on behalf of America but of the entire world.”23 Glissant offers an entirely different form of perception than the white, orthodox Modernists, a form that does not push black art and artists to be subcategorized outside the narrow trajectory of Modernism, but instead, “allows the periphery to talk back. As it creates a greater affinity between the cultures of the center and the periphery.”24 Glissant offers an opportunity to see art and artists in the larger context of our multi-racial, neo-colonial world.25
Hegel, The phenomenology of mind, 26; Greenberg, “Modernist Painting,” 7. Greenberg specifically uses the word “purity” to describe the ideal state for art and artist, defining: “‘Purity’ meant self-definition.” 22
Rajend Mestrie, “Language contact 2: pidgins, creoles and the ‘new Englishes,’” in Introducing Sociolinguistics (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000), 297; Robin Cohen, "Creolization and Cultural Globalization: The Soft Sounds of Fugitive Power." (May 1, 2007. Accessed October 27, 2015). 24 Ulf Hannerz, Cultural Complexity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), 265. 25 Ann Eden Gibson,"Individualism, Universalism, and the Cold War," in Abstract Expressionism: Other Politics (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997), 43-57; Brent Hayes Edwards, Yve-Alain Bois, Rosalind Krauss, Georges Didi-Huberman, Michael Richardson, and Krzysztof Fijalkowski. "The Ethnics of Surrealism." Transition 78 (1998), 84-135; William Pietz, “Fetish,” in The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology, ed. by Donald Preziosi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 109-114. Orthodox Modernism continues to dominate contemporary ideas of Modernity, championing white artists while setting black creators outside of the canon, casting them aside as influences, sometimes even simply as subjects of study. This mode of Modernity relies on its difference from the Other to understand itself. Approaching Modernity from a Glissantian stance of Relation allows for the inclusion of black art and artists into the canon of Modernity, rather than a Hegelian binary of white Modernity and Other: Modernity as trajecting towards the sublime and African and African inspired art as “frozen in a historyless stasis…” as explained by Pietz summarizing Hegel in his lectures on aesthetics. 23
Greenberg conceives that “the superior artist is the one who knows how to be influenced.”26 However, every word the artist speaks resides in his vocabulary because it has been spoken by another to him. These words themselves carry “a double[d] voice,” the “shadow of [their] origin.”27 Every second of leisure that gives the artist the freedom to develop their mastery of painting derives from the labor of another.28 America itself only exists because of the rapid economic growth due to slavery and the American artist stands where he stands because of ancestral transoceanic movement and conflicts.29 The Hegelian derived Modern Art needs an Other to define its own boundaries and the Modern American artist is inherently intertwined with multiple systems of influences.30
Clement Greenberg, “Influences of Matisse,” in exhibition catalogue (New York: Aquavella Gallery, 1973); Craig Owens, “The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism,” in The Art of Art History, ed. Donald Preziosi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 336. Greenberg identifies Kant as the original Modernist. Kant puts forth that there are universal forms of beauty. Owens quotes and criticizes Kant in his essay “The Discourse of Others,” explaining that “Kant’s demand that the judgment of taste be universal—i.e., universally communicable—that it derive from ‘grounds deep-seated and shared alike by all men, underlying their agreement in estimating the forms under which objects are given to them.” Kant and Greenberg assert in their belief of forms that the artist can achieve an autonomy. 27 Henry Louis Gates, The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 61. In his book, The Signifying Monkey, Henry Louis Gates puts forth the idea of linguistic multiplicity, where words carry with them their contemporary meaning as well as all of their former meanings, specifically in African American vernacular. The book serves primarily to legitimize and empower Black English, deconstruct Standard English, present the African American presence in etymological intellectualism, and eradicate any notions of limitations within the capacity of black scholarly work. The conflation of distances intrinsic to creolization exemplifies Gates’s description on page 65 of “the very vertigo we experience between two terms.” 28 Owens, “The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism,” 343. Owens criticizes the concept of mastery in contemporary and Modern art, arguing that “contemporary artists are able at best to simulate mastery, to manipulate its signs; since in the modern period mastery was invariably associated with human labor, aesthetic production has degenerated today into a massive deployment of the signs of artistic labor—violent, ‘impassioned’ brushwork, for example. Such simulacra of mastery testify, however, only to its loss; in fact, contemporary artists seem engaged in a collective act of disavowal—and disavowal always pertains to a loss.” 29 Henry Louis Gates, "How Many Slaves Came to America? Fact vs. Fiction," The Root (2014. Accessed November 12, 2015). People of European origin who settled in America brought 12.5 million slaves from Africa to the Americas to build the American economy. 30 Ann Eden Gibson, “Individualism, Universalism, and the Cold War," 43-57; Edwards, "The Ethnics of Surrealism," Transition 78 (1998), 84-135; Jacques Derrida, “Economimesis,” trans. R. Klein, Diacritics 2, no. 2 (Summer 1981), 5. The notion that one cannot escape economic and cultural influences inherently contradicts a Kantian conception of Modernism as presented in Derrida’s gloss, “Kant specifies that the only thing one ought to call ‘art’ is the production of freedom by means of freedom [Hervorbringung durch Freiheit]. Art properly speaking puts free-will [Wilkür] to work and places reason at the root of its acts. There is therefore no art, in a strict sense, except that of a being who is free and logon ekon [has speech].” Edwards discusses Modernism’s reliance on Others 26
Whether or not he has the privilege of not seeing them, slave ships partially define every American. Marshall does not just see slave ships, he paints them while simultaneously and consciously setting himself within the context of Modernity. Marshall discusses his painting, Great American, as “an engagement with the history of painting as a mark making practice. The way the Modernist gesture, the par excellence, is the kind of drip, or it's a kind of smear, or it’s a kind of stroke of paint that calls attention to itself as a stroke of paint.” Marshall does not reject Modernism, he radically expands it, he includes himself and a discussion of the black diaspora within it. Great America, Plunge, and Voyager manifest as acrylic on canvas, “emblem[s] of excitement,” and narratives of the black diaspora all at once.31 Expanding one's vision out through history and across America’s horizon lines allows for a revision of Greenberg’s quote, “the [privileged, white artist believes he] is the one who knows how to be influenced.”32 Orthodox Modernism’s trajectory towards “purity” dissolves into a narrow constellation within a sea of transglobal, multi-racial influences, people, and art all of which are integral aspects of Modernity.33 Marshall’s work bursts open our concept of orthodox
to define itself in his essay. Gibson also divulges the necessity of the Other to Modernism, crippling the concept of the Western artist as an individual hero with the power to tap into universal Truth. 31 Kerry James Marshall, YouTube video, produced by National Gallery of Art, accessed October 20, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JAD1F5UgCi8. Marshall intentionally created Great America as commentary on the black diaspora, stating, “I’ve used the theme park as an emblem of excitement and terror… I think that the way they are packed so tightly into that shuttle is a reference to the way they would have been packed in the holds of the slave ships.” 32 Greenberg, Influences of Matisse. Notably, in his essay “Modernist Painting,” Greenberg lists Manet, impressionists in general, Cezanne, Kandinsky, Mondrian, David, Ingres, and Cubists in general. Greenberg limits Modernity to white, mostly male Westerners. 33 James Baldwin, The Fire next Time (New York: Dial Press, 1963), 101-102. Summers, “E. H. Gombrich and the Tradition of Hegel,” 144. James Baldwin notably asserts that “the American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed the collection of myths to which white Americans cling.” Summers puts forth a more general definition of myths as exegesis, “...the Romantic divination of higher or deeper Hegelian truths behind what are actually allegories of historical events.”
Modernity [Figure 12], positioning African Americans and their stories in the canon of fine art, making them seem as important as they are for America at large.34 Marshall’s Great America, Plunge, and Voyager present the boat motif as a platform to cast a myriad net that sprawls through history and surfaces charcoal black people amongst gawking ghosts, an abstracted genetic map, and a sunken memento mori, intermixed with a carnival ride, a poolside, and a sailboat. These three paintings visualize Glissant’s unity-diversity in acrylic paint and collage on flat, unstretched canvas. Marshall’s work avoids the preoccupation of self-definition and instead endeavors in self-expansion, spiraling out in “...a network spreading either in the ground or in the air, with no predatory rootstock taking over permanently.”35 Great America, Plunge, and Voyager function as black rhizomes that call each of their viewers to take part in the “chaotic journey” of reevaluating history and identity in terms of Relation.
Frank Stella, “Frank Stella and Donald Judd,” in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of
Artists' Writings, ed. Kristine Stiles, and Peter Selz (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 117. Stella remarks in 1966 that “there’s always been a trend towards simpler painting and it was bound to happen one way or another.” Marshall counters Stella’s assertion in his painting, Black Star [Figure 12], by depicting a black woman with natural hair and pasties literally bursting from a painting extraordinarily like Frank Stella’s early work [Figure 13]. 35 Glissant, Poetics of Relation, 11.
(Figure 1) J.M.W. Turner, The Slave Ship, 1840, oil on canvas, 35.74” x 48.27”, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts.
(Figure 2) Winslow Homer, Breezing Up (A Fair Wind), 1875, oil on canvas, 24.2” x 38”, Washington D.C., National Gallery of Art.
(Figure 3) Winslow Homer, The Gulf Stream, 1899, oil on canvas, 28.15” x 49.13”, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
(Figure 4) Kerry James Marshall, Gulf Stream, 2003, acrylic and glitter on canvas, 108” x 156”, Minneapolis, Walker Art Center.
(Figure 5) Isaac Julien, Western Union: Small Boats (installation view), 2007, video installation, Madrid, Galería Helga de Alvear. Accessed October, 2015. https://www.isaacjulien.com/news/25.
(Figure 6) Mark Bradford, Mithra, 2008, installation view, mixed media, 16’ x 70’, New Orleans. Photo: Nicole J. Caruth. Accessed October, 2015. http://magazine.art21.org/2014/12/12/mark-bradford-on-prospect-1-new-orleans/#.W dZumRl95D8.
(Figure 7) Kara Walker, No World, 2010, one from a series of six etchings and aquatints, plate: 23.87” x 35.62”; sheet: 30.25” x 40.75”, New York, Museum of Modern Art.
(Figure 8) Kerry James Marshall, Great America, 1994, acrylic and collage on canvas, 103” x 114”, Washington D.C., National Gallery of Art.
(Figure 9) Kerry James Marshall, Plunge, 1992, acrylic and collage on canvas, 87” x 109”, Collection of Geri and Mason Haupt.
(Figure 10) Kerry James Marshall, Voyager, 1992, acrylic and collage on canvas, 91.87” x 86.5”, gift of the Women’s Committee of the Corcoran Gallery of Art © 2004 The Artist c/o Jack Shainman Gallery.
(Figure 11) Kerry James Marshall, Sketch for Great America, 1994, pen and ink on graph paper, 8.5” x 11”, Courtesy of the artist, Jack Shainman Gallery.
(Figure 12) Kerry James Marshall, Black Star, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 72” x 60”, Chicago, courtesy Marilyn and Larry Fields.
(Figure 13) Frank Stella, Die Fahne hoch!, 1959, 121.5” x 73”, New York, Whitney Museum of American Art.
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An analysis of three paintings by Kerry James Marshall written in 2016 and revised in 2017.