The Masterful Tableaus of Kerry James Marshall

“Mastry,” Kerry James Marshall’s retrospective at the Met Breuer, is not only a collection of some of the most inventive and passionate paintings on view in recent memory, but also a celebration of diversity, specifically the African-American experience. Marshall’s show is a heartfelt letter to New York and America in a time of a significant crisis in race relations and economic disparity, from a creator whose skills match his ambition to be rightfully called a master of his craft.

Marshall’s earliest work, done in a representational imagistic style, dissects the artist’s own identity and what it means to be a person and artist of color, and is exemplified in the diminutive A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self, 1980. Fast forward a decade and Marshall begins his large scale canvasses, some with collaged elements, depicting genre scenes, placing black figures in domestic settings, such as a bedroom in Could This Be Love, 1992, and a barber shop in De Style, 1993. The stunning Bang, 1994, with its luscious green grass represented by loose brushstrokes amidst white houses and picket fences, shows three children saluting an American flag, symbolizing the insider/outsider dichotomy of the black experience in the United States. In this and other works, Marshall portrays a group of people striving to rebound from slavery and racism and live the American dream, while putting their faith in an exceedingly flawed system. Marshall updates the compositional characteristics of a Seurat or Manet crowd scene, adding sociopolitical potency.

If Marshal fosters a sense of inclusiveness with his depictions of black America, we are taken off balance when confronted with the nude Frankenstein, 2009, and Bride of Frankenstein, 2009. Here he isolates the figures and reimagines them as enduring protagonists, perhaps molded to fit society through a synthesis of contrasting values and diverse histories. Ultimately, Marshall’s work is so satisfying because it is an alluring mix of content and craft. Hard to look away, it is fun to gawk at his inventive use of blended colors, intricate patterns and textured mark making, while at the same time creating such believable persons that could be our own family, friends or neighbors.

Kerry James Marshall, "Mastry," The Met Breuer, October 25, 2016 – January 29, 2017

Kerry James Marshall, installation view of "Mastry," The Met Breuer, New York. Photo: Chris Bors

Kerry James Marshall, installation view of "Mastry," The Met Breuer, New York. Photo: Chris Bors