Kerry James Marshall came to prominence last year as the first retrospective of his 35-year career was exhibited at the Met in New York, the MCA in Chicago and finally MOCA in LA. At a time of political upheaval in the US and a time of increased racial tension, KJM’s vast and colourful canvasses couldn’t be more prescient and, for many, have become beacons of hope. He was a young boy during the climax of the KKK’s devastation in Birmingham,Alabama,and a teenager in South Central LA as the riots seized the nation. For the first time in oil painting’s 600-year history, his paintings put African Americans at the centre of the artistic debate with authority and belonging. On a cold day in LA, So It Goes’ Associate Publisher, Christopher Ramsay, sat down with Helen Molesworth, the curator of Kerry James Marshall’s exhibition Mastry, to discuss his life and work.
Christopher Ramsay: Could you describe why KJM’s depictions of African Americans are particularly powerful?
Helen Molesworth: I think the simplest answer is because he’s a great painter. Kerry operates consciously within the history of painting, so he carries within his head the now 600-year history of oil painting, and that means that every time he faces a blank canvas he faces a really daunting task. You’re in a crowded field where a lot of the ideas have already been not only invented but perfected, torn down, and reinvented. What’s different is Kerry has understood that when you went to a museum in the West, you were likely not to see images of black people.When you did see them, they were in the corner, as Magus, slave, maybe a weird sort of odalisque with a sexual charge, but they weren’t the protagonists of pictures in museums.And Kerry decided that wasn’t OK. So he very systematically set out a programme for himself over the last thirty years, to redress this enormous absence; so when all those paintings were brought together and everyone could see the fullness of the project, and everyone said ‘oh my god’, for thirty years he’s been ticking off the genres: history painting, check; portraiture, check; landscape painting, check; genre scenes, check; abstraction, check. People realised how white their experience of museums had been – how white their experience of art had been. It was this bracing, undeniable revelation. People were gobsmacked because the pictures are so epic – you’re combining the redressing of a historical absence with a high degree of excellence and you have something really combustible.
CR: In today’s sociopolitical climate, how do you think he considers his work and how it’s currently viewed?
HM: The show was on view in New York when Trump was elected and I know both from popular culture accounts and from personal accounts that a lot of people went to the Met to see the show as a kind of tonic. People were really quite devastated by the election and Kerry’s pictures on the one hand redressed this huge absence, and also pointed to the history and the legacy of racism, its brutality, its unethical-ness, its inhumanity. Those pictures create a field of hope. That complexity is really interesting, as when you’re in front of a KJM painting, one of the things you’re negotiating is your own internal responsibility for what you either know or don’t know about African-American history. You’re being offered a moment of engagement where you actually get to be your best self.That quality of Kerry’s work was very much in play when the show was on view.The timing was everything. Kerry and I talked about that a lot because we never thought the show would do what it did.We were making an art show, and that’s our job – he makes pictures, I make shows. But the way it landed amongst this extremely racist backlash to Barack Obama in the election of Trump, put it at the critical epicentre of culture. That’s really interesting – when art jumps out of its art world and into a much larger sphere of culture.We were lucky to have the show up when it was. Everyone knew it, everyone really wanted to believe that this country still had the capacity to be better. Kerry’s pictures offer you that.
CR: Given its place against such a politically charged backdrop, how did the viewing public react to his work?
HM: I found two things remarkable as someone who’s been doing this for almost twenty years. Upon installing the exhibition, because so many of the pictures have figures in them and because so many are set in the contemporary landscape, when the viewers came in it was like a party or a city scene. So when you walked into the galleries, they were filled with people, and the pictures were filled with people.There was this weird kind of hallucinatory blurring of who’s in the picture and who’s in the gallery. I was utterly unprepared for that and it happened over and over again.
CR: Did you get Kerry to come and see it too?
HM: Oh yeah, but poor guy. Kerry became a rock star overnight and when he was in the galleries people literally just wanted to touch him, like he was LeBron James or something. Kerry never really understood that quality because he’d just be mobbed by people. People even cried a lot. I would go down to the galleries all the time and invariably there would be a woman standing in front of the pictures, weeping, just weeping. All types but mostly black women crying. I’m a lesbian so I feel like I have a tiny little purchase on what it is. I go to the movies and I read magazines and I watch television and I listen to pop culture. I’m an avid consumer of all those things and you know there ain’t no lesbians in any of that. And when there is one, I’m so overwhelmed about the feeling of being represented that I’m overcome with emotion. I think if you’re a black woman and you’ve been going to museums and you’ve never seen yourself represented and then you go to a KJM show and there’s picture after picture of these incredibly beautiful black women – I think people started to cry because we live in a really white world and we just don’t know it because we think that’s the way it is.
CR: Can you tell us a little bit about his background and where he came from to get to this point?
HM: He has a somewhat overdetermined biography, born in 1955 in Birmingham, Alabama. He was six years old when the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church where the four small black school girls were killed. If you’re a black person in Birmingham, Alabama in the late Fifties, early Sixties you know all the other black people in Birmingham, Alabama. So his family knew the families of the four girls who were murdered. His parents’ response to the bombing was to move their family to Los Angeles in the last wave of the great migration, the movement of African Americans out of the rural South and into Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and up the eastern seaboard, to basically try to escape the violence of Jim Crow. Kerry ended up moving into the neighbourhood of Watts, aged eight, just in time for the Watts riots. So by the time Kerry was a young child, he had witnessed two of the most violent and most dramatic events of what we now call the civil rights movement.This was 1965, after a white police officer had violently beaten a black civilian, and the LAPD was known for being extremely ruthless in its prejudice against its black victims.There were houses on fire, people killed and National Guard in the street. It was one of the first city riots to be televised. In the wake of the riots,the Black Panthers moved intoWatts and did some pretty major organising around self-determination.They installed the elementary school food programme, they made gardens, and generally helped out. He was profoundly shaped by these events: the KKK bombing of the church; the moving of his family to safer ground; the safer ground erupting into riots; the introduction of the Black Panthers – all happening before Kerry even went to high school.Then the most important black print maker of the Forties and Fifties was a guy named Charles White. He happened to live and work in LA and taught at Otis College of Art and Design. Kerry had happened to see Charles White’s images in a book called The Negro in Art. He knew he wanted to be an artist and he knew he wanted to be like Charles White. One day he learned that Charles White was literally down the road so he went and enrolled at Otis just so he could study with his hero.
CR: Does all art about or by African Americans get politicised in the US, and should it?
HM: Let me put parentheses around what I’m going to say by saying that I’m a feminist, which means that I believe the personal is political. I believe that it’s very hard to make any form of culture that is not also in some way political because culture is produced in the sphere of the everyday and everyday life is filled with political choices. Do I think, in America, the politicisation of work by African Americans has an extra dimension? Yes, I do. I don’t think that there’s any way it can’t, given the pressure on them to be artists and black.They don’t get to choose, they just don’t. I also think the root of this country is that we said we came here to be free, and then we said everybody would be free and equal except these people who’d be enslaved. So that’s in the DNA of who we are.That sickness in us has only recently been diagnosed.TheVoting Rights Act which ensures that all black people in this country can vote was only signed into law in 1965. It’s a relatively recent development in the history of democracy. I was born in 1966! So yes we’re in a massive process of grappling with that history. It’s at the core of almost everything. It’s at the core of how all American cities are divided geographically and it’s at the core of the crisis of our public education system.We don’t have a public education system anymore since white, middle-class families opted out of it in the Sixties and Seventies because they didn’t want their kids to go to school with black kids. It’s at the core of our current political crisis.There’s no way out. So when people have this fantasy of ‘why can’t black artists just make art like the rest of us’, well, the rest of us are making art under those very same conditions too.
Words Christopher Ramsay
in conversation with Helen Molesworth