Before going to this museum, I had a particular exhibit in mind that I wanted to see. So when I arrived I made a beeline to where it was located, the third floor of The Met Breuer. It was Kerry James Marshall's retrospective, “Mastry”. This exhibit actually sparked my attention due to my African Art course. We’ve learned about indigenous cultures of Africa, and this prompted my curiosity about contemporary African artists and their take on African culture. With the exhibition closing this coming Jan, I leapt at the opportunity and decided to take it upon myself to learn more.
This exhibit is essentially a retrospective of the artists, Kerry James Marshall (born 1955), work, spanning his entire remarkable thirty-five year career. Marshall was born in Birmingham before the Civil Rights Act. He witnessed the Watts rebellion or ‘Watts riots’ in Los Angeles in 1965, in which allegations of police brutality toward an African American motorist who was arrested for drunk driving culminated in community outrage - a total of six days of looting and arson. The police needed the support of nearly 4,000 members of the National Guard to quell the riots, and 34 people were killed in the process. Having firsthand bore witness to this tragedy, Marshall has long chronicled the African American experience. His works are emotive and visceral, and speak strongly to the narrative of African people in America.
The exhibition begins with two large, layered compositions from 1993, pivotal in Marshall’s career.
It continues to the right with collages and works on paper from the artist's early practice in Los Angeles at the Otis Art Institute, where he graduated with a B.F.A in 1978. Marshall first moved to Los Angeles at the age of seven, in 1963. This at times was as racially segregated as the Jim Crow South. These paintings were inspired by the novel Invisible Man (1952), which compelled Marshall to produce a series of works that examine the cultural and psychological conditions of the black figure in American society and art history.
These are followed by paintings from the late 1980s and early 1980s made in Chicago, where Marshall lived and works and developed a signature practice of painting in acrylic on the collaged surfaces of large unstretched canvases. These pictures playfully borrow from and critically revise the Old Masters which addressing themes of romance and history and ideals of beauty.
The second half of the exhibition opens with a powerful cohort of nine paintings. The five Farden Projects represent public-housing developments in Chicago and Los Angeles, all with the word 'Gardens' in their names, and were painted in the mid-1990s when associations with those sites were anything but idyllic. This irony is perhaps what makes these paintings so successful.
The last gallery of this exhibition presents four newer works. Two of these have a completely different look and feel entirely. These both use the Pan-African colors as the basis for their palettes. They reveal the inside of the artists' studios, places of inspiration, creativity, and innovation. In my opinion, they are a nice way to round off the exhibit, you can see how much Marshall's work has progressed from the outset to the present. They also end it the exhibit with a positive note, the colors are uplifting, energetic and hopeful.