– Summer 2010

Kerry James Marshall’s Tempting Painting

Terry R. Myers

Kerry James Marshall, Watts 1963, 1995, acrylic and collage on unstretched canvas, 290 °— 343cm. St Louis Museum of Art, Museum Minority

Kerry James Marshall, Watts 1963, 1995, acrylic and collage on unstretched canvas, 290 °— 343cm. St Louis Museum of Art, Museum Minority

Unaware or unwilling to admit that some would be tempted to call certain artists painters because, funnily enough, they make paintings, in an interview that preceded the opening of her documenta X (1997), Catherine David resorted to what is now called 'spin':

Robert Storr: Other than, possibly, Ryman, definitely Richter, and, alas, not Polke, were there any other artists making paintings that you saw as at least potentially part of this discussion?

Catherine David: No. In the exhibition, there are some artists who deal with iconography who you might be tempted to call painters - but I think that label is irrelevant. We invited Kerry James Marshall; we invited Lari Pittman; we invited David Reeb from Israel - and I don't think it's helpful to describe their work as painting. They are privileging cultural operations, crossbreeding, questioning cultural identity and using specific image-strategies.

RS: Lari Pittman is most certainly a painter, though.

CD: For me, the iconographical work is the privileged point of access to his world and discourse.

RS: Yes, but that's a very limited reading. Because if he builds the surfaces the way he does, or if he strips them down the way he does, that's within a language of painting - where the significant meanings have to do precisely with how the iconography appears, not just that it is there.

CD: You can call them painters, but it's not really relevant in this documenta, where we've tried to be very precise about image-strategies.1

Whether painting, poetics or politics, one person's precision can be another's erasure. No one, of course, needs to tell Kerry James Marshall this: for more than thirty years he has taken aim

  1. 'Kassel Rock: Robert Storr Talks with Documenta's Catherine David', Artforum, vol.35, no.9, May 1997, p.129.

  2. Mindful of the various dismissals of painting that he first encountered while a student at CalArts, Lari Pittman had his own concerns about the exhibition but was appropriately playful about them: 'On the one hand I can see that painting is commercially privileged in America […] that painting can actually sell. But I'm wondering if the problem is that there is a part of the art intelligentsia that is so rigid that doesn't allow […] I guess I'm thinking of my upcoming meeting with Catherine David, and I'm wondering if this isn't just the stupidest work that she'll ever see - and on top of that it is painting!' See my 1996 interview with Lari Pittman for the Journal of Contemporary Art, http://www.jca-online.com/pittman.html (last accessed on 22 September 2009).

  3. To cite only one example, in the book Kerry James Marshall, Marshall contributed not only a foreword (pp.9-10), but also a very thorough autobiographical text titled 'Notes on Career and Work', in Eve Sinaiko (ed.), Kerry James Marshall, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2000, pp.113-23.

  4. From a letter in response to another from film-maker Arthur Jafa, published in Judith Russi Kirshner, Gregory Knight and Ursula Prinz (ed.), Korrespondenzen/Correspondences: 14 Artists from Chicago & Berlin (exh. cat.), Berlin and Chicago: Berlinische Galerie im Martin-Gropius- Bau and Chicago Cultural Center, 1994, p.95.

  5. Stephen F. Eisenman's important work on Seurat is to the point: 'by its contradictory mixture of idealism and materialism, epic and comic, classic and contemporary, the Grand Jatte ironises aesthetic and social convention. In addition, its Chromo-luminarism demands the collaboration of ts audience, thereby positing the revolutionary ideal of overcoming the alienation of artistic producers from consumers within capitalist society'. From his 'Seeing Seurat Politically', The Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, vol.14, no.2, 1989, p.214.

  6. Kerry James Marshall, 'Foreword', in E. Sinaiko (ed.), Kerry James Marshall, op. cit., p.9.

  7. Barry Schwabsky, 'Mementos of a Moment and Its Movement', The New York Times, 6 September 1998, p.AR29.

  8. From an unattributed text in the exhibition brochure at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.

  9. Marshall in Elizabeth A.T. Smith, 'One True Thing?', in Kerry James Marshall: One True Thing, Meditations on Black Aesthetics (exh. cat.), Chicago: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2003, p.viii. Taken from an unpublished interview conducted in 2001 by Julieanna L. Richardson for The HistoryMakers, a non-profit organisation in Chicago that compiles oral histories of prominent African Americans.