Kerry James Marshall. The Met Breuer
The Met Breuer is bulging over with terrific shows right now, so overwhelmingly good and vast that I couldn’t take all of them in at one time, and went back last Sunday to see the much-touted Kerry James Marshall show. You got your Diane Arbus on until Nov. 27 and you got your Paul Klee show now on until Jan 2, and we now can add the spectacular stunning show of large paintings by Kerry James Marshall.
I was not that familiar with his work, catching one here or one there so it was like a present for me to open this box and view his beautiful and compelling body of work. Comprised mainly of very large mural like canvases that are unstretched they specifically tell the stories of Mr. Marshall life and in more general terms and images the harsh African American experience. And we are all along for the ride because they also tell the stories of the United States in all its blunders and bigotry and are not always easy to look at no matter how gorgeous these paintings are.
Filling two large floors of the museum its on the fourth floor when those big elevator doors open and we are hit in the face with nine very large paintings that immerse us, wrap their arms around us and bring us in to the gardens, which is what these paintings are titled somewhat sarcastically because these present us with views of the failed experiment known as low-income housing and actually have gardens in their names. Cold comfort indeed.
Here they are for the first time in more than 20 years, cinematic in scope its almost like viewing a movie in Cinerama, these canvas torched my soul and heart with their breathtaking images and soaring technique. Marshall uses intense bright colors mixing in collage, silkscreen prints and sometimes-garish touches of glitter as if to poke us in the eyes, or using it as an underline. He draws and paints beautifully there are no two ways about that and has an extensive knowledge of western art that he also brings into his work.
These very large mural like paintings are full of small touches, notes and jots that constantly drew me in with their rebus like narratives. The museum also has given him an open pass to pick out pieces from their collection to exhibit along with his own work, and I have mixed feelings about this somewhat now common curatorial trick or treat that is being offered up more and more these days.
How about asking an artist to pick out works that they hate now that would be different. It can also be a confusing tack especially for the ladies who lunch some of whom were blissfully confused by suddenly being in a gallery with works that clearly weren’t by Marshall. “Who did these” one lady asked in her singsong voice. A friend quietly Came over to her and gave her the load down, “oh” she said and moved on. To be sure there are great works displayed here in the little side gallery and I am grateful for being able to see an Ingres, a few Jacob Lawrence’s a Bearden, a Graham portrait, one of his cross eyed women and that Seurat drawing is to die for.
There are also many portraits by Marshall in the show, especially provocative and arresting were “The actor Hezekiah Washington as Julian Carlton Taliesen Murderer of Frank Lloyd Wright Family” and “Nat Turner With The head of his Master. A large grouping of his photographs titled “Painting and other Stuff” failed to entice me especially with the work of one of the great photographers of mid 20th century down on the 2nd floor. I also could have done without his light box comic book drawings and some of the more recent paintings especially those abstract ones in the last galleries for me didn’t point to a good direction. With all that said this is still a terrific compelling exhibition easily one of the best of the year, and one that should be seen by anyone interested in walking down a side street of contemporary painting.