Kerry James Marshall got his start by painting an invisible man. It may sound difficult, but Marshall has his resources, and he loved Invisible Man, the novel by Ralph Ellison. It must have spoken to him insistently through long nights, just as it does to black and white America now. As a postscript, the Studio Museum uncovers an entire history of invisible men, in "Black Cowboy."
Already in 1980, at age twenty-five, Marshall is painting portraits of the artist and of blackness. He renders a man in white against white and in black against black. He interrupts his black silhouette for the harsh white of a shirt front, bright eyes, and a gap-toothed grin. He accompanies it with the red cross of a medical emergency, the stripes and color fields of late modern art, and the colors of the Pan-African flag. He holds a finger to the gap, in 1986, as Silence Is Golden. For the rest of his career, he will be breaking out of the blackness and the silence.
A retrospective holds barely seventy of his paintings, but it feels larger, with big canvases and allusions running every which way. That grin could belong to the stage nigger of an older America or to twenty-first century health disparities and violence. It could be comic, sly, knowing, or just plain scared. He is, a title announces, "a shadow of his former self." Either way, he drops the persistent angry voice of Ellison's narrator. He is past all that—too proud, too visible, too vulnerable, and too at home in the African American community and in modern art.
"Mastry" occupies two floors of the Met Breuer, for the museum's first solo show of a living artist. It enlists Marshall as curator as well, of forty additional works from the Met's permanent collection—and they are not just black and white. The retrospective itself opens with a burst of color. In two paintings from 1992, both well over eight feet long, people just go about their business. One depicts a barber shop, as De Style. The other describes children at play as The Lost Boys.
They show the artist's leap that year into maturity, with silhouettes now set amid bright colors and a fuller stage. The man in a barber's chair has his white smock, and one of the boys is a bright pink. They also show Marshall's twin ideals of home, in the community and in art. The people in the barber's shop sport afros rising to the point of comedy, one in parallel to a house plant—but the work's colors are an all-American red, white, and blue. The title alludes to both street talk and to De Stijl, the Dutch movement that included Piet Mondrian, the abstract painter. Marshall lays claim to them all.
He also refuses simply to play the victim card. The boys are having too much fun, whether speeding in a toy car or striding along in a black jacket. A tree beside them has blue leaves and fruit like electric lights. The floor has a tiling akin to Minimalism, although in exaggerated perspective, and the back wall has the bright red and white patterning of Henri Matisse. And yet the lost boys are victims, of gun violence. A yellow swirl around the tree amounts to police tape, and that pink child could be an angel.
As curator, too, Marshall is at home in more than one world. African Americans like Horace Pippin and Charles White help Marshall find his flat faces and cryptic stares. Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence help him find color, depth, and community in silhouettes. Both, as it happens, also painted barber shops. Yet John Graham, Willem de Kooning, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec had their unnerving faces, too—and Ad Reinhardt and Frank Stella had their black against black. Later Marshall adopts Barnett Newman, with vertical "zips" on an unbroken field, to those Pan-African colors.
People can hardly mention Marshall apart from home, in the history of painting or of the artist. Born in 1955, he left Birmingham as a child, at the tail end of the Great Migration—not long before Beverly Buchanan made a similar move but in reverse. His family lived first in Watts and then more comfortably in Southern California and Chicago, where he studied with White. A series takes him back to the projects, all with "garden" in their names, and the suburbs. As always in his paintings, people of color mostly pursue their desires and their place in America, even if smears eradicate the surface and lurk in the background. Titles like Our Town and Many Mansions are not just ironic.
He also got a jolt early on from discovering the LA County Museum. He was to find a trigger to each stage of his work in older art or the living community. Paintings appropriate Rembrandt, Winslow Homer, Jean Honoré Fragonard, and Edward Hopper for the pleasures and pains of blackness. His suburbia adapts an Impressionist idyll to his own poster style. Like David Shrobe, though, he is not just quoting, but also looking. He keeps asking where art ends and the community begins.
Consider his escape from self-portraiture in the early 1990s. Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson allows him to see black women under a brutal gaze, while a medieval tapestry allows him to see South Africa under apartheid as a dying animal. Once he has expanded his view, he can then set art class aside. With bedroom scenes, the collage-like composition is finally at hand. Here seduction and love are not exactly innocent, no more than those lost boys, but music in the form of staff lines is in the air. Marshall returns now and then to Ralph Ellison and invisibility, as with a ghostly studio photograph from 2002, but in a lyric blue.
The curator, Ian Alteveer, highlights the breakthroughs. The housing projects from the mid-1990s give the show's second of two floors a dramatic fresh start. Now and then he also follows Marshall beyond painting, much as with the hall for other artists. A nearby alcove has inkjet on Plexiglas for a panorama of the community and its tensions, a work still in progress, in a style out of a graphic novel. Another installation turns to Salon style for The Art of Hanging Pictures—and seemingly whatever in 2002 crosses his mind. That leaves rooms for work in series, even at the expense of a strict chronology.
Have those series changed him as an artist? Had he found himself once and for all in the early 1990s? Once again, the key shifts have come with an awareness of history—that of black America and of art. For one thing, his tight planes have loosened up. A riff on Homer's Gulf Stream, in 2003, introduces a more naturalistic space and palette for its black man struggling with the waters. A return to hair styling, for School of Beauty, School of Culture in 2012, has enough room for a woman to dance.
At the same time, Marshall has grown more comfortable with pattern and decoration. Paintings add glitter and, in a studio scene, a surfeit of color, while a pun on Fragonard leads him to imagine children running through the reeds. As here, he looks to both past and present for positive images of blackness. Series turn to Boy Scouts and Campfire Girls. Other paintings memorialize the Stono slave rebellion of 1793, Scipio Moorhead as an early African American artist, Nat Turner, and lives lost in the civil-rights struggles of the 1960s. The conventions of a wedding portrait, from 2015, make Harriet Tubman that much more visible—even without her face on a twenty-dollar bill.
All these suggest an artist's growing self-assurance. Still, success comes with a cost: it risks making the terrors of racism an occasion for delight. The Boy Scouts and rebel slaves approach the glibly positive portraiture of Titus Kaphar and Kehinde Wiley. Marshall keeps his sense of humor, even with his role models, like a black version of Frankenstein's monster and his bride, from 2009. Still, the bright surfaces risk losing the tensions and terrors of Marshall's best work. Maybe it helps one last time to remember art history.
A series of imagined black artists, starting in 2008, has them painting by numbers—perhaps an allusion to Andy Warhol, but in poses out of early American portraiture and without once losing their high style. And a transformation of Hopper's 1930 Early Sunday Morning reintroduces the erasures. Flash forward to the South Side of Chicago in 2003, for a speeding car, a flock of black birds, and blank façades almost inapproachable across a four-lane street and a mysterious blur. Is it sad as a sleepless dawn or a joyful release from Hopper's anxiety? A recent work turns the Pan-African rainbow into an inkblot. Read into it what you like.
It is never easy to get to Kennedy Airport—and never easy to deal with security if you are an African American. Next time, you might consider going on horseback. Believe it or not, the Federation of Black Cowboys occupies wind-swept stables off Howard Beach. Cattle driving while black? Founded to promote knowledge of "the black West," the federation could hardly have made its home further east. Designed to give its members the autonomy and authority they deserve, it may end up leaving them to white eyes as invisible men.
Yet they are visible, in photographs by Brad Trent—and in "Black Cowboy" at the Studio Museum in Harlem. The show may sound like a bad joke or a provocation, and its photos and videos share a wry sense of humor and a true grit. They are not, though, just one-liners. Forget Cleavon Little in Blazing Saddles or the Marlborough Man for Richard Prince. These artists have little interest in popular culture or appropriation. They may not recover much in the way of history either, but they do tackle the stubborn image problem of the black male.
Wall text refers to the old West and to "buffalo soldiers" in and after the Civil War. All six artists, though, stick to the present. Deanna Lawson comes closest to myth making, with her solitary figure on horseback—but as part of her intimate portraits of what she likes to call her family. And Ron Tarver comes closest to black comedy in North Philadelphia, where a rider passes beneath a billboard image of Malcolm X and leaves his horse at a playground to indulge in a slam dunk. The rest, though, document actual troops and events. Like Tarver, they also play a cowboy's ideal of freedom against the reality of black America.
Upstairs, the Studio Museum celebrates its collection with a modest look at its first full decade. It takes one back as well to a time before Modernism lost its authority, but also before African American art gained its measure of recognition, assuming it ever has. "Circa 1970" has abstractions by Normal Lewis, Jack Whitten, Al Loving, McArthur Binion, Robert Blackburn, and Sam Gilliam. It also has a body print by David Hammons, a sweeping but empty cape in bronze by Barbara Chase-Riboud, a crucifix by Betye Saar, an effigy in nylons by Senga Nengudi, and a painting of "trash" by Benny Andrews. The mezzanine sticks to politics in the present, with "The Window and the Breaking of the Window"—after a descriptor of black people in text art by William Pope.L. It cannot, though, match the anger and despair of simply reading the news.
The smaller show downstairs, just outside the gallery for sculpture by Richard Hunt, does more to keep one guessing about black and white. Yes, the Federation on Howard Beach is real, as is the nasty swagger of its riders. Trent discovered them thanks to The Village Voice and photographed them with an eye to Richard Avedon and In the American West. Just as real is the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, in South Philly. Mohamed Bourouissa sets his two-channel video in front of posters for the club, which aspires to guide children through urban decay along with horses. He takes nothing away from his subjects, but also nothing away from the incongruity.
The irony only increases in Louisiana, where prisoners from Angola perform their annual rodeo in photos by Chandra McCormick. They can master roping, but not half so much as the system that will return them to maximum security. Most unexpected of all, a black community has its place and its horsemanship in Wildcat, Oklahoma. In a film by Kahlil Joseph, the rodeo descends in slow motion into darkness and specks of artificial light. Bourouissa says that he had thought cowboys were white, like John Wayne. Here they are thoroughly black, but one can barely make out their pride or their color.