Kerry James Marshall believes in the Davincian idea of art as science and how art can serve to help us progress towards certain goals we have as humanity. His work is about creating a platform for ideas – it is not a place for self-expression, although when looked at laterally there is a lot of that. If you look at his paintings, you can see that nothing is casual. His personal history is inextricably entwined with that of the African American civil rights movement.
Marshall's work addresses questions of identity – national, gender, but especially racial. While his work is evidence of what the artist calls a ‘vacuum in the image bank’ questioning existing systems of legitimation, it is technically complex and risky in the invention of new images that contribute to filling this vacuum.
When Phaidon.com interviewed him about the Kerry James Marshall book he was working on, Michele Robecchi, commissioner of the Contemporary Artist Series of books for Phaidon, said: "We have a great conversation between Kerry and Charles Gaines in the book. I must have listened to the audio file at least ten times. Just plenty of nutritious food for your brain." He was certainly right. Here is that conversation.
Untitled (Painter), 2009, acrylic on PVC panel, 155 x 185 cm. Picture credit: © Kerry James Marshall, courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
CHARLES GAINES: When I was researching Dieter Roelstraete’s 2012 interview with you for this conversation, one work you discussed that stood out for me was Heirlooms and Accessories (2002), because it addresses the idea of art and activism. This is a photographic triptych of lockets containing close-up pictures of women who were present at a lynching in the Jim Crow South. Your discussion was about how certain figures might be interpreted. For example, images of white women suggest the stereotype of the black sexual predator, while the metaphor of hanging is provoked by the necklaces themselves. For me, this raises questions about your thoughts on art and activism. For example, what do you expect when you raise these kinds of issues in works of art?
KERRY JAMES MARSHALL: Well, I guess the simplest way is to start with a question like, does one look at a work like that politically because of its relationship to history and politics? You can see how doing a thing like that can have an activist quality to it. But in terms of what that work is supposed to do, I never think of artworks as having a quality that’s intended to mobilize people to action. They don’t make people do things. But they do put questions in the mind of a viewer that they may not have entertained before. Everyone has in the back of his or her mind the idea that America was built by violence. But we never really think about how. The standard model is that white supremacy is only the guys in white sheets. You never really think about how completely embedded in the culture as a whole this notion of white supremacy is, and how everybody else’s relationship to it, the people who were in the sheets and the people who might never have put one on, but benefitted from the effects of this terror, helped to legitimize lynching as a part of the natural order. That photograph, from which I isolated the women’s faces, is often reproduced. It’s a lynching that took place in the 1930s, in Marion, Indiana. It was a double lynching that was supposed to be a triple lynching. So when I did Heirlooms and Accessories, one of the things that I wanted to remind people of – and my art-as-activism is more like a reminder – is that there are angles and dimensions of history that are products of the relationships between the powerful and the powerless that people don’t quite consider. If you allow them to, people will always pretend not to know that these bygone events form our current reality. What was important to me about that photograph was not only the crowd of people who were there, but also its generational span, and that it wasn’t just men who perpetrated that violence but also women, who were often a causal factor. So I focus on three women who happened to be looking out at the camera. There’s one man in that photograph who’s looking out at the camera too. He’s the man who’s pointing at the bodies on the tree. He has a Hitler moustache. But if I’d focused on him, it would have been too obvious; it would have diverted attention from the ordinary folks who help perpetuate this type of violence. Those three women: a young girl who can’t be more than fifteen or sixteen, a girl who’s got to be about twenty or twenty-two, and an elderly woman who’s in her fifties or sixties, represent a generational span that was really important because it shows how structures of power are inherited; how power is transmitted generationally, from the men, through the women, to the culture. The title Heirlooms and Accessories has multiple implications. An heirloom is a thing that’s handed down. Accessories are add-ons or adornments that enhance the spectacle, or yourself. Everyone who’s present at that event is an ‘accessory’ to the crime. The piece is constructed to be like a jewel box; that’s why the frame has a groove and there’s a strip of rhinestones that goes all the way around the frame. The idea is for the object to embody the concept of Heirlooms and Accessories on all of those levels. I wanted to combine the experiences of repulsion and attraction; you’re repelled and enticed at the same time.
GAINES: One could compare this work to Adrian Piper’s 1989 work titled Free #2, which includes an image of a lynching. Her interest seems to have been to use art to confront racism directly by aggressively challenging white people’s sense of identity, which is directly linked to the practice of lynching, a more psychological approach than yours.
MARSHALL: I deliberately take a different approach, maybe in part because my experiences in the world have taught me that a direct confrontational approach does more to shut down examination of a subject or an issue than it does to compel a spectator to engage with it fully. Confrontation is nagging and irritating, so I’ve always felt that a certain oblique angle at a thing is more effective.
GAINES: Certainly in terms of an individual work of art, it’s hard to establish proof of a cause-and-effect relationship that shows that art can affect social change. But maybe the hope is that collectively something can happen. For example, the memories of lynching that you bring up may not by itself result in social change, but as part of a collective of voices where others are also addressing these memories, maybe social change can happen.
MARSHALL: That’s a part of the problem. For most of us, the images we encounter of things like lynching are sensational, but pretty remote. Most of us haven’t been eyewitnesses to any of those events. And so what we’re doing is constructing an idea of what these things are from other people’s stories and images. What’s produced collectively is inadequate for making anything more than generalizations. I grew up in South Central Los Angeles. We lived in Watts, but we moved out of the Nickerson Garden Projects there before the Watts riots took place. So when the riots broke out in 1965, we were living on 48th Street between McKinley and Avalon. We’d heard on the news that the thing that caused the riot was a traffic stop on Imperial Highway, in which the man who was stopped was riding with his mother and that the police had roughed up his mother. We heard that this police violence sparked the riot; the crowd that gathered around this incident became violent, which later turned out not to be true.
GAINES: I get your point, in terms of what fuels events; there’s a difference between what we might individually know from actual experience and the idea of collective knowledge, which is a combination of direct experiences and collective assumptions that are often wrong.
MARSHALL: We were on 48th Street and Imperial Highway. Where the riots started was 120th Street or something like that, maybe 125th, blocks away. So by the time the riots got to where we were, it was like a carnival. People were burning up the stores on Central Avenue and Avalon Boulevard. This happened during a period of discontent from 1965 up to 1969. During those years I went to Carver Junior High School and saw it get so embroiled in the Black Students Union issues that trickled down from Berkeley. Some of the issues were the same that you hear now, such as integrating black history into the American history curriculum. The violence that took place seemed confusing to me. The kids were burning up the school in protest. You had teenagers beating up the vice principal. There were rallies on the athletics field that got people excited about a lot of stuff that was supposed to be wrong but was the interpretation and translation of people who weren’t even going to school there. It was like what was happening with the riots. There were no proper black history classes then. One of the students’ demands was that they start offering these black history classes, but the first semester they offered Negro history; it was seriously under-enrolled. It was elective, not required. I signed up, but I thought, ‘What about all those people who we’re claiming that this was what we’ve got to have? Alright then, where is everybody?’ Those kinds of events, and discrepancies between what people know and what they don’t know, what people say they want and what they do, those things shaped my perception of discourse. How do you resolve these discrepancies? I started seeing that the responsibility for my needs shifted to me as opposed to a collective. I try never to approach a thing as if I’m one hundred percent certain about what it is or what the proper response to it is supposed to be.
GAINES: This is an interesting issue for me. It’s clear that you recognize a complexity in the way political, social and cultural issues affect people’s lives. It’s also clear that an understanding of that complexity will make you better able to deal with these issues than any ideological framing could do. You may not agree with this example, but let’s take discrimination as a social/political issue: you address the issue as a subject, but you also address the complexity of how it plays out subjectively in society. It seems to me that you’re more interested in discrimination as a subjective experience because, as you said, you’re more interested in how you experience an issue, not in its ideological framing. On a related matter, I wanted to find out how you came up with the idea to engage the political subject in your work, and so I researched how you became interested and involved in making art. I read how at one point you were introduced to the work of Charles White. I was wondering if he played a role in your discovery of what you wanted to do as an artist?
MARSHALL: Well, it had something to do with it. It’s funny, I was going to say ‘indirectly’, but actually it’s a combination, directly and indirectly, because I first saw his work in a class I took at Otis with George de Groat. It was a drawing class for junior high school kids, and he showed us images from a book on White [Images of Dignity: the Drawings of Charles White]. I took the book and copied an image of Frederick Douglass. Looking through this book I noticed a couple of things about White’s work. One was that all the murals he did were about history and included historical subjects like Booker T. Washington, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth. They were also in individual pictures he did; there were several images of Harriet Tubman, a couple of Frederick Douglass, a few of John Brown, too. I was familiar with these figures because they showed up in history books. This is why, for me, White’s work was about history. I didn’t think of history as politics, really. White’s work accounted for the past in the same way that other historical moments are accounted for through art, such as Goya’s The 3rd of May and Picasso’s Guernica, as well as the historical paintings of David, Géricault and Delacroix. Not only that, but the entire legacy of classical Renaissance painting was for me based on reading the biblical or mythical subjects as historical. Growing up you understand how religion could be thought of as real, which made those stories history. Jesus narratives like the Stations of the Cross, the Virgin Birth, Rembrandt’s The Blinding of Samson came from the Bible. So it seemed like painting history was what artists did. My whole concept of what it meant to be an artist was formed around the idea that you picked subjects that were historical and meaningful so that people could derive meaning in their lives from the things they saw in paintings. That’s really how I began to understand what it meant to be an artist.
7am Sunday Morning, 2003, acrylic on canvas banner. 305 x 549. Picture credit: © Kerry James Marshall, courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
GAINES: The reason I was thinking about that in relation to the political subject is that if you think about the kind of works in history that you just described, it’s reasonable to conclude that there’s a difference between the political and the historical, that you’re talking about a person or an event who’s importance to history has been established, not an ideology that’s still under scrutiny. But if you also think about the history of portrait painting and genre painting, the Barbizon School, Courbet, where the life and experience of ordinary people became the subjects, the difference between history and politics is less clear because it’s not just about the historical moment, but also the present moment. In relation to modern painting, classical too, but particularly modern, reflecting on figures like Douglass is seen most often politically because what they’ve done in the world is still part of a continuing conversation. The issues haven’t been settled by history. So within this framework, works of art may reflect on issues or causes that still have social significance. I’m suggesting that a historical genre such as the portrait can become political when the subject is black because the idea of the black subject is still unresolved.
MARSHALL: I never thought of it that way. Also, we’re talking about when I’m thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years old, when I’m just forming my idea of what it means to be an artist. I don’t know what grade it was, probably third or fourth, when they took you to the school library – that is, when every elementary school had a library. And then they would take you on a field trip to the public library. Before then, you have no concept of anything, not of history, politics, sociology or race or anything. That stuff is all out there, but you don’t have a framework to fit it into that makes it comprehensible to you.
GAINES: So your entry into the political was through history. When did it occur to you, the idea of the black subject?
MARSHALL: That didn’t occur to me until I found out about White, because I simply accepted the majority of images I saw in books as representative of humanity, as the norm.
GAINES: At a certain point, as you developed, as you worked through the idea that painting history was what artists did, you recognized the absence of the black subject in the history of painting. And at that point you understood it as a certain political space.
MARSHALL: That really didn’t take shape with any kind of clarity until 1980, when I made the pivotal painting A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of his Former Self. This was when it started to look like there was something that could be done with the black figure, that it could be used to explore ideas that are not only relevant to picture making by itself but also to convey some of these ideas that I’d been developing about where black people fit in. Before then, apart from self-portraits, which I’d do as an exercise, I was doing still-lifes and paintings of inanimate objects in order to figure out how to paint. I copied White’s work because I’d read in books how artists became artists: that they copied the work of a master and learned to make pictures that way. I used White for that reason. The images were appealing to me, but I didn’t see them as oriented towards a politics of race.
Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self, 1980, egg tempera on paper, 20 x 16 cm. Picture credit: © Kerry James Marshall, photo: Matthew Fried, © MCA Chicago
GAINES: So the issue of representation was something that evolved more slowly.
MARSHALL: It really came into focus with that one painting.
GAINES: I just saw the Degas show at MoMA. There was an interesting comment by Degas in which he talked about copying artwork. He described a series of exercises where he did a drawing and copied it. And then he did a drawing of the copy and copied that. I found this comment to be one of the earliest examples of linking technique with style, where the analysis of style is a critical assessment of technique. Therefore copying for you revealed White’s thoughts, leading to representation, as well as his skills.
MARSHALL: This is one of great functions of that book. You can see an evolutionary transformation in the way he was making an image in the beginning and the way he was making it towards the end. You understood clearly that things don’t have to remain the same. At the same time there’s a consistency, which I understood as a product of conscious decisions about style, about regulating change. The other thing that was important was a 1971 exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the first exhibition they did of White’s work. There were three black visual artists in that exhibition: Charles White, David Hammons and Timothy Washington. I went to see that show dozens of times. They were so radically different from each other but equally powerful. That was an important moment for me, too.
GAINES: This brings me to a more in-depth question about your attitudes towards the formal properties of painting and their relationship to content. In a published interview, you and Dieter Roelstraete talked about the influence of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man on your work. This seems to be a key moment in your effort to represent blackness in painting. You talked about how race, particularly blackness, was negotiated through Ellison’s representation of absence, that you could represent absence through colour. I wonder if you could go more into this idea of absence in relation to the formal properties of painting. To me, you’re a master colourist; there is no other painter in the history of painting with a greater mastery and understanding of colour. It’s not only your colour sense, but also your understanding of its metaphorical and discursive potential. My question is really about the colour black, both as a representation and as an aesthetic property. How in your mind does a colour like black lead to a critical space like race, particularly through the metaphor of absence, without compromising the materialism that preserves colour as a sensible experience?
MARSHALL: It’s the result of the confluence of a lot of different things and ideas. Ellison’s book was a trigger for some of these ideas and a catalyst for finding ways to synthesize them. And White was also the gift that kept on giving. It was important that White was at Otis. Through him, I was introduced to many people, and things. I made the decision that when I got out of high school I was going to go to school there. Before then, I wasn’t on a track to go to college. White’s presence at Otis changed that. His class met in the evenings, so I couldn’t take it then; there wasn’t anybody that could take me. So I signed up for a Saturday painting class with a man named Sam Clayberger; he was a painter of nudes basically. My approach to colour derives almost exclusively from the way Clayberger thought about and used colour. I didn’t know until about a year ago that he was an animator who had worked for Hanna-Barbera. This made sense; there was something about his colour sense that seemed right for cartoons. He was the first person I heard talk about the way you use colour instrumentally. His approach looked arbitrary, but it wasn’t. He said you could substitute any kind of colour to function as a shadow so long as it had a relationship to the other colours that were near it. And so I learned to start building shadows using purple, green and blue from him. He also introduced me to the fact that none of these things are coincidental; that you decide on them and it’s all because you understand something about the structure of the way a picture works. He was also the first person who taught me you can analyse the way paintings work, that you can break them down and see how things fit together. Sam was different from Charles White, who was the master of drawing. White would show me how to set up and construct the face the way he did it. They would both talk all the time about history and politics; this is why I thought those things were important. I could see how White’s interest in the politics of the image was reflected in everything he was interested in. For example, he would bring in Goya, The Disasters of War and Los Caprichos, He used to bring in a book of the complete works of Käthe Kollwitz, his favourite artist. When I finally got to Otis in 1977, I met another painter, Arnold Mesches. Charles had the image and its relationship to subjectivity, Sam had the colour, and Arnold Mesches had the structure. These are the people who unlocked for me the way to understand paintings.
Untitled (Blot), 2015, acrylic on PVC panel, 213 x 304 cm. Picture credit: © Kerry James Marshall, Rennie Collection, Vancouver, Canada
GAINES: Because of these influences, you came to understand that the political subject was imbedded in the idea of painting mastery. As part of that mastery, the idea of the black subject seemed wholly consonant with the idea of making a good painting.
MARSHALL: In the late 1960s, early 1970s, maybe it happened a little earlier, there seemed to be all these conversations about participation in the mainstream and how to go about achieving it. For a lot of artists, it seemed that the only way to do this was to abandon the black figure. Not only was abstraction supposed to be more advanced, but also you were never going to achieve any great recognition until you let go of the black figure. And some people thought that the reason White never got the kind of recognition that people thought he deserved was primarily because he was too close to those black figures. There was a period in which I abandoned the black figure too, because I wanted to spend more time figuring out what pictures looked like, and how surface, colour texture, and all those things operated. I was doing a lot of collage work and mixed-media stuff. The Ellison book became the trigger that sent me back to the figure. I understood on some level that the abandonment of the black figure was a kind of loss and that I’d surrendered to a power structure rather than trying to challenge and overcome it in some way. And so A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of his Former Self became an instrument to solve what I thought might be some deficiencies in some of the work that White was doing, as well as the work that some other black painters were doing in their use of the figure; I used the power of abstraction to solve these deficiencies in the way the figure was represented. I wanted to use all of the colour complexity that I’d learned from Clayberger, but to keep it close to black history, culture and the subjectivity of White’s work. So A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of his Former Self was a way of starting at a zero degree because it was flat, it was schematic, but it was built on all of the stuff I’d learned about picture making from my teachers at Otis that was opposite to the way a number of black artists approached the picture; the only way they could stay with the black figure was by compromising it, by either fragmenting it, or otherwise distorting it, by making it green, blue or yellow, or some other way to deflect the idea of its blackness.
GAINES: This is a jewel, what you’ve just articulated about the issue of colour, abstraction and content. I’m reminded of a panel discussion in the 1960s sponsored, I believe by Artscanada, titled ‘Black’. Two of the participants were Ad Reinhardt and Cecil Taylor.
MARSHALL: You were there?
GAINES: No, I wish! But there’s an essay available that recounts the event. I heard about it from my friend the late Terry Adkins. We were trying to think about how to reconstitute this panel and restage the event. The panel was about blackness and the colour black; the purpose was to explore the political and aesthetic meaning of the word in order to question the saliency of political ideas in 1960s modernism. Anyway, Cecil Taylor and Ad Reinhardt got into this big argument. As I said, the subject was simply ‘black’ – it didn’t tell you black what. For Reinhardt of course, the word ‘black’ referenced a universal idea because black and absence were for him trans-lingual. ‘Black’ expressed a kind of universalized experience operating outside the domain of language. For Taylor, black was steeped in language; it couldn’t be considered except as a metaphor because of his experience of dealing with it politically. One idea that came out of this debate was that the term provoked a binary that ultimately placed constraints on our thinking: how the meaning of the term is informed by one’s experience. Even though Ad was making the argument that it was trans-linguistic, only a white person could entertain such a pure notion.The suggestion was that its racial connotation is irrelevant to ideas of art. Cecil found in Ad’s commentary the kind of ideological thinking that perpetuates racism. And so your project seems to be an interesting attempt to describe how the trans-linguistic aesthetic properties of painting and the linguistic properties of content merge and come together, to debunk the binary.
MARSHALL: When I made that picture, I think I understood for the first time that the image in it functioned linguistically. Which is why I always said that the idea of blackness operated rhetorically. This materially black figure has to be situated within the larger context as a linguistic figure amongst other linguistic figures, or as a pictorial figure within the context of other pictorial elements. Take, for example, the essay Carter Ratcliff wrote for Art in America some time in the 1980s, ‘The Short Life of the Sincere Stroke’. He talks about the way that every mark in a picture is a linguistic character in the sense that we deploy these marks to construct certain meanings and relationships. One of the reasons why the figure works so effectively for me is because I’m thinking of it in those terms, as an abstract linguistic figure and at the same time as an absolute sign or symbol of something. That’s why I’m able to continue working with the figure in ways that others haven’t. I understood that language structure continuously modifies meaning; it never disappears. It simply finds other contexts in which the figure can be used. But recognizing language’s role in those terms imposes a certain amount of responsibility. Whenever communication is an issue, a certain kind of clarity is important, so you have to be responsible for the way you use language. That’s why it takes me so long to make my pictures. When I insert a figure into a painting space, I have to consider all of the things that it means and then construct, edit and revise in order to reach its maximum effect so that blackness becomes a noun, not an adjective.
GAINES: Well put.
MARSHALL: I can contextualize the figure differently from picture to picture; in that sense the possibilities are infinite. Ellison’s idea of presence/absence allowed me to see the black figure as a useful construct. This helps me think of the image abstractly, to engage a certain kind of complexity that starts to layer this history onto the figure. To think of black chromatically means that black itself becomes more complex because it’s a colour with many different chromatic values. I’m at a point now where I have about seven variations on that black. If you look at one of these by itself, it looks like it’s just black, but if you stack them up on top of each other you start to see how chromatically different they are. Initially I was just doing a basic black when I was doing the flat things, and if there was variation I was trying to use surface modulations sometimes, to create a density that suggests volume. But that was before I really started to take account of the fact that ivory black is not the same as carbon black, and carbon black is not the same as iron-oxide black, or Mars black. There’s a way that this concept of difference operates with blackness, but not in whiteness. There’s this notion that blackness contains a full spectrum of skin tonalities, from looking completely white, like Walter White or Homer Plessey, to somebody from the Sudan who looks as black as that couch over there. [Pointing].
I’m always looking for ways to ask the question, ‘Where are those black people who are black in the way Solomon Northup describes it in Twelve Years a Slave?’ There’s a scene in the book where he first arrives at the plantation after being kidnapped and he talks about a young boy, maybe fourteen or fifteen, who comes running out of the house, and he’s laughing at the group of slaves. And he describes him as ‘blacker than any crow.’ What is that? Are we talking about a metaphor or a forensic description? That question hangs there in place. He describes a woman who was on the boat with him as being ‘jetty black’. These questions of perception and reality, of extremes, come into play and you must ask this question while believing that black people come in all these complexions, from white all the way to black. What’s the frame of reference that singularizes such a range? So that’s the figure-in-the-extreme that I paint. It critiques the panorama, or at least brings it into question.
De Style, 1993, acrylic and collage on canvas, 264 x 310 cm. Picture credit: © Kerry James Marshall, courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
GAINES: There’s a facilitation of a certain agency in making a category out of skin colour. This goes back to our discussion about a polar framework where on one side we have an intellectual idea and on the other a sensible experience that the idea may inadequately represent. So you’re questioning the desire, the purpose of creating categories for the purpose of agency. If we want to create a politics around blackness, we have to produce it as an idea. But at the same time, the hyper-simplification that act produces in some cases can be used against it.
MARSHALL: Right, and that’s why, when I started out, the notion of the figure as rhetorical device seemed to be the appropriate way to begin to create a framework in which the figure can have a certain kind of utility.
GAINES: In A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of his Former Self, there’s the black figure on a black field, which is the classical figure-ground relationship. As well as being a formal compositional problem of painting, it also serves to address civil issues of representation. The seamless way that that you negotiate this complexity through the use of the colour black I think is pretty good!
MARSHALL: [laughter] Well, I’m working at it. In my view, the flight from the figure had nothing to do with us as black artists, because we were dealing with an absence from the get-go. Because of the history of marginalization in the art world, we were already dealing with a lack of authority in the projection of an ideal image of ourselves.
GAINES: I’d like to dig deeper into your thoughts on the relationship between form and meaning and how you deploy those things in articulating issues of race, racism and identity. I’m thinking about your painting Believed to be a Portrait of David Walker (circa 1830) (2009), an example of using painting to archive significant events in the history of racial discourse, and also the painting, Red (If They Come in the Morning), a work that comments on Barnett Newman’s abstract language in ways that call up the debate between Reinhardt and Taylor on the colour black. To me they both react to the absence of black representation in the history of art. I’m particularly interested in this in relation to a comment that you made in an article in Frieze magazine about the use of history as a narrative structure that can reveal how racism unfolds in time. There’s a pedagogical implication in this statement, which is the idea of using history as a way of providing a deeper understanding. Also, you said you use the history of art to comment on the lack of representation of black people, and at the same time your work contributes positively to this history by representing black people.
Or that’s how I interpreted what you said. Do you use painting to deepen our understanding of race, or do you use race to deepen our understanding of painting? Fully respecting what you said earlier about the inability of art to effect social change, how can we square that with the pedagogical impulse to broaden our understanding of racism in order, presumably, to improve society? Or is it not about societal improvement but something else?
MARSHALL: Well in the end, only in context. For what I’m doing, it only generates this deeper understanding in context, because it’s in relation to other things that people already know about. In particular, it’s only because of other pictures that people know about. The value of the work in some ways, apart from establishing what you could call a presence, is only able to be considered in relation to other things that are like it, things that fit into the general understanding of art history that we already have. But going back to the way you started the question, when I think about it, what I’m not doing is making work that addresses the idea of racism. What I am doing is establishing a presence, a black presence that isn’t traumatically conditioned by its relationship to a practice or structure called racism. If we think of the idea of racism as a set of relationships that have to do with power and powerlessness, it has an uneven effect on its perpetrators and victims. That makes it particularly difficult to address as a concept and as a practice, because we recognize that there are ways in which racism works or exists unconsciously. Racism is one of these meta-ideas that can be too amorphous to get a real handle on. Because of that, I avoid thinking of what I’m doing through a lens that addresses racism as a phenomenon that can be palpable in works of art; that can be made into a thing or seen as a thing.
GAINES: I want to be clear that the idea that racism as a set of social practices of exclusion and marginalization based on race is not what’s under dispute. The problem is identifying an instance or example of the idea.
MARSHALL: I don’t even think I’m representing that idea per se.
GAINES: Because of your subject matter, there’s clearly something that compels you to believe that the experience of race is important. So there seems to be a fissure between what the nature of that experience is and how it accords to a set of social practices. For you in your position as an artist, there’s somehow a fissure between those two positions.
MARSHALL: Regarding this, we can refer back to my experience as a young person during the Watts riots. When you’re defining racism as a set of social practices around the idea of exclusion, discrimination and subjugation based on race, you have to recognize the power that accepting the idea as absolute can wield. If you internalize it, this power will ultimately undermine your own self-interestedness. So you can take the position that racism shouldn’t exist and that puts you in the position where your struggle is a Manichaean struggle between good and evil. And if you accept this, then your ability to engage in activities that benefit you and allow for a certain sense of self-respect and self-determination is compromised because it requires somebody else to modify their behaviour in order for you to fulfil your desires and objectives. For me, that’s a fundamentally weak position to occupy. It is not self-empowering. Surrendering to the power of an abstraction, even one that has real consequences in practice, puts you at the mercy of people who won’t likely have your best interests in mind.
Untitled (Curtain Girl), 2016, acrylic on PVC panel, 76 x 61 cm. Picture credit: © Kerry James Marshall, courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
GAINES: This brings me back to your use of history, not only in terms of the complexity of unfolding an idea but as a way of commenting on history itself, which can also be seen as a reflective gesture.
MARSHALL: Yes, it is. To me, presence has an absolute value in its own right. The fact of existence, the fact of its being there, the fact of its being available – that by itself has a fundamental value. And so when I comment on history, essentially what I’m saying is that this idea is a fact of history and as such it has value because I’ve considered it and made it available for somebody else to consider. Establishing something as a fact in the world has value. Responding to the lack of recognition of others to an idea, or even to the demonstration of an interest, reinforces a sense of powerlessness and lack of self-worth in a narrative that you can assign value to as well as anybody else. I look at the world as a series of competing values. In this respect, it’s a waste of time to be overly invested in how somebody else constructs the system of value around the things they’re interested in. A part of your obligation is not to appeal to the better nature of an oppositional figure to set aside their interests and desires, but to more completely and forcefully assert your own.
GAINES: I understand what you mean when you say ideas themselves compete in the world by establishing a presence. But I’m trying to consider how an idea can be produced that doesn’t come out of a binary system of competing interests. I’m hard pressed to do so. Concepts are formed within oppositional frameworks, which begs the question about how an idea originates. To me, ideas are dialectical constructs and anybody who’s invested in ideas is involved in a system of dialectics. Black people, however, have this extra problem with dialectical systems, where their oppositional relationship reifies a system of oppression around the ideas of race and power, where the doors of simply establishing a presence are closed to them, which might suggest there’s an unfair playing field in dialectical struggles where the opposing sides are supposed to have an equal opportunity to succeed. It’s a competition; someone has to win the argument, which separates fact from opinion. The question is, really, especially in matters of race, is this playing field stacked?
MARSHALL: But I think the playing field is always stacked, existentially, for everybody.
GAINES: In terms of the formation of ideas, do certain groups have more power? I’m trying to understand this idea of power or autonomous empowerment with respect to the formation of ideas, where in one way or another, within the dialectical field, you’re always operating reactively and reflectively.
MARSHALL: We begin with a set of givens. There is no ontology, no beginning. Only presentness. When I arrived in the world, all those structures, like racism and power dynamic were already well established and fully in play, and there was never an opportunity for me to evade it or otherwise not be familiar with it. And so you immediately have to figure out where you’re going to situate yourself in relation to it. The idea of building a belief system that functions as a state of absolute grace in
which you’re not subject to the influence of histories of racism and discrimination, utopian ideas about how best to erase those kinds of narratives, always struck me as a kind of magical thinking that I’ve never been able to incorporate into my approach to the world. A friend once called me a radical pragmatist. [laughter] So I’m interested in coming to terms with the conditions in the moment, deciding what I want, and figuring out how to make it happen.
GAINES: And going back to the role of history in your narrative structure, history becomes a way of establishing presence in the context of the work of art?
MARSHALL: Absolutely. If there’s one word that’s a recurring engine, its ‘presence’. It’s about establishing presence. It’s a presence that’s not contingent on someone else’s approval.
GAINES: So you define presence as being both critical and activist.
MARSHALL: Simultaneously. If we think of everything as a relationship of balances, then racism is an imbalance in the power relationship between one group of people and another. And on some level, you have to accept that the ideal circumstance is that these relationships, these imbalances, are fluid, they’re teetering back and forth, from one side to the other side. That’s an existential ideal to me. One group can’t always be in power; it can’t always be out of power either.
GAINES: There’s something very Zen about your ideals.
MARSHALL: I did study a little philosophy in a class at L.A. City College. It had a huge impact on me.
GAINES: You’ve said in an interview that as an artist there’s an opportunity for you to do something about increasing the number of black speakers in the historical narrative. I wrote an article several weeks ago that discussed how, over the last ten or fifteen years of museum practices, there have been more exhibitions of black and minority artists, both in one-person shows and group shows, than in the entire history of exhibitions. We find increasing recognition by some institutions that the historical narrative that they’ve been operating under all these years has failed, because the judgments of taste that shaped this narrative have served to exclude not only the representation of black subjects but also the work of black artists. Now there seems to be a rethinking of these values and the presumption that they constitute a universal language. What do you think about this change in attitude and the attempt by many curators to be more inclusive in their curatorial practices and deal with the issue of diversity? Is this a conceptual change in discourse so that black representation, which has been considered not part of the mainstream production of ideas, can now be considered a contributor? In other words, is this change a part of the evolution of the historical narrative, a critical evolution of ideas in history, or is it just a form of ‘affirmative action’?
MARSHALL: Yes, well, that’s a lot to unpack. [laughter] It’s complicated, but this is a part of my feeling about it: on the one hand, I think we’ll never escape the gravitational pull of affirmative action. Black people are never going to have the independent capacity to completely level the playing field of history. We’re really not talking about revisions of the historical narrative, but addendums to it. I tried to address some of this in the catalogue for the MCA show, using Norman Lewis as a starting point. A lot of this ‘new inclusion’ and ‘new diversity’ is a consequence of social factors that have nothing to do with the art world or artworks, but have everything to do with the agitated climate in the culture. You can see this globally, I think. Turmoil in the world has compelled institutions to demonstrate that they are at least aware of, if not sensitive to, the needs of other people who’ve been historically marginalized in and by those institutions. Within the art world, there’s been one special initiative after another to address these absences of diversity within institutions, and they’re almost always supported by some philanthropic organisation that has set aside some money specifically for that. So you get extra money to do those things but none of this really dynamites the foundations on which all our notions of progress and authority rest. You can’t just modify, rewrite or restructure the historical narrative because a few people feel bad about their place in it. This is why I say there are always addendums to it. What I try to do is to look at the objectives of artists, for example the objectives of the modernist avant garde, which is an extension of the classical art-historical narrative from the Greeks, all the way up to the French moderns. It’s a linear development towards perfection within the formal ideas of art. At the point where that perfection had been achieved, you have a break, because a younger generation of artists needed to find some way to establish their presence in the narrative. They wanted to be equal to the master works of the classical period. In the fourteenth to eighteenth centuries, capitalist markets created a different narrative that compelled artists to seek out ways to differentiate themselves from the established leadership in the field. When black people were introduced into the Western world, they arrived with no independent agency, institutions or economies that would put them in a competitive relationship with the market-driven milieu they were folded into. Because of this imbalance of power, the struggle for equality and recognition has always been our primary challenge. The trajectory of already free European modernists has been away from notions of identity; at the same time, almost everything that people who are members of this diversity-class, every fibre of their being, is dedicated to establishing their identity. These two approaches about what it means to make art are in conflict with each other. Europeans have been a dominant force in global affairs for centuries. They took power, resources and wealth where they needed it, even at the expense of others. That’s the structure we inherited. The people who form this vast category of difference to which diversity is addressed, are all from populations that lost the struggle for self-determination, and with it the capacity to project their own ideals into the competitive fray. Now we’re in this moment where the art world has recognized that the lack of diversity is a problem. And to your question whether this recognition is a part of the mainstream development of changing ideas about art, I’d say that Duchamp’s aim to challenge the very idea of what sort of things constitute an art object has nothing to do with the way in which any person who’s outside the general conversation about the nature of art desires to see reflections of themselves within it. Those are very different concerns. From Jackson Pollock’s erasing the idea of drawing and composition to conceptual art’s notion that it’s not necessary to even make the thing anymore, that a work can exist as an idea, points to a concept of purification that ends with the elimination of activity. So this raises the question of where you situate artists who were outside this conversation when those achievements were being rendered – how do you fit them in? So I believe something similar to what Baudrillard said about the end of art: that it’s an endless replaying over and over again with slight variations of things that have already been pretty well exhausted. It seems to me that what most African-American artists have always wanted was simply to fit in and be acknowledged. But in that struggle to be acknowledged, it never seemed that they were engaged in the same kind of disruptive pursuits. Artists from China and Japan who are filtered through the New York art scene are, likewise, not engaged in the pursuit of defining the parameters of what kind of things can be considered artworks. They’re also, largely outside the paradigm-shifting discourse.
GAINES: This idea of inclusionism, it’s a chicken-and-egg issue.
MARSHALL: I have a chicken-and-egg thing that I was going to say, with respect to ontology. For me, the question I begin with is, why are we here in the first place? Why are there black people in the Western hemisphere? That’s the question that a lot of my activity is aimed at addressing. So one might ask, when black people are trying to make art, are we really trying to do the same thing that white artists are trying to do or do we need different things? I think that on many levels we’re trying to do different things.
GAINES: I agree with you that ultimately the experiences we have as black people can’t help but colour or shape how we interpret the world. You’ve mentioned how mainstream art, particularly of the 1960s and 1970s was involved in this so-called crisis of representation, and this is an experience that black people were actually going through. An earlier form of that question came up in connection with the abstract black painters of the 1950s who were really committed to modernism. They believed squarely in modernism, and at the same time they recognized that the ability to address their lived experience in their art as black people was constrained. Because of that off-kilter thing, their experience of modernism was different and I think that showed up in the work, particularly of Norman Lewis, whose abstractions, if you compare them with Pollock and Tworkov, were symbolic. It’s a narrative abstraction, but abstraction nonetheless. This leads to questions about abstract art, even as it played out in my own practice in the 1970s. On the one hand, there was a battle, particularly among artists who were active in the New York area, about how black your work was, and at the same time – you’ve talked about this double-edged sword – the white mainstream would criticize you for having black representation. But, considering the other edge of the sword, if you didn’t have black representation then they didn’t acknowledge you, because the only way that they could conceive of a black artist was as a person that you could direct a critique of representation toward, which was that representation failed because you cannot empirically demonstrate its absoluteness. What something means was too culturally relative.
MARSHALL: And this was across different worlds, not just in the visual-art world.There was an interview with David Mills who was a TV writer, who wrote some episodes for Hill Street Blues and The Wire before he died. In this interview, which he did on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, he talked about confronting David Milch, creator of Hill Street Blues, at a conference, about why there were so few black writers in television. And Milch’s answer was that black people couldn’t get outside of their blackness enough to write for a general audience, and that’s why there are so few black people in the television industry. And that’s the same kind of thing: that you can never escape the category of your blackness, which is historically determined. In some ways, it’s over-determined.
GAINES: Again, I agree with you that the discourse on modernism as experienced by artists of European descent is not the same discourse that minority artists in general deal with. For example, my relationship with modernism and my relationship to conceptual practice have led me to representation rather than away from it, the opposite of what was going on in the mainstream art world. This is because of the relationship of those ideas to my lived experience. Take, for example, the idea of the constructed subject, which is generally considered a postmodern construction that came out of a critique of modernism. For me, rather than this just being a wholesale critique of modernism’s attitude toward representation, in terms of my experience, this idea seemed to reveal evidence of how modernism has used the idea of universal subjectivity to exclude the experience of people like me.
MARSHALL: Right, and your position is a much more strategic use of the subject.
GAINES: Yes. What I’m asking is whether this position can be considered as operating within the exigency of modernism and postmodernism, in other words, rather than seeing the post-modern as being pushed into an appropriated experience that doesn’t come out of the fabric of your life as minority, it is in fact quite a useful tool, not intended that way by those who advanced the idea, but useful to those who find themselves on the margins. The constructed subject can be used to foreground ideas that uniquely come from the margins.
MARSHALL: I agree with you one hundred percent. But what ends up being problematic in a way is that even the strategic use doesn’t resolve the problem of a certain kind of dependency on the mainstream institutional superstructure. And it’s dependent in some ways on a certain kind of generosity of the mainstream system to allow for the difference in the interpretation of the word ‘subjectivity,’ to which on some level the institutions still don’t feel particularly in need of. It’s a kind of accommodation because of circumstances at a given time within a larger culture, and you can make the argument that the demographics are reshaping the ethnic composition of the country but not really the hierarchical authority when it comes to assigning intellectual legitimacy, deploying or recognizing competitive capability, or displacing a narrative of white supremacy. It seems to me that that narrative still remains. If you look at the way in which the world has been reshaped by the idea of white supremacy, the progressive agenda of allowing for a certain amount of diversity or inclusion, or bringing people in from the margins where you’re still identified, never seems to undermine or destabilize the centre. The centre still holds.
GAINES: I feel that the change in the population of those who call themselves artists has influenced the discourse. What hasn’t changed is the gate-keepers. As you’re saying, the idea of the subject and of representation itself is really a part of the experience of black artists and their relationship to art practice. But regarding the return to representation that happened in the mainstream art world in the 1980s and the interest in representation that’s always been a part of minority practice: time will tell if the minority influenced that return on some critical or discursive level.
MARSHALL: Yes, but where do you locate the moment of this return?
GAINES: I think I’d locate it around the time of the sudden increase in black artists having shows.
MARSHALL: I think of it as earlier than that. There’s this moment in which you could say that abstraction itself as an advanced form of aesthetic production achieved a certain apogee. This is just before what people came to call the ‘second generation’ of abstract artists. These artists had abstraction as an option already codified when they entered the field. They didn’t have to establish that as a possibility; it was already there. In 1958, 1959, with Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol, I see the re-emergence of representation as a radical act. The work of Warhol and Lichtenstein brought back into the field of representation categories that formerly hadn’t been a part of the avant-garde narrative, for example firmly establishing comic-book images as real, legitimate art.
GAINES: And to reinforce what you’re saying, this aspect of the avant-garde’s critique of representation was centred largely on the idea that ordinary objects can be considered art, basically because the terms of their ordinariness challenged established ideas of art. The formal properties of an image of a can of soup comes from the ordinary world, not the world of high art. This raises discursive questions about art: that by not looking like art, an image in a painting, not just the object, can challenge the definition of painting. You’d have to consider that a problem of representation.
MARSHALL: To me, this is a place where it creates an expansion within the field that makes a lot of things possible for people who thought they’d never be able to participate. But at the same time, with the introduction of popular images that were formerly outside and now inside, they seem to be completely detached from the subjectivity of the person who’s making them.
GAINES: You’re able to address the formal practices of painting in such a way that it reflected your lived experience as a black person in America. As we’ve said, to do both resolves a major paradox in the history of painting, and you do it by stepping outside of not only modernism, but also any active discursive engagement that’s a product of what I’ll describe as Eurocentric historicism. This is interesting to think about, especially in relation to what I mentioned about Norman Lewis and Modernism’s refusal to consider how content is imbedded in his work. He didn’t think about his symbolic abstraction as being outside the modernist enterprise, and in many ways, when you think of artists like Gorky, he was right. So, true to avant-garde ideology, I see your work as challenging and undermining the authority of the mainstream. Isn’t this a form of engagement?
MARSHALL: When I think of what I’m doing, I don’t think it’s undermining that authority. There’s possibly an inadvertent critique of that authority, but I don’t think I’m setting up a challenge to it. The way I see it, I’m trying to match it more than challenge it. Because I actually believe in some parts of this progressive ideal that modernism was built on. I believe you can take things that exist and improve upon them, and that there’s something about the pursuit of a certain kind of perfection that I think has a beneficial utility. Art is an arena that has fairly clearly defined boundaries, and when we introduce new things that are perceived to be outside those boundaries, they have to be accompanied by a set of legitimising principles. Having the ability to construct these legitimising principles is really at the heart of the matter. But the places outside the boundaries where black people found themselves didn’t give them access to the authorizing tools that are attached to transformative practices. I don’t have a lot of problems with authoritative postures, except to the degree that people accept an authoritative position as something that should go unchallenged or unopposed. This to me is what it’s all about. It’s always been one authority displacing another, and in the visual-art world, what I really want to see is black people with ideas that create a friction, where the shape of that idea arrives in such a forceful way that it cannot be denied. Now, the reason we’re anxious about the diversity of the field is because we’ve never tended to the necessary practice of speculating about other ways that things can be, beyond trying to just become part of the club. In my practice I read, I look at and I study many things; the reason is that the amalgamation of all those things might generate a phenomenon that’s configured in a way that you think you’ve never seen before. And because you’re approaching the whole project self-consciously and strategically, a greater potential exists for a new thought that can assume authority within the dialogue.