NGA associate curator of modern art James Meyer built a tight exhibition (on view through Dec. 8) around a single 2011 museum acquisition—Kerry James Marshall’s painting Great America (1994). Installed in the East Building’s uppermost gallery, Great America hangs among nine other Marshall paintings, many from the same period. Race and American identity are the main themes in these figurative scenes featuring abstract elements and collaged signs and symbols. Ambitiously scaled (the largest measures 9 feet high by 13 feet wide), they are each suspended from grommets inserted in the canvas, evoking flags or tarps. Several allude to aspects of the transatlantic slave trade, and all boast references—some subtle, some explicit—to the art historical canon.
The picture occasioning the exhibition features a vast ocean that nearly fills the canvas. From the top right corner, a green and yellow toboggan-like vessel, which is crowded with four black figures, issues from a tunnel tended by ghosts. The forms of the waves around the boat, along with the compressed picture plane, bring Hokusai’s ukiyo-e prints to mind. In the foreground, a large scroll reading “Great America” floats in space; according to Marshall, the words refer to the chain of theme parks of the same name. As a child, Marshall (b. 1955) visited similar parks after his family moved from Birmingham, Ala., to Los Angeles in 1963. Taken together, the text and Marshall’s ominous imagery cue an ironic reading of America’s greatness.
One striking characteristic of Marshall’s style is his bold handling of skin tone. The artist uses the darkest browns and even pure blacks to paint his figures, applying white highlights to define features. The four people seen sailing in Gulf Stream (2003)—Marshall’s reworking of Winslow Homer’s 1899 canvas of the same name—sport Afros and contemporary dress, their dark skin and hair silhouetted against the white sail and blue water.
While the National Gallery exhibition evokes the America of Homer and the Saturday Evening Post, Marshall’s more recent efforts, on view in “Dollar for Dollar” (all works 2012 or 2013) at Jack Shainman, eschew representation for abstraction and text critiquing American consumerism. Buy Black, with its three horizontal bands of red, black and green, recalls both Rothko and, with its drippy washes of green acrylic, Pollock. A red-neon lighting fixture attached to the panel and spelling out the work’s title suggests equivalences between commodity and identity even as it brings to mind Nauman and Kosuth. The black acrylic text on a near-black ground in On Sale Black Friday evokes a Pop Ad Reinhardt. If a worry lurked around these canvases, it was that Marshall’s reworking of the canon could verge on formula; a turn around the exhibition could become an art history quiz.
Yet no art historical precedent obscured the punch of the showstopper at Shainman, a rear-room installation called 99 cent piece (One hundred thirty six thousand dollars in change). Ten resin coins with brass patinas, measuring from 3½ to 5 feet in diameter and weighing up to 300 pounds each, were scattered, as much as gargantuan coins can be, on the floor. Though the four pennies, three quarters, two nickels and a dime add up to 99 cents, the cost of fabricating the piece was the $136,000 of the title’s parenthetical. Though its conception wasn’t without cynicism, the work engaged the contemporary art market with humor and even awe.