Some thirty years ago, Kerry James Marshall (b. 1955) decided to create paintings predominantly featuring black figures as a corrective to the white canon. Marshall stayed the course, and this traveling retrospective, which features eighty works spanning his career, proves his immense accomplishment. Marshall’s portraits are never static, and engage many modes of representation. I was particularly struck by a sequence of early works that contain the seeds that would grow in his practice. Inspired by Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, the egg tempera–on–paper A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self (1980) shows Marshall in three-quarter profile, as if in a Holbein painting. His skin is rendered so dark that his face is almost indistinguishable from the black ground, save for his Cheshire cat grin (with a tooth missing), glowing white eyes, and a slice of white shirt. The image reappears in the Portrait of the Artist & a Vacuum (1981), where it is depicted as a painting hung on an orange wall in a domestic setting. The painting-within-a-painting suggests how we internalize our own representation, while the void of pure color around it evokes the possibility of freeing ourselves from the limits of such portrayals. Later pieces allude to myriad types of work from art history, from Medieval tapestries to Rococo-inspired romances. Marshall’s reverence for past masters is evident in his selection of about forty works from the Met’s collection—including a perfect Dürer lithograph and several paintings by Jacob Lawrence—that accompany the retrospective. —Julia Wolkoff
Pictured: Kerry James Marshall: A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self, 1980, egg tempera on paper, 8 by 6½ inches. Photo Matthew Fried. ©MCA Chicago.