Alteveer quickly caught the references to Velázquez, Vermeer, and Courbet. For him, Untitled (Studio), 2014, was “a picture about painting.” The model’s salmon-colored trousers brought to mind a piece of fabric held aloft by the bullfighter in Manet’s Mademoiselle V… in the Costume of an Espada (1862), in the Met’s collection. Alteveer had been looking to acquire a Marshall painting for the Met. He had been hoping for a work from the ’90s, but very few “Garden Project” works—or paintings related to them—are available. (Competition among private collectors and institutions alike for Marshall’s paintings has become fierce, even as their prices run into the high six figures. Rennie, the Vancouver collector, who is chair of the Tate’s North American Acquisitions Committee, told me the committee is now putting away $250,000 a year to go toward the purchase of their first Marshall painting.) When Alteveer saw Untitled (Studio), he knew immediately that this was the one.
The Zwirner show represented a subtle change in direction for Marshall. In addition to Untitled (Studio) were paintings of a couple amorously entangled on a blanket on the grass; a young woman, alone, dressing or undressing while holding her breasts and laughing into her bedroom mirror; two figures relaxing on a porch (Marshall’s, as it happens); a woman holding up a bath towel, a Vermeeresque pearl earring in one ear; a woman on a couch, eyes glued to the TV; a smiling couple seated in the booth of a club, the man displaying to the viewer, behind his girlfriend’s back, the ring with which he intends to propose. Marshall said he attempted “to give the subjects in the pictures their own independent psychology, so they are not standing in for a symbol of anything. They are not dignified. They are not heroic.”
A handful of large paintings, representations of Rorscharch test–like inkblots that look at first blush like pure abstraction, were an even more dramatic shift for the three curators to reckon with. “I’m doing blots in part to confuse the idea of abstraction,” Marshall told me. “A blot is not an abstraction, really, because we know what it is. It’s a blot. And a blot is a particular kind of figure.” Marshall placed one at the entrance to the Zwirner show, which he called “Look See.” “I wanted to disrupt expectations immediately,” he explained. “I thought that was a dramatic way of introducing looking and seeing.”
People who know Marshall’s work well were surprised by the blots, which also appeared in the 2015 Venice Biennale, although the cannier ones among them also recognized an artist who was complicating his own story. Molesworth is content to not completely get the blots yet. “That, to me, is the sign of a great artist,” she said. “A great artist makes a picture at 60 that someone who has been following his work for 18 years doesn’t understand.”
Since the late ’90s, Molesworth has been making a case for Marshall’s work as a form of institutional critique, a way of taking on the encyclopedic museum through the door of the medium on which it is most dependent: painting. It therefore seems apt that the retrospective’s New York run in the fall will take place at the Met (the museum that represents the very “spine of the Western art history,” as Roelstraete put it) as the first monographic show of a living artist the museum will mount in the Met Breuer, the former Whitney Museum building.
Marshall has been working with Alteveer on an exhibition, curated by the artist from the Met’s vast collection, that will run in conjunction with his show when it appears at the Met. At the time of this writing, among the objects Marshall plans to include are a Roy DeCarava photograph from 1950 of a smartly dressed black woman, a Horace Pippin self-portrait from 1944, a boli figure, a Dan mask, a work by Harlem Renaissance painter Aaron Douglas, and one of Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s ukiyo-e woodblock prints (precursors to modern-day comic books) of a blood-spattered warrior chief. There will be a Senufo figure almost identical to the one Marshall saw as a child at LACMA; it will share space with Old Master paintings not unlike LACMA’s Veroneses.
The Chicago-based art historian Darby English, who is a consultant to the Museum of Modern Art, was in Marshall’s studio on the morning he finished the latter painting, and helped him load it onto the truck. English felt adamantly that it should live in public, and set to work ensuring that MoMA would have a reserve on the piece when it reached the fair. In the following days, MoMA finalized its acquisition of Untitled (Policeman), 2015. English told me his impressions of the work. “The commonly accepted idea of the officer as a white man who antagonizes black men is complicated, is frustrated—that’s one of the things that good art is supposed to do,” he said. He sees “tremendous moral conflict” in the painting: “these guys have to be black men and police officers right now.” At the same time, English continued, “in the process of doing something about this incredibly urgent and tragic issue, he still let himself be a painter. He had an observation to make, but he made it like a painter.”
Sarah Douglas is editor-in-chief at ARTnews.
Click the images below to tour Kerry James Marshall’s Chicago studio.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of ARTnews on page 106 under the title “The Painter of Modern Life.”