In this series of talks we invite artists and art historians to discuss the history, aesthetics, and contemporary state of the practice of painting. In the first of three discussions, Matthew Jesse Jackson and Judy Ledgerwood discuss abstraction versus realism in Ledgerwood's practice, in the work of Kerry James Marshall, and in the medium at large.
Matthew Jesse Jackson: Okay, well Judy, you're in charge so where do we go? What do we do?
Judy Ledgerwood: This is a fine time to tell me that. Okay, well I thought we would start in the first gallery and talk about that group of paintings.
JL: While we're waiting for everyone to get settled, I'll just launch in because I know that there's only a short amount of time. I think that one of the first questions any painter addresses when they make a painting is what size the format should be, what shape the painting is going to be, and what the color palette is going to be, and what the imagery is. When I saw the title for Kerry's show Mastry, that meant something to me because of course I'm not ever going to be, no matter how virtuosic I might be as a painter, I don't think anyone's ever going to refer to me as a master. I think that has a lot to do with gender and history more than it has to do with my skill. That said, the other thing that I think is really pertinent to being a painter in particular, is that any painting you make is in dialogue with all the paintings that have come before, and all the paintings that are currently being made. It's really impossible to make something and not have it be part of that conversation.
For Kerry to make an exhibition and call it Mastry, and to be very clear about his objective to engage in this discourse with earlier generations of painters, and to bring his agenda to the history of painting, I think is really significant.
MJJ: There you go. That kind of said it all. I'm supposed to moderate at this point. What about the actual paintings that are in this room?
JL: I think that in the history of painting, there's a lot of little idiosyncratic, sub-histories. One of those sub-histories has to do with black. Black as a color, and black as a pigment. There's been a long-running discourse about whether black is a color, or it's not a color. The people who think it's not a color are kind of Newtonians, and they fixate on the phenomenology of light. Then there are painters who understand that black behaves like the other pigments, but more forcefully. Within the history of painting, there are few artists who are particularly known for their use of black. Black is a really difficult color in painting, because it tends to flatten out and kind of disappear in a painting. For artists who work with black, who have made a reputation for working with black in painting, it has a lot to do with their mastery, or their ability to make the black not seem like it's something that just disappears into the shadows, but it becomes really present in the painting.
When I think about the history of black in paintings, I always think about [Francisco de] Zurbarán, and then Velásquez, and Rembrandt's painting, what’s it called, "Anatomy Study" I think. It's a painting with these guys in starch white collars standing around a cadaver, but the space around them is very black. Then we go on to Matisse, and then some modernists.
MJJ: – Rauschenberg. Yeah, you've got a lot of people who are involved. Say here, we're dealing with something that's very small, it's the first thing that you mentioned. It's usually the first thing that I mention about any work of art, is how large is it? It's a very simple point. It's rather small, it's the smallest work I suppose more or less that we're dealing with here. How does that strike you? It is presented as this crucial departure point for his production.
JL: I think that the thing that's really interesting about the painting is that, well not only it's size, but it's a portrait. If you think about what art is, or what most people think art is – I get this question a lot. People say, “What do you do?” I say, “I'm an artist.” They say, “oh what kind of art do you do?” I say, “I'm a painter.” Then they say, “Oh well what do you do, like greeting cards or something?” I say no, “I'm a fine artist.” Then they say, “Oh honey I'm sure you are.” With this painting, I think if you think about black as this tonal range that's very specific, it's at the very end of the color spectrum; it's the deepest color that any artist could choose to work with. The painting is almost all black. It's a black-and-white painting. That kind of reductive palette always makes me thing of objectivity. Usually colors, a broader range of colors usually interpreted to be more subjective, because color is harder to nail down in terms of what it means exactly.
Serious things are done in black and white. Newspapers are printed in black and white, all serious things are eliminated from the extraneous, voluptuous, sensuous quality of color. This reduction down to a very narrow palette, I think, is meaningful because it forces you to question: Why? Why is it a black figure in a black ground in a black hat? Why is it in portrait format? Why is this painting so significant to the overall practice? I think it goes back to that question what art is. For a lot of people, art is painting. I don't want to make hierarchies in the art world.
MJJ: That's okay, it's number one. Painting's number one.
JL: Within painting, I think portraiture is also this genre that's also considered seriously. You think about old master paintings, you think about figure painting. For me, this painting is kind of a distillation of all that history. Of all portrait paintings, of all black paintings, all in one image that is significantly different in some ways.
MJJ: It's significantly different in some ways?
JL: Yeah, because it's not the full color palette. It's neither monochrome, so it's neither all black, just a field painting. Nor is it a portrait in that traditionally descriptive kind of way. It really becomes this sign for both kinds of making. Sign for representation, and a sign for abstraction.
MJJ: It has, needless to say, extremely loaded content so to speak. I noticed that one of the things that art commentators, your goal frequently is to take content that's very powerful, and to turn into a formal language that makes it more capable of being spoken about. The emotive charge of the work, for me, is something I would tend not to speak about. I'd rather have you experience the work of art, personally. On the other hand, I'm, to some extent, baffled by this in a positive way. Does the word postmodern mean anything for you? It's a word that I don't use that often, but so much of the work is obviously in dialogue with the history of art in a very explicit way. Are there ways that you think about that that are productive? That you'd like to share with us at this moment? Perhaps not. I think it's at play here as well.
JL: I think these paintings seem to be very explicit in many ways, in terms of the discourses that they're engaging. The way that they directly refer to other kinds of painting. The way that they stake a claim in a representation that's all Kerry's. Where Kerry creates a figure that becomes the sign for all black people in painting. Again, it goes to this color that has this long history in painting, and a lot of symbolism that has potentially negative connotations. Actually, as long as we're going to talk about black, I brought this little clipping from a book. There's a Matisse reading, so maybe this would be a good time to just pull it out.
JL: All right, thank you. This is from a big monograph on Matisse, and this is John Elderfield who is describing Matisse's painting "The Moroccans. He says, speaking about Matisse, that, "His descriptions remind us of the temporality of reviewing. Matisse's breaks suspend things in the flux of time. As Henri Bergson, the philosopher Matisse admired, wrote of separated temporal events within duration, discontinuous though they may appear, they stand out against a continuity of a background in which they are designed, and to which, indeed, they owe the intervals that separate them. Each of Matisse's separated parts is likewise only the best illuminated part of a moving zone, which in reality makes up our state." Then he goes on about _The Moroccans, which is not so particular to what we're saying. Then he says about The Moroccans that it was, "a grand black which is as luminous as the other colors in the painting." When I listen to Kerry's introductory comments, he talked about there being no mixed colors. It's black and pure color. I think it's really important to put black into the context of the full spectrum, because that's what gives it its power visually.
He says that, "Black produces a kind of light, only we cannot see into it. He used black on occasion outside this period, but to fill the dual functions of separating and connecting, but also a preventing, seeing, and providing luminosity." A lot of that has to do with the way black is used compositionally. I'd like to talk about that maybe in the next gallery with some of the paintings. Also, this idea that black can be luminous. It provides a light that's particular to the color. That it's its own light that you don't see into, but it reflects back. I think that's a really important to think about these paintings, because there's the surface black and then there's these variations that provide the very particular kind of light.
MJJ: Yeah, let's go there. Are we taking questions along the way, is that the – are we? If you've got a question, yell it out. I'm happy to pose it.
JL: Should we talk about this one? Do you want to pick something?
MJJ: No, you're in charge.
JL: Okay. I thought this painting might be a good one to talk about, just initially to talk about how Kerry often structures his paintings. In the first gallery, the paintings were mostly monochromes, there wasn't a lot of foreground, middle ground, background. Often he structure his paintings in this format that I always think of as classical, Renaissance painting. Where the painting is organized like a stage set. Usually, when that was done in the Renaissance, it was because most people looking at the paintings were looking at them in church and they were illiterate. That kind of pictorial space was a theatrical space where they could kind of learn the stories. I think that for Kerry to choose a pictorial organization that comes from the Renaissance, is again a part of his desire to position himself within the whole of painting, and in particular with Renaissance painting, which most people think of as the great age of painting. That's when Raphael, Leonardo, like all these guys are making paintings. In Renaissance painting, there's often this framing device with figures in the foreground, middle ground, and background.
I think that the way he has a painting that's both the kind of traditional stage set, that's also a very flat, kind of modernist painting, he does both at once, which is again, I think that part of that mastery thing. Where you can show that you are aware of, and understand how space is structured.
MJJ: That's what I'm calling postmodernism. That's what I'm calling it. That is if it were just a knock-off, Renaissance painting, it would be kitsch. The fact that it combines all of these different registers in some way, that is the mastery without the e, here. Could you say something about the way this is literally flush against the wall? How do you interpret that? It's a bit different as we move around.
JL: I think that when you see paintings pinned directly to the wall, it gives them a kind of provisional quality. They seem like, you could remove the pins and the painting could just move easily. When paintings are stretched over support, they become much more like furniture. Much more physical thing that projects out into space. I think the flatness speaks to the materiality. It's paint on canvas. You're very aware of the edges, and little bits of fraying.
MJJ: To me, it always feel very – the elaborate mixing of all these different registers, and then you mix it with something that, for me, feels kind of improvisationally attached to the wall. It has a certain quality like that. It's one of the essential qualities that I really enjoy about the paintings. That they're extremely staged, and at the same time they feel improvisatory. They have a sort of – you can take things out and you can add things in. Yeah, go for it.
Audience: Do you think that maybe he does that to give it sort of a mural like look? Murals have a staged kind of theatrical –
MJJ: I say yes, I think it does do that.
JL: I don't know, I think about a mural painting about being about a particular size of painting and not really about the way the painting is structured or organized. I think one of the things I like about this painting again, is the way he uses black throughout the painting. There's this repetition, which I think speaks to the durational aspect, that Bergson was almost talking about with Matisse's painting. You see the same color repeated in the painting, but they're not necessarily in the same space. It provides this placement. It's a compositional thing, but it gives you a sense of time because you look at the figures, you look at the snake, you look at the tree that runs up the side. There's the time in between them that becomes part of the viewing experience.
MJJ: Right. One of the things that I'd only noticed after I'd seen all of the art for awhile, is I forget that I'm looking at black figures all of the time. There's a crucial moment where I'm not cognizant of that. I think that’s one of the crucial strategies, that whiteness in painting is just an accepted – it's the normal mode of representation. Blackness is some departure. By the time I leave the exhibition, blackness seems – I'm not thinking about it, in certain crucial ways. Do we have another . . . ? Go for it.
Audience: I noticed that there was the red cross symbol, and then later I think it was a bit when you're showing more religious art, there's also a lot of red cross symbols. I was wondering if you were going to mention that particular symbol? It strikes me as different from other historical or religious symbols like the red cross.
JL: I don't know, I think that different people will read it differently depending on their experience. I see the red cross and of course I think of the Red Cross, but I also think of heraldry, like knights in shining armor and the way they were identified through a symbol and a color. I think that a lot of the vocabulary in these paintings is very symbolic. I always think it goes back again to this ancient sign.
MJJ: It seems trans-historical, things like that, something that's used a lot, different times, different places. Are we –
JL: I think there's another question.
MJJ: Oh yeah, sure.
Audience: One of the things, like in this painting particularly, something in the tree to me, that's there's almost trouble and also a little bit of a medical chart, or palm reading in the work I wonder?
MJJ: That's certainly true behind you. It's a veritable anatomy lesson. There's certainly the language of science, and knowledge. It's one of the things that threads –
Audience: Is it historical?
JL: Again, maybe I'm so deeply embedded in my own practice, but I always think about it historically. It's these genre paintings. When I look at that painting, there's a lot of paintings of cadavers and science experiments and things like that, and this seems to be in that genre. It kind of falls under the rubric of Kerry's master plan.
MJJ: Right, you could say. Or spiritual knowledge, which is wisdom, which is irrational in some crucial way, and rationality. There's a sort of ramming together of different languages over and over again, I think that's fair to say.
Audience: The repetitive – the little flowery [inaudible] kind of like that blue.
JL: Yeah like the Cy Twombly kind of flowers.
Audience: Yeah, is this decorative?
MJJ: Sure, absolutely. There's a decorative quality as they say. Are we . . .
JL: Shall we?
MJJ: Yeah. We'll repeat the question.
MJJ: You can ask a question. I'll repeat the questions from now on. Oh, over here. Would you like to?
JL: Sure. I put this painting on my list, because it reminds me so much of Matisse. Matisse, maybe a lot of people will know this painting called The Piano Lesson. There's a boy at a piano, it's got a big shadow across his face. Whenever Matisse paints a book, he always paints the book black, or a mirror in these kind of compositions. Here's this book, magazine, maybe Ebony magazine, but it's black and it's in the foreground. Then there's the black that's repeated, the central figures, and the statue on top of this table on the right, and then in the cabinet. I keep thinking about – I feel like I took a lot from Matisse and I'm always interested to see what other artists take. This idea of using black throughout the painting as a compositional device, that both makes it seems like there's a relationship because the color's repeated. It also destroys the spatial relationship, because it's the same color used in the foreground, the middle ground, and the background. Again, he's kind of covering all his bases at once.
MJJ: Right, so you get this here. You get this whole flat with the design here. You get this in the back, all working through. The different relations of space.
JL: Yeah, what I like about the painting structurally is there's one structure based on the repetition of these black shapes, and how your eye connects those together. Then there's these other patterns that have other rhythms within the same painting. I really like the way it sets up this almost musical relationship between them. Then there's this music –
MJJ: It has the explicit synesthetic, is that the terminology? Yeah, the song in the background. What I'm struck by is that we're not saying about the, I'll say content of the work. Which I like. Is that part of – why are we doing that? I have that instinct, too. There's an instinct not to say what this is about. What does this mean? I'm not saying you should, I'm just saying I think it's probably curious to someone who doesn't get up every morning and paint, that this tells you something about the world that's outside of painting.
MJJ: I'm curious, is that something about which one should remain silent? That's my instinct.
JL: I mean one of the things I really worry about as an artist is that people aren't going to look at the paintings. That they're going to check them off a list. That they're going to walk through the museum with the greatest hits and they're going to go, almost like they have their iPhone.
MJJ: How do you feel about this? The Dave Hickey argument is that we should have no wall text.
JL: I'm kind of down with that. I would much rather have something that you could look at afterwards, or alongside. I really hate that that text shares the same wall space with the painting. I'd much rather just see the painting. I like the idea that everyone in here would have a different way of seeing and experiencing that painting, and that's part of what makes the painting valuable, that it can speak to so many different people without an explanation. I think with the explanation, people read that and they think they don't have to look at the painting, or that they've got it already because they read it. If they read it, it must be true. I just don't think paintings should be reduced to a wall text.
MJJ: Well said, as far as I know. The implication to actually look at the painting first, and perhaps without immediately looking at the wall text. Maybe at some point later, or maybe not at all.
JL: I'm sure they didn't ask, but if it was up to me in museums, it would be name, date, title, that's it. Oh, and materials. I think that's about as much as you need to know.
MJJ: That makes sense. Where else would you like to lead us?
JL: I was thinking that we could go to the very end of this gallery, maybe, and talk about the beauty shop painting. Unless there are questions here?
MJJ: Okay, are there questions? Which I will repeat. Sure.
Audience: There's a rug coming forward, clean and simple ?
MJJ: The question of the rug. The flatness of the rug.
Audience: Compositonally it's maybe coming off, assuming the – it's much larger than the foreground [inaudible]?
MJJ: Judy, as technically – why does the rug do the labor that it does within the painting? Indeed, he did do it on purpose. That's safe to say.
Audience: [inaudible]. Aside from this, they're all about the subject matter and everything he's doing is making you understand the subject matter more.
MJJ: Okay, so are the formal – let's call them tricks if you don't mind. The formal tricks make the content more vibrant. Is that fair to say Judy?
JL: Yeah, I don't even remember the title of this painting, but it seems like it's something about love and relationships. Well, you can tell by the figures. Everything in this painting is based off a series of pairs. There's the pair of plates, the pair of pillows, the pair of the lamp and the thing next to it, there's another sculpture, a pot of flowers. All these pairs are couples, except we have two symbols that are – two very obvious symbols that talk about the sexuality. We have that big, red and black one that's lit. Then there's a carpet. Of course the carpet could have been shown to be in perspective, but it's flattened out as you said. Then the shape looks like a lady shape. If the painting's about love, then we have this very decoratively painted carpet with – I don't know how much I should say in public, these kind of labial folds. Then a lit candle.
MJJ: It's all there.
Audience: It's also mimicked by the plug into the socket, which he did not have to show.
MJJ: Well said, okay, well the more you look the more you see is a basic truth of art. What do we have going on down here? Where do we want to go?
JL: How about the beauty shop painting?
MJJ: Okay, that's great.
Audience: All of these paintings have a collage-like effect I think, it seems like there's things like papers and stuff, that are over it, but obviously not a collage. It's like painted collages, it's kind of interesting.
MJJ: This is the most it would seem, explicitly art historical of all the works. Is that fair to say?
JL: Probably. When Matthew talks about the painting being art historical, it has a lot to do with these references. We have this Disney character, the heroine who's blonde and white and dressed in pink. Then there's a Chris Ofili poster from the Tate. There’s a – Lauryn Hill, where’s she at?
MJJ: Yeah, the Lauren Hill thing. It's up there, right up there. Lauryn Hill, the [Hans] Holbein ... Do you want to explain that, that's a famous –
JL: No, you're the art historian so I'm going to let you have that.
MJJ: I don't know if I want to. This is how high-quality art historian I was, I honestly was looking around to hand the microphone to someone else. I don't want to explain Holbein’s – you walk up a stairwell and look at the painting from an angle, and that looks like a face. Is that fair to say Anthony? Yeah, okay fair.
Anthony: Anamorphic perspective.
MJJ: Anamorphic perspective. Thank you, Anthony. The sense that you have some sort of selection of different art historical motifs, but then at the same time being rooted in – I think it's safe to say that this is rooted in the kind of aesthetic that people associate with the Chicago of good times in the ’70s, the Ernie Barnes paintings that you would see. These are the sort of vernacular moments of recognition that I think are out there. I think that's safe to say. Judy, you, please.
JL: I think this is one of the best paintings in the exhibition. One of the things I really love about it is everything he takes on in the painting. Structurally, anytime you have a figure painting with multiple figures, it's really difficult to make it hold together. You see figures that are grouped together, and that makes them more coherent I guess, compositionally. I like that, I like figuring out how he makes it hold together. For me, it comes down to the repetition of gestures and patterns. This painting makes me think so much of like pattern painting, because there's so many patterns throughout. They're used to unify the painting by – each thing has this own discreet pattern that's singular, but they all share relationships.
There's the stripe on her pant leg, then there's the stripes on the floorboard. Then this kind of irregular pattern on the floorboard, which kind of leads you from one figure to the next. This darker area leads you into those figures, and this – I'm so formal. The line in the middle brings you to this other group of figures. Then there's that, the next stripe, which starts on the left side. There's this real zig-zag back and forth. That kind of zig-zagging back and forth across the painting is a way of – it talks about temporality, but it also talks about . . . It creates a soporific effect. If you think about how cradles rock back and forth – so that happens. Then there's all the ups and downs created by the placement of the figure, which makes it really dynamic.
MJJ: Is it safe to say, one of the clichés that I say and I hope you contradict it in a way, but maybe I don't, is if your eye travels around the painting, that's a successful painting. That's something that we say in the art history game. Is that safe to say?
JL: Yeah. I think that if you can keep people looking at your painting longer than they're looking at their iPad or their phone or something, you're successful as an artist. That's the game as a painter, because there's so many other more immediately rewarding things to look at. Getting someone to look at your painting for awhile, I think is a good thing. Yes?
Audience: The commentary there mentions to references Velásquez and European painting. The thing that strikes me about this, he's also referencing African textiles. Not only is there humor in this, but there's also nobility. This is the way women dress on the street in West Africa, with these kinds of textiles. He's deliberately referencing that.
MJJ: Sure, one of the most striking things is obviously the texture of the painting. Would you like to say anything about that? That would be, I think anomalous within most painting that we look at.
JL: Yeah, well are we talking about the glitter?
MJJ: Well, that for one.
JL: Yeah, there's a lot of rules in paintings, and of course they're all meant to be broken, but one of them is that paint is paint. You don't mess around with that, because paint as a material has a lot of authority. Glitter, maybe not so much. You think about glitter, you think about crafts. This introduction of metallic glitter, not metallic paint, but actual glitter into the canvas opens up the vocabulary so that he's talking about not just mastery of the history of painting – like he's got the Velásquez thing down. It's also culture in a much broader sense, like the culture of all things made, including crafts. Including this material that's generally reserved for making Valentine's- and Christmas decorations into painting, is a way to open it up.
MJJ: Right, so that would relate back to your point about fashion and other forms that I typically call vernacular expression. Painting is also a form of vernacular expression, I suppose. Are there other questions about this? Yeah, go ahead.
Audience: Yeah, question. Getting back to the question of abstraction that you started with, and maybe even in that first painting in that first room that was the black face with the paintings, with the almost didactic paintings to the left. There seems to be throughout the whole exhibition a question of – there's lots of places where abstraction happens, but there's no purely abstract painting. I guess, I don't know there seems to be an argument it's either in Kerry's paintings, or maybe it's in the wall didactics next to it that and certainly what that first room posits is this idea that, I'll just say it to be – well, that if you're an African American artist and you make purely abstract work, that that's somehow irresponsible because it's not showing the history, or it's painting over the history. Is that the argument that you see in this? That's a big statement, and I just wondered how either of you – do you see that argument being played out, and how do you feel about it?
MJJ: What's that?
Audience: Yeah, well this isn't his show. I'm just saying there seems ...
JL: Are you talking black artists?
Audience: No, I'm talking about this show and the wall and the didactics. If you read them, that's the argument it posits in that beginning very, very clearly that there is this question – is that certainly there are a gazillion African American artists who've made, Sam Gilliam and blah blah blah – this seems to continue that question, this exhibition.
MJJ: The painting that we saw in the first room, that had the register of – let's call them abstract paintings, miniature paintings next to the representational paintings – what seemed to pose that as the underlying tension. I guess that would be the argument. I think it is certainly an argument in art history at this moment about abstraction and its status within contemporary black art – is a really ongoing point of labor. A lot of work being done there. Do you have further thoughts about that, because one of the questions I have is that if we say something is abstract and it's decorative, that's one thing. I think most of the abstraction that we see, I might describe as decorative rather than abstract expressionistically soul driven.
JL: I think that's accurate. This is a good examle, and it's right next to us. In this portrait, the roses and the white around it operates in a very abstract way. It's kind of like a cross between Cy Twombly and de Kooning in terms of its gestural quality. I don't think anyone would think that there's a particular emotion attached to making those gestures. I think this is a trope in painting that has meaning, that he's using to construct this argument about mastery and the lack of representation of African American people in the history of painting. He's leveling all of painting—abstraction and representation—and introducing this content into the discussion. Matthew and I decided that we didn't really want to talk about content per say, it seems like the content in the painting is explicit. It seems really clear, because they seem almost narrative in that way.
MJJ: If it seems clear and narrative-esque for us, we tend to not want to talk about that. That goes hand in hand, I assume, with the lack of wall text. I prefer for you to look at this. I think we have an instinct to not say what anything means. What is it about?
Audience: It's funny to watch both of you so hard not talk about the content. It's obvious that it's about black culture, and you're not comfortable. Am I right?
MJJ: It's an interesting question, because it gets at – I don't know of another artist who works in this kind of mode today that's so explicitly narrative in painting. I personally don't know that. It is an idiosyncrasy of contemporary expression that goes hand in hand with the representation of black bodies. If we had an artist, I pose this imaginary artist, who would be shown at the MCA who worked in this style of highly narrative driven mode, who did not represent black bodies, I still think I would not want to talk about the content. I'm having to do that as a thought experiment, because I don't know that artist. It's an interesting question. This goes to a more interesting philosophical question about why do we see such a mode representing black bodies? It's a chicken and egg circular, as I understand it.
JL: That's an interesting way to think about it.
MJJ: Or you could disagree. Are we moving on? Yeah.
MJJ: Where are we going?
JL: To the gallery with the portraits.
Audience: Everything's acrylic paint for the most parts?
JL: Yeah, they're mostly acrylic paintings.
Audience: Yeah, because it remind me a lot of the finish from like Alex Katz or David Hockney paintings. Just kind of a surface appearance, especially the sharply defined forms in that in particular.
JL: Yeah, they have a different character than oil paintings, for sure. All the way, practically to the very end of the exhibition.
Audience: It almost gives it a matte appearance, too. Everything's flat, no frame, kind of flat. Then the acrylic paints have a flat look, flatness to them. His use of perspective is a lot of times flattened. Like you mentioned earlier, the same shade of black, and all the different distances of the painting tends to flatten it out using that exact same shade. He always seems to –
JL: Yeah, and there's this technical thing. His paintings are really dense, and it's really hard to get that kind of density in oil paint because it dries so slowly – you can't really work into it that much. With acrylic, it's a much speedier process. You can layer and build more quickly. I'd thought we'd go to the –
MJJ: Yeah, you want to go to all of them? Yeah.
JL: We kind of talked about monochrome already.
Susan Musich: It's up to you, it's ten to four.
JL: Okay, let's go to the portrait gallery.
MJJ: So Judy, what might we say here?
JL: Well, I thought that because of this topic of abstraction and representation that this might be a really good gallery to focus on just briefly, because they're portraits. Within each portrait, there are big portions of the painting that are abstract. This Untitled (Painter), the biggest shape in the painting in the foreground is the palette. An artist palette is what you use to mix your paint on. This palette is a representation of an abstract painting, in almost every way. It's not a representation of an artist palette, where'd they have the colors laid out in the spectrum from white, yellow, to the very end.
That's not what's happening here. You don't see little piles where's there's color that's been mixed on the palette that's then used in the painting. The painting behind the palette is very nearly monochrome. They're very related hues that don't have very much at all to do with the color in the palette in the foreground. This seems like another one of those paintings where Kerry's trying to talk about painting, like all of painting. Not just make a position for himself as an artist as a representational painter, but a painter – to represent all of painting.
MJJ: I will play Tony's advocate at this point and we'll say, “but these bodies all look back at us with these eyes meeting you. They are rather disturbing I would say. Almost invariably there's something kind of unsettling about seeing someone look back at you in a painting.” Is that fair to say? What might that mean?
JL: Yeah, I think that looking back is always a confrontation. I'll always think of that Manet painting, I don't know the French word, like “luncheon on the grass.” There's a seated figure, she's looking over her shoulder directly at the audience. It's confrontational whenever you look someone – at them directly. It doesn't happen very often in painting. All of these paintings are powerful in that way, because those eyes follow - I feel like I'm being looked at over here, I'm sure those of you over there, it's the same kind of experience where you feel like you're really caught in the gaze of that figure, which is very powerful. The painting has power over you. I'm really stuck on this mastery thing. I think it goes back to that argument: the painting is in control of you.
MJJ: Right, yeah. It's very striking. If the idea of the portrait, the “self portrait of the artist” as a genre, that's something that you see repeatedly throughout art history. Is there anything more that you want to say about that? Perhaps, is there more to be said about these modes that, again I would use my art historical terminology that is so precise in saying these are vernacular modes of expression, typically children would learn to paint or something like this through. It would speak to the pedagogical structures that exclude African Americans systematically from participation in art, for example. Is there more to be said? Those gestures are readable. I take it that what we're saying, both of us, is that they're readable, but we tend to value the parts – I'm putting words in your mouth. We tend to value the aspects of painting that create complex juxtapositions that we can't quite understand, or put words to. It's the juxtaposition of different effects that we tend to value the most. Disagree with me please.
JL: It's really hard to separate what I see when I look at this painting and then what I've read about these paintings that talk about the vernacular paint-by-number idea. In these paintings the paint by number that's not being followed according to plan. It becomes especially striking in this paint by number where it's pink, and it becomes kind of this pink field. I don't know it's like early [Philip] Guston or something. When I look at them, I really the dialogue between the figure in pink that's not represented the way it's supposed to be. Then the figure in the foreground that's represented much more traditionally, but also not traditionally because there aren't traditionally these kinds of representations of this figure.
MJJ: Yeah, sure.
Audience: A critic once commented on one of his paintings about having a paint-by-numbers feel to them, because it almost seems like he's responding to something like that. A lot of his paintings that we've seen previously, they do have sharply delineated edges with monochromatic color. It almost seems like he's responding to that, or something.
JL: I don't know about – I haven't read that.
MJJ: Could differing parts of the painting suggest different aspects of mastery? The paintings over and over again are dramatic engagements with questions of mastery, but then there's painterly mastery and then there' is mastery over the social production of the world that we live in. Those things are clearly in dialogue.
JL: You can't have one without the other.
MJJ: Yes, exactly.
JL: I think the power he has as an artists comes from his, because he's got the chops. Which is why he titled the show Mastry. It allows him to make this statement and give it so much power. I think if they were constructed differently, not painted as well, they wouldn't be as meaningful as they are. When I look at this painting, when I talked about black being a really difficult colors it's because black just wants to fall into shadow. I'm wearing a black dress, there's very little tonal variation. It's just a black shape. If this figure's face is a shape and the ground behind him is the same hue almost, all those minute variations in black become really meaningful because it takes such incredible, subtle control. Figure painting's hard – to make figures that don't look like cut out and have those kind of hard edges, but to be able to model, and then to acknowledge the way it's modeled by those little shines of light on his forehead. That's a sign for an event that he's painting. It's like a wink. Like clever painting.
MJJ: The fact that this does that, but at the same time it's sort of this Bride of Frankenstein effect. That's there, over and over again.
JL: Yeah, it's like when the tightrope walker knows that he's wowing you because he's walked across the building on a tightrope. Then he jumps up and waves or something.
MJJ: I thought you were going to give the example of a tightrope walker who intentionally falls and grabs the – that's the kind of effect for me.
JL: That's an even better example.
MJJ: You're supposed to kind of fall, to scare the audience a bit. He falls. There's an anxiety there about the different registers of expression.
JL: I think these paintings are just incredibly cheeky. If I was teaching painting and one of my students painted something in the background that had a lot of texture to it, I'd say “well you're not supposed to do that because all that texture just makes you aware of the surface. Now that comes forward, and the figures should be coming forward because that's in the foreground.” Now, the figure that's in the foreground in the painting that's more abstract, just like brushstrokes in the background, they're in dialogue with one another and they're kind of on the same plane. Although it's structured, like foreground, middle ground, background, the way that he’s painted it, denies all those things so that it becomes more than that. It becomes the dialogue between the black Velásquez figure and early Guston. It seems like that's what he's shooting for when he says I want to know what they know. He's like, “Yeah, I know it and I know some more too.”
MJJ: Yeah, that's where I think it's at. Are there further questions out there? This is your chance to have all of your question dreams come true. Okay, go for it.
Audience: I'm just struck by – I never would have thought of that except we've been talking so long and I'm looking at it. The construction that's abstract, the “L” here of his body. Then the “L” of the canvas. I guess I'm seeing the dialogue, but also the pink on his pants. I love that. It's this iridescence. Something else is happening here that I didn't see initially when I gave it such a literal read, or representational read.
MJJ: The argument that we'll make over and over again, is the longer you look, the more you'll see. The more you see, the more you'll look. The more you look as a citizen, the better you'll think. The better you think, the better all of us are. That's how that works. That's why art museums are the best thing in the world. There you go. I think that's our wrap up.
- Kerry James Marshall: Mastry–
- Short In this painting, a woman painter holds a paint palette in front of a paint-by-numbers portrait. Her skin is as black as the as the solid black background; she stares confidently into our eyes.
- Long This painted portrait depicts a young woman with jet-black skin holding a long, thin paintbrush up to a colorful, messy painter’s palette. She is shown in a three-quarter pose, gazing directly at the viewer. Her face, which is central to the square composition, stands out against a large, white, canvas, almost blending into the pitch-black background to her right. Closer inspection reveals, however, that her skin is subtly rendered, with various shades of contours and highlights. She wears two large hoop earrings, three small hoop earrings, and an oversized, boxy, high-collared jacket made of stiff fabric. Her voluminous hair—black with an ochre sheen—rises in thick coils on top of her head. The canvas to her left shows a partly finished paint-by-number self-portrait; in it, her likeness is broken up into smaller segments with pale-blue outlines and numbers. She has outlined many of the segments and filled them in with colors from her palette: orange, blue, yellow, pink, brown, and a few shades of green. The paint-by-number canvas does not accurately represent the color and pattern of the jacket she wears, which features mustard yellow sleeves and collar and deep blue and maroon and light yellow stripes.