• • •
“Mastry”—the subtitle of Kerry James Marshall’s sweeping survey now on view at the Met Breuer—is a disrespectful deformation of “mastery,” a word with painful connotations for anyone descended from slaves, and perhaps especially so for the African-American Marshall, who not only engages the “great masters” of painting but who arguably is one himself. In addressing “black modernism” and the Harlem Renaissance, literary scholar Houston Baker noted the correspondence between the “deformation of mastery” and the “mastery of form”—a dynamic that could also be applied today to Marshall’s modus operandi.
For three decades, Marshall has developed extraordinary technical skills, and since childhood has been immersed in art history; more specifically, in the tradition of painting that runs from the Renaissance’s celebration of the classical ideal through the historical allegories of the Enlightenment and impressionism’s depictions of the everyday life of a nascent middle-class. German artist Gerhard Richter once referred to that tradition as “the vast, great, rich culture of painting . . . that we have lost, but which places obligations on us.” For Richter this loss resulted mostly from modernist self-criticality, the progressive stripping away of representational complexity from painting. That celebrated tradition was differently lost to Marshall, who confronted the near total absence of black bodies and faces like his from this most revered of image archives.