Just like heaven... Kerry James Marshall's UNTITLED at the Sackler Museum


I have a tremendous love for the work of Kerry James Marshall.

So I was completely thrilled when I heard that the Harvard Museums had acquired Untitled, his 12-panel woodcut and installed it at the Sackler Museum.  The first time I saw this piece was in New York at Jack Shainman.  It seemed to big for the space then. It was almost impossible to understand it as an image because the space didn't allow for the gestalt of seeing the entire thing. It could also be my youth and my inability to understand what the work was positing, and how, in so many ways, Untitled reveals Marshall as an artist who locates his practice in the core of the Western tradition of art.



The Sackler has two ways to approach the work.  Those using the elevator have to walk through many of the masterpieces of the collection. (The Harvard Museums are being renovated and the Sackler is filled with some of the great works of the collections of the Fogg and the Busch-Reisinger as well as objects from the Sackler.)  You essentially approach the piece after walking through the history of art.  If you come up the stairway, you leave the Sol LeWitt and walk up many stairs through the earth toned concrete atrium to the fourth floor of the museum. These two journeys, one through history and the other from the ground to the sky, affect how you approach Untitled. 

Opening the darkened door after climbing all of those stairs you see the first panel of the work, which spans the entire rear wall of the gallery. The size of it is overwhelming.  And the process of woodcut applied to this particular scale of image making shows a mastery of the technique.  The 9-color print is made up of 4 x 8 sections, the size of plywood.  Marshall uses a building material to make an image of an architectural space.  The remnants of the wood grain haunt the image with the history of it's making.

We start in the first panel with a view from high up.  We can see the city below us and the edge of a yellow brick building.  Then the severe black lines of the frames of the work come into view; they reinforce the perspectival grid system of Alberti that Marshall uses to create the sense of deep space in the work.  As we look from left to right, we see the reframing of space.  We have entered not just a skyscraper, but someone's home were a group of men are assembled, having coffee, eating, talking, engaged with each other.  A hallway leads to a bedroom.  The wall turns and black rectangles decorate and the surfaces.

It's a really strange image.

First, we are outside, high in the air.  Then, as suddenly we are close enough to a window where we can see the flowers in the window box.  Do skyscrapers have window boxes?  That could prove sort of dangerous.  There is a window but we cannot see into the space, but then suddenly, we are in the space.  And the ground of the room is green and textured, more grass than carpet.  So we are outside looking in, and then the inside has element of the outside.  We were high up and now we are in the same space as this grouping of men.  Six men in two groups.  Having coffee, eating, talking.

Marshall reveals his deep interest in the history of art without making a post-modern "pastiche" of style.  He makes a stage set of perspectival relationships in the room.  The bench is the central perspectival device (it is also very similar to the George Nelson benches in the gallery.) We are with these men in their appointed, modernist space. The black squares on the wall reference Malevich.  Using the co-terminus space of baroque painting and marrying it to the severity of the perspectival grid, Marshall collapses the distance between us and these men.  He also uses the pyramidal composition of Raphael to create these monumental groupings of men, who declare and frame the space with the gestures and placements of their bodies.  They point with their limbs and their gazes.  The twist of the figure on the left shows the influence of Mannerism and its emphasis on the extreme action of the body.  The hands and plates establish the planes in the same way that Manet uses his figures in Le déjeuner sur l'herbe.  In fact, the grass in the living room is a direct link to that moment, when a painting becomes a declaration of a constructed truth.

Continuing through the room (in the sixth panel) we see that one of the plates does not seem to "agree" with the planes suggested in the rest of the image, thus declaring a different kind of space.  The difference here makes other differences clearer.  Marshall uses brown in two of the figures, the coffee server, and the man with crossed arms.  There are linked on a strong diagonal in the composition which is split by the square vase on the table.  This split to me talks about a certain idea of doubling and time.

The Master of the Argonaut Panels, The Judgment of Paris, c. 1480 Tempera on panel, transferred to canvas

There is a small painting in Harvard's collection called The Judgment of Paris.  It is a depiction of the event that causes the Trojan war.  The interesting thing for our discussion is that there are two depictions of the same group of people on opposite sides of a panel split by a flowering tree.  Common elements are repeated and illustrate the narrative; the golden apple that Paris holds on the right is held by Venus on the left.  Nature acts as a divider, and an indicator of the passage of time.  In light of this, it is possible that instead of a depiction of six people, Untitled could be one grouping of three people at two different times.

Because of its size and scale, Untitled is experienced in time, not just visually.  Like Eakins's Swimming Hole, each figure leads you to the next in the composition and the pyramidal composition in both paintings lends a sense of monumentality.   But unlike Eakins, where your eye tracks the movement of what could be a single body in a smaller scaled painting, Marshall makes you move your body to experience the image.  Once you enter the room, what you can see from one part of the house you cannot see from another. Therefore, we experience this as two groups of men in a vast domestic space.  For all the focus on the figure grouping, there is a tremendous amount of space in this picture that is absent of activity on first examination.

The image offers a sense of domestic life, of privacy, of community, of home, of rest and restoration.  There is a safe place to gather and a safe place to rest.  In light of Marshall's other work, most notably the heartbreakingly beautiful Souvenirs (there is a glorious one at the Addison Gallery at Phillips Academy), I look at this image as a respite.  In the Souvenirs, a luminous black angel prepares a place for us; a bit of heaven, as it were.  She prepares a place to mourn. This place is absent of participants, but the angel looks out at us.  Untitled may posit the use of that space of mourning prepared in the Souvenirs. Where else but heaven could a group of black men relax and have privacy and safety to speak their minds to and for each other? It also makes me think about the two brown figures and the groups split by the vase.  Is one side the past and the other the present?  The two brown figures actually seem to face each other.  Are they "real" and the other figures memories?  Or ghosts?  These questions shift the functions and readings of the black rectangles in the image.  They are clear references to Malevich and Mondrian (vis-a-vis the verticals of the black frames and in the later panels that hint as well to Ellsworth Kelly), but they also carry the weight of absence and death.  You stand at one end of the work and look down the vast length of it to the black square at the other end.  That square pulsates and vibrates as you approach it.  The small overprinted head on the last panel is like a reflection in a dark mirror.  We are in the "upper room" physically (we just walked up that illuminated staircase to the top of the Sackler) and visually.

If I told you there is an image of six black men at the Sackler, what would you think?  What could you image?  I am guessing that one would not imagine a group of men in a pink room having coffee.  The history of blackness in art, and of black maleness in particular, has been strongly tied to narratives of violence, separation, anger, exoticism, and hypersexuality. Or they are represented as an historical occurrence, reinforcing the notion that black people are somehow outside of contemporary life.  This is not to say that there are not "positive" or "favorable" images of black people in art, but to say that when black people appear in art, they are nothing but their blackness - they are not human, they are indexes.  (You can see this in the gorgeous Ingres Odalisque with a Slave that is directly opposite Untitled in the next room.  This work uses images of blackness and exoticism to eroticize the possessions of the empire.  They are things to be looked at.  In the Marshall, we are participants in the action in the room.  It is a key difference that talks about the nature of subjectivity and the possibility of agency.)

Marshall takes on the reductive notions of blackness.  By using that color, and he is a master of the color black in the same way that Alex Katz is a master of the color pink, he expands its pictorial and poetic possibilities.  In Untitled, black is flesh, fabric, and furniture. It varies in density and texture. It is warm and cool.  It is figure and it is ground.  It is structure.  It is public and private, heavenly and earthly.  In unpacking the color formally he shows that it can be many different things visually and socially.  We can actually think about it as a color and not a label.  It is a site of possibility.  And placing black people in contemporary art affirms their presence in life as it is lived today.

There is a vast amount of space in Untitled that is devoid of the body (although images promoting the piece feature the body).  These are hallways we pass through, spaces we negotiate to get to another space - blank areas whose blankness is reinforced by formal placement of rectangles of pulsating blackness.  Places where nothing happens.  Talking Heads have a lyric that posits heaven to be "a place/where nothing/nothing ever happens."  Another part of the lyric really captures what I feel when I look at this work: "It's hard to imagine/that nothing at all/can be so exciting/can be so much fun."