Untitled (2009) by Kerry James Marshall.

Kerry James Marshall’s immense retrospective just opened at the Met Breuer. It’s one of the most affecting and important exhibitions by any living American artist to date. On display are 80 works made throughout the course of the luminary artist’s 35-year career.

Marshall was born in 1955 in Birmingham, Alabama. The Metropolitan Museum of Art says his work “synthesizes a wide range of pictorial traditions to counter stereotypical representations of black people in society and reassert the place of the black figure within the canon of Western painting.”

From the outset, It’s obvious that Marshall is an extraordinary student in the history of Western art. His work is intertextual, referencing an encyclopedia of other artists, styles, and objects.

Early in his career, Marshall became aware of the virtual absence of black representations in western art history. He set out to correct that imbalance and visualize black existence.

De Style (1993) by Kerry James Marshall.

One of the first works seen on entry is De Style (1993)—a 9 by 10-foot acrylic and collage on an unstretched canvas—fixed to the wall with grommets. Visualized is a sprawling barber shop with life-size hyper-black subjects, much like those seen in paintings by Dutch Masters.

“Notice the barber himself, with the lines around his head that seem to be forming this halo, and the one hand raised as if in benediction,” Ruth Henderson, an Art historian, says.

The most striking thing about Marshall’s work is his use of semiotics (signs, and symbols) to create multi-layered meaning. In a way, what Marshall is doing, is reimagining the history of western art in the context of the black figure. He takes traditional, and familiar visual tropes and turns them on their head, shifting the paradigm entirely.

Marshall understands the structure and operations of visual regimes—and their coercive and normalizing effects. He understands that he is operating within a system with limitations and constraints.

The Three Graces (1635) by Rubens.

“Once you go to art school, then you’ve signed up to be a part of this systematized and codified idea of what it means to be making art. And it has very specific parameters within which one is asked to operate. All of our expectations—in one way or another—are calibrated against that narrative of art history”, Marshall says.

“For Rubens to be painting those fleshy naked women the way he was painting them, that’s not problematic, because that’s what he was interested in. That’s what the culture was interested in. That’s what they was [sic] supposed to do.”

“Now if I’m painting fleshy blonde women—and that’s my ideal too—then that’s a problem, and it’s my problem—actually—that if I can’t perceive within myself, enough value in my image, or the image of black women, or, construct the desire to represent that image as an ideal, then that’s my problem.

“If I can’t figure out a way to raise that image to the same level… at the same frequency, then that is also my problem… the inability to solve that problem—to me—is a failure of imagination”, Marshall said.

Marshall also confronts the marginalization of blacks in America by normalizing the stereotypical. Marshall’s subjects are all unashamedly black—rejecting any negative connotations associated with dark-skin.

“You can’t be born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1955 and grow up in South Central [Los Angeles] near the Black Panthers headquarters, and not feel like you’ve got some kind of social responsibility. You can’t move to Watts in 1963 and not speak about it. That determined a lot of where my work was going to go,” Marshall said.

Kerry James Marshall – Mastry‘ is on display at the Met Breuer until January 29, 2017.