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Curating Kerry James Marshall, Part 1

by Dieter Roelstraete

Installation view, Kerry James Marshall: Painting and Other Stuff, Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen, Feb 27–May 4, 2014

All images courtesy of the author


In the spring of 2016, the MCA is presenting the first major museum survey of Kerry James Marshall one of America's greatest living painters. For more than two years now, a curatorial team, consisting of Abigail Winograd, Dieter Roelstraete, Helen Molesworth, and Ian Alteveer, has been working on assembling an unmatched number of masterpieces for this ambitious exhibition project. This preparatory work has involved a fair share of travel, allowing the curators to see the paintings in person—Kerry's work is of a kind, after all, that really has to be appreciated and experienced in the flesh. In this series of posts, the curatorial team reports back on the sights seen at museums and galleries around the world as they hunt down the artist's greatest works—regularly bumping into the great man himself in the process.

The journey begins in Vienna back in September 2012 at the opening of Who’s Afraid of Red, Black and Green at the Secession, the city's most prestigious contemporary arts venue.

Two individuals smile arm in arm while standing in front of a large art piece.

I took this photo of Kerry and his wife Cheryl at the opening in Vienna. This was the first exhibition of Kerry's I went to see in my capacity as a curator at the MCA; it also figured into my research for the Kerry James Marshall survey show I initiated during my last months as a curator at the museum of contemporary art M HKA in Antwerp. (It was with an eye on inviting Kerry to do that show in Antwerp that I first visited Chicago in April 2011.)

The centerpiece of the Secession show was a stunning triptych, one part of which will be included in the MCA exhibition. Representing the exhibition's eponymous color scheme, the triptych acts as Kerry's ambiguous homage to Barnett Newman's triumph of monochromatic abstraction Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue (1966–70). Red, black, and green are the colors of the pan-African flag—a motif that has appeared throughout Kerry's oeuvre

A picture of the red part of Who’s Afraid of Red, Black and Green, currently on the MCA's exhibition checklist. Its subtitle—If They Come For You In The Morning—is a reference to an article penned by black activist Angela Davis in the early 1970s, when Kerry was a teenager growing up in post-Watts Los Angeles

Installation view of a wide dark blue painting with a vertical white stripe running just left of center and a faint thin stripe near the right edge

As noted before, Kerry's triptych is based on Barnett Newman's large-scale color field expanses. Here is a Newman original, photographed at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam during the same trip (the museum had just reopened after a 10-year restoration and expansion effort). This particular painting gained worldwide notoriety some years ago when it became the target of an attack of vandalism

Here we see Nav Haq, curator of the exhibition in Antwerp, moderating a conversation between Kerry and fellow painter Luc Tuymans. The two painters have known each other for close to 20 years—they met at the Renaissance Society in Chicago in the mid-nineties—and have been involved in an ongoing artistic dialogue. For years now, there has been talk of them collaborating on an animated film

The Antwerp show—which would go on to tour the European continent, with subsequent stops in Copenhagen, Barcelona, and Madrid—focused on the broad disciplinary range of Kerry's work and the heterogeneity of artistic methods and practices. It included this photo installation, the tellingly titled The Art of Hanging Pictures, an earlier iteration of which was shown at a Kerry James Marshall exhibition organized at the MCA in 2003

The Garden Party, Kerry's take on the pointillist aesthetic, hangs ready to be used as a backdrop for the opening remarks. This is one of the paintings I remember seeing in the studio when I first visited Kerry in the spring of 2011—it seemed fitting that, during that maiden voyage to Chicago, I also got to see Seurat's La Grande Jatte (1884–86) at the Art Institute

A trompe-l'oeil, of sorts, taken at the exhibition in Antwerp, featuring my cyclopic reflection in the shining glass covering a painting that will also be included in the MCA exhibition

The banner adorning the facade of the museum in Antwerp sports Kerry James Marshall's portrait of David Walker, a historical figure associated with the slave rebellions of the mid-19th century. This painting will be included in what will amount to a portrait gallery inside the MCA exhibition

The entrance to the exhibition at the Kunsthal Charlottenborg—a central feature of the space was a sculpture consisting of black plastic flowers that Kerry first showed at the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis. The exhibition was very well received in Copenhagen: the day after the opening, David Walker appeared on the cover of Denmark's leading daily newspaper

Here we see The Art of Hanging Pictures installed in the Kunsthal, where the exhibition was cared for by director Jacob Fabricius and curator Henriette Bretton-Meyer

A fine view of two Chicago treasures at the Kunsthal—the painting to the right, which depicts a street corner around the block from Kerry's studio on the south side, is the MCA's, to the left is a painting owned by the Smart Museum at the University of Chicago, where it is on view for most of 2015. Both works will be included in the MCA exhibition

A view of another Kerry James Marshall painting owned by the MCA. This one is from the Souvenir series—the artist's elegiac homage to the heroes of the Civil Rights struggle—which debuted at the Renaissance Society in the late 1990s


Next time, join us as we look for traces of Kerry’s interest in public art across Chicago, as well as stops in London and Spain.