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MCA Talk: Kerry James Marshall

MCA Talk: Kerry James Marshall video still

Kerry James Marshall discusses his practice and the retrospective exhibition of his work at the MCA, April 23, 2016. For more on Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, visit mcachicago.org/kjm.


As part of the opening day events for Mastry, Kerry James Marshall discusses his practice and current exhibition.

Video captions

So Prince is suddenly dead. I’m gonna say it again. So Prince is suddenly dead and as the death of people who we believe are not supposed to die has a tendency to do, it always has a way of bringing our own mortality into sharper focus. Retrospective exhibitions also have a way of marking passages and transitions of one kind or another and so looking back at where you were and how you got to where you are, I mean sometimes has the effect of producing a sense of melancholy because there’s always a sadness that accompanies remembrance, especially when it’s remembrance of times when you were much more, much younger, perhaps more vital, and seem to have your whole future ahead of you. And so like everybody else I was a young man once.

[Laughs] And this is a photograph that was taken at an exhibition in LA just on—I can say on—the eve of my departure from Los Angeles, going to New York, where I had a residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem, and that transitioned from myself at about 28 or 29 in Los Angeles, going to New York, set in motion all of the events and all of the activities that made it possible for me to get to this place I am today. So I spent almost three years in New York. I met the woman who was the love of my life; who brought me to Chicago. Her name was Cheryl Lynne Bruce. She was working as a PR representative at the Studio Museum when I got there and oddly enough was the very first person I met when I got to town. [Laughs] And so, actually this is a little out-of-order, and since we're looking back, there are a lot of things that you reflect on when you're looking back and one of the things you reflect on is how little things sometimes seem to change.

So here's a collage I made in 1978, and the title of that collage was They Have Come to Save Us and Now They Carry out Aggressions against Us. And so these kinds of reflections on the past and then on the present, where I'm sort of revisiting that same idea but in a much more subtle and maybe more complex way, where I'm more interested now not only in my reflection but in the reflection of another subject. And so this actually a very recent painting—just finished in November of last year—which has miraculously, since Dieter was talking about miracles, so it's miraculously found its way into the Museum of Modern Art, where it now hangs. [Applause]

But the journey from there—from where I was in that photograph—to the collage that I showed you, to this, this particular painting, we gotta reminisce about a little bit through the slides that I’m gonna show and some of the other images and some of the stories I might tell. So when I got to Chicago in December of 1987, Cheryl and I had not yet married because we were gonna do that thing where you didn’t live together until after you were married. So I was in Chicago. I took up residence at the YMCA on 50th and Indiana, because of course when I came to Chicago in 1987 I had two nickels hardly to rub together, and one of the things I found out when I was in New York is that when you really have a hard time finding an apartment—and in New York it’s hard to find an apartment—but when you have a hard time finding an apartment the fallback places, the always-ready fallback place was the YMCA. So when I was in New York after I’d sort of run out my lease on the sublet I had, I ended up living at the YMCA on 135th Street in Harlem.

And that YMCA is famous for a lot of reasons, one of which is that Malcolm X was also a resident at that “Y” at one time and, in the barbershop of that YMCA, there’s a great mural by Aaron Douglas. So when I came to Chicago, having gone through some of those transitions and then arriving and finding a place to live, so this room at the “Y” on 50th and Indiana was not only my living space, but my live/work space. This was my studio and home and that room was only 6 feet by 9 feet, but the fact that I saw the possibility and felt the necessity to continue working no matter what kinda space I was in, or whatever the circumstances I was operating under at the time, this says something about the kinda determination I think it takes in order to reach the place that I think I am right now. So my motto had always been “always keep moving.” Always keep moving.

There's no circumstance under which your ambition and your desire should be curtailed because of social circumstances, political circumstances, or economic circumstances. And so my thing is you always find a way; and the only way you can sorta—I mean success is perseverance more than anything else; and perseverance, what perseverance allows you to do is to continue working because you cannot make progress and you cannot develop unless you are working continuously. And so I always tried to find a way to keep going, to keep doing things no matter where I was and no matter what my circumstances were. And so that room I stayed in for almost three years before we were married and the transition, on some level, that allowed me to go from there to another place was that I was already promised the position of production designer on Daughters of the Dust, a film that was made by Julie Dash. [Applause]

And so in 1989, they finally put together the financing to go down to South Carolina to shoot that film and I was the production designer who was down on St. Helena Island in South Carolina for 14 weeks, you know, collecting material, building sets, and all that stuff, and the money that I made on Daughters of the Dust bought me a complete year of not having to have a job once I came back to Chicago and using that money and making that work that I did in that year that was the money I used to apply for a National Endowment for the Arts Grant and I was doing all that work in the apartment that Cheryl and I were going to share together. Of course I moved into it first because she was still staying at her mother's house but when she arrived that apartment looked just like that. [Laughter]

Like that YMCA room and the first thing she said was, “Where am I supposed to be?” [Laughter]

[Laughs] “This looks like a studio.” But I – but the thing was that it's what the ability to keep working, and where I thought I could go if I kept working would get us, seemed important enough to make that kinda sacrifice and she made that sacrifice. So I've gotta lot of images I'm gonna show and I'm gonna try to do most of it without a lot of commentary and so we gonna pick up. So we gotta – the whole process is gonna be a backwards kinda – we're gonna be going back in time. So if you know in the exhibition upstairs the show ends with the series of abstract-looking works and I say abstract looking because they are not truly abstract works. So those inkblot works and the large color-field painting, all of which, on some level, are supposed to be absent imagery and with the absence of imagery they're supposed to allow for kinda transcendental experience either in the color field of a painting that's like the Barnett Newman painting or to be lost in the kind of play of shapes and colors and textures and things in a totally abstract-looking picture. So this one – this is one of the paintings that's in that room.

This is another that’s not there, as well as this one, which is also not there. Now when I say “not really abstract,” I say that in part because these works are – the inkblot itself is not an abstraction, it’s an object, it’s an image, it’s a figure, and it’s a figure that we understand and that we know something about the function of. We know what inkblots are used for and we know what they’re supposed to look like because we know something about how they come to be as a phenomenon. Now the difference between the way I approach these as blot images as opposed to just blots as phenomena is that all of my blots are completely constructed. And these blots are constructed in exactly the same way I use in composing any kind of other figurative painting because the figure itself is just simply a collection of shapes and lines and colors and textures as well. And so I’m thinking through these pictures and building into them a kind of relative symmetry that’s not the absolute symmetry that we expect when we think about the inkblot as a phenomenon produced by folding piece of paper in half.

So I'm gonna go through and so you'll see some of these things are here but a lotta things that are in the slides are things that are not here and they say something about the way in which retrospective shows operate. I mean in a way – so the retrospective show doesn't have – it never shows you everything because it can't and so it leaves a lotta gaps and a lot of holes in a particular grouping or a body of work. And so one of the things you'll get a fuller sense of from the images I show now is how broad some of those groupings of work actually are. And now, if you had unlimited space and unlimited money to do shipping and things like that, then you could put together a proper retrospective that maybe has, like, 1,500 objects in it. [Laughter]

But given the limitations we have to operate under I'm supplementing with the slides. So these works that you see there and these are among the more recent works that I've done and there's something that's – for me that's – really important about the ways in which the works go backwards and forwards between or flip back-and-forth between abstraction and representation in part because I have always – there have been periods in which artists and often in particular African American artists have avoided figuration because the black figure in particular exists as a kind of limitation that doesn't allow a spectator who is not black sometimes to get past the fact of its blackness and then see the work in the fullness of its aesthetic complexity and so in order to be seen often as a “genuine” mainstream artist, a lot of artists abandon the figure and went for abstraction because there's no evidence or even suggestion that the culture or class or race of the person who made it might have something to do with the fact that they made the thing in the first place. And so that was supposed to produce a kind of freedom in the absence of the figure, but my feeling had always been—and the reason on some level the exhibition is titled Mastry the way it is—is that all things should be in play at all times for everybody: that there's no requirement to jettison the figure for abstraction in order to be seen as either aesthetic or complex; that what one has to do is to figure out how to make that image function pictorially, too; that it's not just about the reproduction of the likeness of an image but it's the way in which the image within a picture operates to help enhance and make more complicated the painting as an object. And so I'm trying to demonstrate to the degree that I can that it's the idea that's represented by the picture as an object itself that's more important than anything else. And so one of the reasons why the figures in my paintings are as black as they are is that that becomes a given, that once you see the picture and you identify that figure as black as it is then that's something you don't have to talk about anymore, it just is. [Laughs]

It becomes a fact of its existence and then you can start thinking about it in relationship to everything else that's happening within the picture space. So I'll go through a few other things – as we go back in time. [Laughter]

Say how'd that get in there? [Laughter]

So now from that array of images I showed just a little while ago, a certain kinda sensibility I think can be determined and one is that in no instance in which those pictures, in the pictures you saw, was there anything sensational about the picture beyond if you wanna argue the fact of the blackness of the figures in it. In every one of those images the circumstance under which the figure is operating in the picture presents a kinda normality, a kinda normalcy, even a kinda mundane kind of aspect of the existence of the figure in its space, and in some ways it's that normality—you know that lack of sensationalism, the ordinariness of the image even in its extraordinariness—that's really at the heart of what I'm trying to do. Because in its – because a part of the goal – is to make the presence of that figure in its extreme a commonplace so that it is no longer out-of-the-ordinary or the exception to the rule that when you encounter pictures in museums that you won't encounter a picture like that. This is a part of the whole project I think I've been engaged in since the 1980s when I produced the painting that begins the show, A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of his Former Self. Now this painting is based in part on – so you see that crown that that figure wears is the crown – this is Gloria Smith, who is the Second Miss Black America from 1968, the Second Miss Black America Pageant and this was – so in the Miss Black America Pageant we know came into existence because they didn't allow black women in the Miss America Pageant. And so as an alternative to being shut out completely and not have any sort of framework in which you can conceive the idea of blackness and beauty at the same time, an alternative pageant was created and it was to be held on the same stage, on the same runways in Atlantic City that the Miss America Pageant was supposed to be held on when it was first started so anyway – one more in a group.

I had an exhibition at the David Zwirner Gallery in London in October of 2014 and the idea of that show with its title – the title was – Look See and it really was about looking and seeing and about seeing one's self, presenting one's self to be seen, presenting one's self to be photographed, and also being looked in upon by someone who might be an intimate of the person because the space that you, as the spectator, would be occupying is the space in which somebody who is familiar would be in. Now this next image, I mean it has value because it represents something. So this is the cover of the African Art Collection from the Menil Collection, that object in the Menil Collection, when I first saw that, I thought, “This is one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen, period.” Leave it at that. [Laughs]

And I'm gonna show a couple of abstract paintings only because, I mean on the one hand . . . so who is that didn't turn their phone when the man asked him to turn the phone off? [Laughter]

So why did I show these? Because they say something about the way in which I structured my project and the whole project of representation in total. So if on the one hand the figures I developed are trying to speak to ideas of presence and ideas of absence and that one of the things I am also engaged in is an examination of the art historical record as it relates to the presence and absence of a black figure representation in the kind of canonical pantheon of painting and that I chose the image that I did because I thought that image would have the greatest impact on that canonical record because the thing you are least likely to see when you go to the museum is a figure that’s black. That’s the least likely thing you’re gonna see and so if that’s the case and I want my work to have the maximum impact then that would seem to be the most obvious approach to take. Now in abstraction what are the issues in abstraction?

I mean on some level it's surface, it's color, it's texture, it's scale, it's shape, it's all those things, and you can do a thousand of those and if you put another one in the middle of that it has no effect on what people expect to see when they come to see another group of things that are sorta like that. So since I'm trying to get the maximum impact and what I'm really wanting to do is to change peoples' expectations of what they're likely to see when they go to the museum, figuration has the greatest potential to do that. Abstraction adds another abstraction on top of another abstraction on top of another abstraction and all of them don't – they don't give you much that's different from what a lot of other people who are doing abstraction are doing, and as a consequence it kinda doesn't matter if you've got 20 or if you've got 10, it's gonna give you a similar effect. I see people starting . . . [Laughter]

[Laughs] Somebody's gonna ask about that later. [Laughs] Now I'm going deeper. I'm gonna go a little deeper into the hole. So I would wager that there's probably nobody in this audience who could tell me who those people are. [Laughter]

[Laughs] Huh? So well these are 12 men who walked on the moon and so – and that's quite an achievement. [Laughs]

Not only did they walk on the moon but if you look in the background they gotta car up there they took with 'em and they drove around. [Laughter]

And so this is – that picture is there primarily because – I mean in the history of space travel we have somehow managed to organize our interests around achievements that are not one-fifth as significant as the ability to do that thing, to get to the moon, to take a car, and to drive around on it, and then come back home. [Laughter]

And so there's something about the capacity to do that that matters in the same way that the reason why my show is called Mastry there is something about the capacity to do all these things that matters, not so much what you do. It's like I don't – we don't know what they did while they were riding around. We do know they picked up some rocks and sent 'em back. They picked up a little dirt and brought it back, but that's not the achievement. The rocks and the dirt are not the achievement. The ability to get there is the achievement. And, for me, the independent capacity to do that same kinda thing matters more than anything else. It's like if you never get a chance to work on something like that then there're certain things you actually never get a chance to think about and outta that there're certain kinds of outcomes that you can never produce because you never had to go through this sorta process.

I mean this reminds me of a critique of Richard Wright in Kobena Mercer's collection of essays, Welcome to the Jungle, in which he criticizes Wright for saying that he had arrived at philosophical conclusions and assumptions that it seemed to have taken academic philosophers a whole lotta energy and a whole lotta effort to do without having to read anything to get to it. Now as Kobena Mercer said, “This is dangerous thinking,” I mean this sorta notion that you kinda naturally arrive at things without having to put in any effort for it. Now it's certainly not having to put any intellectual effort into it, not having to do any research, not having to do any calculations that this as far as he's concerned is dangerous, and it's especially dangerous for people who have been subjugated, enslaved, or otherwise colonized. So this sorta takes me somewhere near the beginning with this picture, which is based in part on a reading of Ralph Ellison's book Invisible Man, and what you will find out in my approach to making artworks is that that challenge that I think Kobena Mercer was leveling that you don't rely on sort of quote-unquote “natural ability” or “talent,” that when you're engaged in a world as complex as the world we are engaged in that you go at it with – you go at it self-consciously, analytically, and always intellectually. And so what this work means for me and what it was the moment in which I figured out how to start using the idea of blackness as a rhetorical device, the black as a rhetorical figure and as a linguistic figure within the context of a classical idea about what it takes to make a painting or what it takes to make a picture and so what's important about that picture is that everything that I felt like I learned from examining and analyzing and studying classical Renaissance painting, in particular classical Italian Florentine painting, I used that to make that picture, so that every element of the picture was placed precisely in its shape, in its direction, in its orientation to another thing that was happening in the picture. So it has all of that material and all of that information in it but it doesn't look anything at all like a Raphael painting.

And that was really important for me that you could deploy the knowledge and the principles but it didn't have to turn out looking like something that you had copied from somebody else. Anyway. So this painting is upstairs, too, and so it's a kind of a visual pun since you already know the other painting is titled Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self then this is just the Portrait of the Artist & a Vacuum. [Laughter]

And it’s that – it’s the intonation using the ampersand as what is the audio kind of figure? But it’s the sound that matters and in sounds and of an artist in a vacuum, and a vacuum, those two things sorta sound a lot alike and so that’s part of that, it’s just a pun, a visual joke. Now I’m gonna go through a couple of things. And so this – a lot of the paintings I do – I mean I think of almost everything I do in fairly instrumental terms. You know after that moment when you saw me in that photograph earlier where I was standing next to a drawing of mine that was just a kinda landscape with two tornados in it, once I really understood what some of the mechanisms of art history was, my whole approach to everything changed and I started treating everything strategically and then everything was about a kind of idea and about an idea of the relationship between a painting and it’s object and its subject and the museum as an institution and art history as a kind of institutional legitimacy.

And since – I mean we know that the way art museums operate has a lot to do with accumulations of large quantities of excess capital.

You just take a glance at those auction records that are being set by artworks now, you know it's like they're not going down to the corner store buying some artworks that end up in museums, not often, and since the black population in the United States has always been undercapitalized as a population, without access to the capacity to generate capital and without levels of excess capital to spend on things like artworks, especially when it gets past a certain threshold. So the likelihood of artworks being bought by black collectors gets slimmer and slimmer and slimmer the more well-known, the more famous, and the higher the prices of the artworks that are being made go and so, in a way, there's a kind of irony in a picture like this that says – that announces that it is black-owned and the reality is this is not black-owned. The person that bought that painting is not a black person. [Laughter]

And even if you encourage black people to buy black . . . [Laughter]

You are thwarted. [laughs] And so now you'll start seeing varieties of things, too, so [laughs] this is a piece that's kinda based on the Donald Judd sorta boxes called Ladder of Success and it conflates a series of historical ideas that people might've come in contact with. I mean there are lots of philosophies of success in terms of how your – what kind of character you should have, what kind of personality, all those kinds of things, and those things have been enumerated over the centuries. You can say Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends & Influence People is a part of that sort of idea of how do you self-consciously put yourself in a position where you might be more successful than not? And so this does – this is based on a chart that I pulled out of a history book that outlined these steps to success, you know, which is punctuality, honesty, oh I can't remember all of 'em, persistence, prudence, all those things, you step up and then insert, at the top of that, the principles of Kwanzaa, Kujichagulia, Umoja. It's like all of the principles of Kwanzaa that were supposed to for black people give a pathway to success as well. Now that, plus the painting that's upstairs, you can see this one up there, you see how they have a relationship to an art-historical model but they do something different than that model does.

I mean in both the case of the Donald Judd and the case of this Barnett Newman painting, the Barnett Newman painting being titled Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue. So I did a suite of paintings that sort of invert that in a way, it's Who’s Afraid of Red, Black and Green and rather than being just a pure color-field painting that's supposed to generate this transcendental effect because you're so engulfed by the color, itself, and the expanse of the picture, that you're supposed to have a kinda disembodied experience. I always have to find a way to root the thing firmly in the reality of the world we live in and so as I took apart the Barnett Newman painting – and so this is exactly the same size of the Barnett Newman painting, it's 9 feet by 18 feet, exactly the same size. I made three paintings and each one of those paintings privileged one of those colors as the – one of the red, black, and green colors as the central color of the picture and so this first one is a text painting and you can read it when you get upstairs. It says, “If they come in the morning,” you know, which is based on a book that Angela Davis put together of letters from political prisoners, but the – and the – phrase is a phrase she borrowed from an open letter that James Baldwin wrote to her when she was in jail. So it's a way in which these poetics and politics and the experience of a kinda transcendental space in the picture, all of these things, I'm trying to balance all of those things and make all of those things operative, simultaneously. So this is again presence and absence. I'm never interested in total absence. I'm not interested in erasure. I'm interested in negotiations and then negotiations are things that have to happen in the moment, in real-time with real people, you know against the backdrop of real events and so it's the way in which you meditate on a thing is, to me it should always be informed by the moment in which you live, and the history that got us here.

So the second painting is a black color, a black field. I mean in the slides there're things you can't see. The whole thing sort of functions as a triptych, basically; and then the green one so then the privileged is the green. And then history always has a place in our consciousness and where there are no representations of figures who have a place in history I tend to produce something that gives those figures a representation. So – and there are four paintings in this suite called “The Stono Group” and, if you know, the Stono Rebellion was one of the earliest slave rebellions in the United States, in the 18th century, you know, it was a little while before Nat Turner and everybody and Denmark Vesey and everybody, but in – it took place in South Carolina and it came close to being the most successful slave revolt except for a fatal flaw, and the fatal flaw ultimately was a belief that they had a right to fight for their freedom like anybody else had a right to fight for their freedom. And so what they did as they were starting to amass more troops in the cause, they made some flags, [laughs] they had some banners, they were being drawn and marching down the highway on their way to St. Augustine, Florida, because the Spanish had put out notice that any slave who could escape to St. Augustine would get their freedom. Now on their march from South Carolina down to St. Augustine they took a break [laughs] and while they were having a party, really, it gave the forces and the authorities time to catch up and there went the whole project. And so the leader of that rebellion was a man named Cato or Jimmy so also known as Jimmy.

And so I just made the representation of these figures and literally – I mean they are sort of standing at the gallows at dawn and from painting to painting to painting you’ll see the lights, the day starts to break as you go from one figure to the next figure, and so the light changes. You’ll see ‘em better upstairs. You can’t see ‘em so well—at least I can’t see ‘em so well on the slide, but anyway. But this is also the way in which I sort of use history as a point of meditation not as an illustration of an event in the same way that this figure, John Punch, who is a figure around which the permanent enslavement of black people in the United States was kind of implemented, because we know that John Punch was an indentured in the 18th century. He, along with two white indentured servants, ran off from the man they were working for and when they were caught the two white guys got five or six years added to their term of indenture, but John Punch was made a slave for the rest of his life. And then they started to construct the laws around which the black enslaved would always be permanently enslaved, and so there is no picture of John Punch but there is reference to John Punch in the historical narrative.

And so I thought we need to know. We need to be able to put that idea in that moment with somebody; that he was a real person in the same way that David Walker, people who know David Walker's Appeal to the Citizens of the United States, of New York, and in particular the colored citizens of the United States. So David Walker, another sort of prototypical rebel, a free man who engaged in subversive activities in the hopes of inciting a slave insurrection that would ultimately result in the freedom of vast numbers of black people and so his – the book he wrote, David Walker's Appeal is fundamentally a critique of the Declaration of Independence and the hypocrisy he sort of outlines as it relates to the condition of black people. And then of course the famous Nat Turner who everybody knows about and – I mean and it's interesting – so the controversy around Nat Turner has everything to do with the levels of violence that were enacted during the Slave Rebellion and it's a way in which these kinda narratives of heroism are often denied to a black population that had been enslaved when you can sort of go through the mythic narratives of liberation elsewhere in history and in the Bible where – I mean a certain amount of violence seems necessary to the liberation of a people. So anyway, that's Nat Turner with the Head of His Master and I'll show a few things because I don't wanna get too far along because it's three o'clock already. My goodness. So anyway some pictures that are not in the show, Great America, Color Blind Test, [laughs] and I did a group of paintings based on the red/green color-blind test.

You know the RYTHM MASTR comic project, this is the first iteration of the RYTHM MASTR comic project in Pittsburgh at the Carnegie International. There're some comic images, the pantheon of characters. You'll see that image as a part of a thing up there but – and the thing that's important – so the RYTHM MASTR sorta began in the corridors, in the African art corridors at the Art Institute of Chicago. I mean that's where most of those things – most of them were set in the museum at first but the narrative overall was set against the backdrop of the demolition of public housing projects when they started to plan for transformation in Chicago and so this is actually a scene – you know they moved the – the African galleries finally got what you could call proper galleries when they did renovation and added the new wing to the Art Institute and so, but there was a period when they were just sort of moving it around.

It was in the basement once somewhere and you could walk in there and then there'd be a sign saying, “It's not here any longer,” you'd go down the hall and there'd be something saying, “Coming soon,” [laughs] you know? And so you could be wandering through the museum looking for the African art collection. It just wasn't on display. And so I just did something about that, [laughs] just – anyway, it's a long story. "Everything will be all right, I just know it will." But and so – and here, I mean these are puppets. These are puppets that are based on the RYTHM MASTR project. So I did a puppet show – a puppet performance at the Wexner and using Bunraku as a puppet form, a Japanese puppet form that was one of the most incredible things I had ever seen, and so I was so taken by that style of puppet performance where it's three puppeteers operating that one puppet that's about a third life-size. You have the master who operates the head and the right hand. You have somebody who operates the left hand and then you have a puppeteer who operates just the feet and then all three of 'em are there together.

[Laughs] You see everybody, except the two assistants are wearing a black hood so you can't see their face while the master is fully exposed and in his regalia with his, like, silver and shimmering kinda outfit, like a superhero. But anyway, so I made – I did this puppet show that was based on the RYTHM MASTR and so these are some of the puppets I made and there again are those RYTHM MASTR characters for Bunraku.

Prince, Prince, Prince is one of those up there, collages. That painting you'll see in the show; Pinup, a big painting that's sorta like – there're two paintings up there, Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein but this was a painting. That little piece of paper said, “Prettiest girl in the whole, wide world” and the Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Nude in the Spotlight. I've gotta move kinda quickly here. A Flag with a Pinup, it's another pinup image. That one you'll see upstairs if you haven't already. Black Star, Black Star, Scipio Moorhead, if we have a few minutes to say anything about it in Q&A, I will but I don't think we have a whole lotta time now. And then there's a series of paintings, portraits of painters. There are I think two or three in the show.

There’re three in the show but not this one. That one’s there. Not that one. Not that one. This one’s actually in a show at The Met now. But one of the things that I was doing with these – in particular with these – that this is also a way that within a single picture you can have a conversation about abstraction and representation, simultaneously. Where the pallet itself sort of functions as a mode of abstraction within a picture that’s about representation but is also about the way in which systems of representation operate in a way in which you can sort of contradict or go against the implied logic of the system. And so if you have a self-portrait by a painter painting the self-portrait but that self-portrait is rendered as a paint-by-number painting except the way in which the color’s being applied is arbitrary. Then it talks about all of those things at one time.

And so this is sort of how I go about doing what I do. So that painting on the easel is this painting, but, of course, it doesn't correspond in any way at all with the figure that's outside the picture that's being painted, so it's the way in which all of these things sorta work. That painting is upstairs. This is a painting in honor of Beryl Wright who was the first black curator who worked here at the MCA, a vignette, and then there's a whole series of vignettes that take as their point of departure this sort of rococo model of a kind of joy, pastoral romance, and all those things. And so if you take the Fragonard painting, And then there's a – this is a suite of five paintings that are over—they're in the collection at the Art Institute now—and so this group of paintings, it's an animation. So there're five panels and you see the 360-rotation of that figure [laughs] where each one of those is different and then various other – I'm gonna keep going.

A collage again and then also, I mean it's the paintings that are sort of about being paintings that have commodified and are available for purchase, [laughs] Red Hot Deal, Low Low Price, and then upstairs you'll see that, the black painting up there On Sale Black Friday. [Laughter]

And then so now as sculptures – so those coins on the floor are what you'd call a disbursal piece as sculpture and the title of it is the 99 cent piece and it's 99 cents in change, you know three quarters, a dime, two nickels, and four pennies. And those quarters are five feet in diameter and the whole project is rendered with the detail, the maximum amount of detail you would see if you had that quarter as a brand-new quarter, and so – but the idea – but a part of the whole – this whole – that whole – show, that whole exhibition had a lot to do with the way in which we understand the value of things and the arbitrary relationship between the image of – the image that's represented and the object as it's to be purchased and so the 99 cent piece is – the alternate title of it is – it's the 99 cent piece (aka A hundred thirty six thousand dollars in change). [Laughter]

Because it costs $136,000 to make it and so that – but that says something about – so that $136,000 is a barrier that a lotta people that wanna make some stuff can't cross to get those things made and since – if you for people who know Cecil Taylor, the jazz musician, there's a great documentary film on Cecil Taylor called Imagine the Sound. You should check it out and, in there, he's interviewed by somebody in there who asks him if he's bitter because other people who were cashing in on innovations that he had developed while he seemed to be overlooked as far as the money was concerned and his reply was a reply that I think is worth taking to heart, you know, and so Cecil Taylor says, “Well you know what? Nah I'm not bitter because nobody asked me to do this. Nobody asked me to do this.” And one of the things about making artworks, one of the things you're trying to achieve is a certain level of freedom and liberation to do what you want, independent of anybody else's interests in that thing. So I made this thing because I just wanted to see what it looked like.[Laughter]

But what made it possible for me to do that thing and not have to ask anybody’s permission to do it was that all of the work that I’d done from the time I left that room at the “Y” up to this moment put me in a position where I had the kinda capital that would allow me to take the kinda risk to do something that nobody asked me to do. To me that’s complete freedom, the freedom to do whatever you want without having to ask permission and without fear of the consequences; so if nobody buys that it doesn’t really matter but what I learned or what I saw from having done it is hugely important for me. So anyway, you know those draw-me things you see in the magazines sometimes. And I had somebody, my nephews, I let them go at it on the picture one day, they all wanted to do it, and my wife Cheryl did one, too. So everybody had a chance. So anyway, let me go through a couple of things and then I’ll be finished. An installation that was at Monique Meloche, that painting you’ll see upstairs. This one you’ll see upstairs, more of the vignettes but instead of the black-and-white vignettes, these were vignettes that were in color.

That one you'll see upstairs, this one you won't, neither that one, but you'll see that one. You'll see this. You won't see this. [Laughter]

So – and this is there. This is not. The Lost Boys, De Style, The Beauty Shop, The Scouts, and The Scoutmaster and Den Mother, which aren't there. The Garden Project paintings, Bang, Our Town, a big woodcut I did that's about 48 feet long and then that suite of Mementos paintings, all of which were based on the living rooms of people I know, so there's my wife's great-aunt's house down on 127th and Wallace. She's no longer living so I can give out the address. [Laughter]

She's no longer there. My mother-in-law's best friend who just passed away last year, she used to live in Hyde Park, off – this one that's upstairs, that's my mother's living room, in LA, and then there was a series of smaller paintings that went with it because that and then another kind of a souvenir because that show I did for the Renaissance Society, in which those Mementos paintings was in, was about commemoration, about how we commemorate a moment in time, how we commemorate the 1960s as a decade, and this is a commemorative vase with artificial flowers, a cluster of things called As Seen on TV and it's based on – it's – that cross is a cross that's on 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham and so – and then – little sort of fetish-like objects where I took the continent of Africa, cut it up, and reassembled it as a Cubist sculpture and then added things to it. You'll see Heirlooms and Accessories upstairs, some photographs. Not that one – you won't see; but Black Painting and its Black Photograph, so, and it's Black Xmas and they are called that because these are photographs that were taken under black light so again it's this presence and absence as a kind of phenomena in which the condition of the light that you use determines the condition or the quality of the photograph because that's what all photographs are is a kinda registration of the way in which light reflects from an object and can be captured on a piece of film, same thing, that's my wife Cheryl as a kinda odalisque.

And then the last photograph is called Black and it's a photograph of the Johnson's Publishing building taken at night from Lake Shore Drive and so you have Ebony and Jet, which are two of the darkest degrees of blackness and so I'm gonna stop here as far as showing images are concerned and say, I mean, really, so looking back over all these things I have done and the impact they have had on my life and maybe the encouragement they've given to other people who wanna make images and the way in which I've managed to find a place in a lot of the major museums in the country is in a lotta ways more than I ever expected to achieve because all along the way there was always this other part of my – at the same time that I had this fairly extreme sense of self-confidence there were always doubts. There were always doubts and these doubts come from the fact that most museums, most institutions, they have done quite well without the presence of black people for hundreds of years. The people who go to work in 'em don't arrive at the office saying, “Where am I gonna find some black people today?” [Laughter]

And because none of these works I'm making are done by commission that I'm doing 'em as a kind of speculation, it's always a 50/50 chance that you will find an audience who is not asking for that—interested in that. And so I persevered against what I thought were overwhelmingly chancy odds and, on some level, I think I lucked out, and I find myself standing here at the MCA for a second time.[Applause]

Yeah with an exhibition upstairs, so. [Applause]

All right thank you. Well now if there are any questions you can ask a couple and then Dieter will take you upstairs and you can see the show if you haven’t seen it. Yes?

And we have microphones. We’ll do about ten minutes of Q&A. My colleague Ann and I have microphones so if you can raise your hand, we will run up so that everyone can hear the questions.


Yeah my name is Khalil Robert Irving and I’m a Chancellor’s Graduate Fellow at Washington University in St. Louis, travelled here overnight to see this lecture and see this exhibition.

Thanks for coming.

I wanted to say thank you. Your work and your word has an amazing impact on my life and what I do in my studio but I have a couple questions, one starting, you know, we're looking back and you're sharing your work and your life and your trajectory and I was wondering if you could talk about your work, looking towards the future, looking forward maybe starting from The Policeman image.


And then my second question is: knowing all that you do now, what are you willing to share with young artists—young, black artists—working today to help them persevere and challenge the narrative for the future?

Oh, so the first part: looking forward from The Policeman. Well, so here's the thing, I mean there are more things that I wanna do than I'm going to have time to get to. That I know. And so one of my – for me, I mean, everything I – since I said earlier that everything I do I think of in instrumental terms, in terms of what kinda work that thing can do in the world and since I'm always – yeah we are always confronted by areas of absence in which the kinda full participation of all the people that you can encounter in the world is not – you can't take it for granted. So, in the realm of comics – so the reason I started the RYTHM MASTR project in the first place is that there are really very few black superhero narratives, in particular black superhero narratives created by black comic-book creators that have – that can claim the kind of authority that the Marvel and DC pantheon of superhero characters can claim. So everybody knows Superman, everybody knows Batman. Now because you watch TV everybody knows the Flash and when the next round of movies after the Superman v. Batman comes out you're gonna know Wonder Woman and Aqua Man and all those figures, and then you're gonna get your – the remaining characters from the Marvel bullpen coming to life so we all know the Hulk and all that stuff and so you have – so to the degree that for a black kid looking at comic books they don't have any model that demonstrates that another black person can create a character that would be as compelling as those. That was one of the reasons I started doing the RYTHM MASTR project in the first place and so the goal for that project is that once the narrative is sort organized it can be rendered as a graphic novel and then from the graphic novel it needs to be an animated feature film and an animated feature film that has the same scope that we attribute to the Star Wars saga.

I mean it's gotta be – I mean it's like you gotta be imagining things at the top end of the spectrum and so – and it's gotta be something that you can – I mean the way sequels to Spider-Man are built, the way sequels to Batman and sequels to Superman, the way sequels to all these movies are – you gotta create a structure or a platform on which you can build sequel after sequel after sequel and it's the only way you can sorta generate a narrative effect that will linger in the culture in the way these do and that can have the same kind of not only longevity but the ability to operate across the globe. So America, it's like most of the money that American action movies make are made overseas and that's because those stories of heroism are easily transported, but my thing is that everybody – so there has to be a more dynamic mix, everybody's gotta be in the game. I mean and that will require understanding something about the way in which blockbusters like that get made and what the secret to the longevity of things like Marvel Comics and Spider-Man and things, you gotta know something about what makes those work. And so my advice to young people is on the one hand to be hyper-ambitious, to be hyper-ambitious and to construct an artistic practice that you are confident that you are driving, that you are not sitting around waiting for somebody else to recognize that you have some kind of greatness or something worthwhile in it that you're constantly trying to build it and project it, I mean that you should be projecting it, you're not waiting for somebody else to figure out and so if you take the whole – and the thing is, like, and you never stop working. You should be working every day. You know I have a friend – so Arthur Jaffer is a friend of mine who was the cinematographer on Daughters of the Dust and when I first met him was in the era when people were still shooting a lotta Super 8 films and he told me in the beginning when we first met, he said, “You know what? In order to really become sensitive to the way in which film captures an image you have to expose film every day” and so I carried a Super 8 camera in my pocket every day with me and every chance I got I was exposing some film and processing it and then looking at it and then as you do that more and then as you do that more and I said – there's a friend of mine, Dawoud Bey sitting out in the audience, he's a photographer, that man never [laughs] – [Applause]

He is never without a camera, never without a camera.


Yeah you are always shooting because – always shooting. That means you are accumulating information that will inform things you don’t know you wanna do yet. So always be shooting, always be drawing, always be painting. That’s – I mean – and then you have to want something, want something and then name it. Name the thing that you want because if you don’t name it, you can’t go after it so you gotta name it so anyway that’s my –