Kerry James Marshall's paintings insist on black self-representation

In 1951, a controversial Jackson Pollock exhibition at Betty Parsons Gallery in New York featured paintings made by pouring only black enamel on white cotton duck. The work was panned as emblematic of a hugely important artist hitting the skids. Parsons could barely give them away.

Since then, a genre that came to be called black paintings has been a critically contentious subset of American art. Kerry James Marshall, whose exhilarating 35-year retrospective is newly opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art, has turned that conflicted legacy into a powerfully sustained exploration of American history painting.

The path he took to get there is remarkable. Marshall, if I might crib from Cézanne, wanted to make “something solid and lasting like the art in the museums.” That’s no small task for an African American artist who was keenly aware of the dearth of black painters enshrined in institutional art collections.

So Marshall made black paintings.

He didn’t spill black paint like Pollock did for Parsons’ show. He didn’t set black shapes against white ones the way Barnett Newman did, conjuring a metaphor for the dynamic forces of darkness and light. Nor did he create elegant perceptual conundrums out of solid black squares like Ad Reinhardt, nor structural pronouncements about what constitutes a painting, which is what young Frank Stella articulated with a 1958-1960 series of black-and-white striped canvases.

Stella’s precocious black paintings announced the arrival of a major artist. Marshall’s do too, but he is more Goya than abstractionist.

Take a bittersweet group of five monumental paintings that is a stunning centerpiece of the MOCA show. Gardens as emblems of earthly paradise have been prime artistic subjects from ancient days to the modern era — from the Achaemenid Persian Empire to Monet’s Giverny. Marshall’s gardens have names like Nickerson, Altgeld and Wentworth — postwar American public housing projects.

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Cynthia Hirschhornart