Kerry James Marshall - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, November 15, 2018 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
    Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1991

  • Exhibited

    Chicago Cultural Center, TERRA INCOGNITA: Works by Kerry James Marshall and Santiago Vaca, April 4 - May 30, 1992

  • Catalogue Essay

    In Kerry James Marshall’s Terra Incognita, 1991, the figure of a black man, dressed in traditional waiter attire hovers miraculously atop a sea of dripping blue paint, an ocean liner and mass of land in the far distance. Framed by geographic coordinates, closer consideration reveals that this echoes the antique map of Africa painted at the lower right. Terra Incognita vividly attests to the pivotal juncture in Marshall’s career when he created his first major large-format history paintings that embraced narrative dimensions through a distinctly expressive painterly style. A truly foundational painting, it marked the beginning of Marshall’s concerted investigation of the forced African diaspora, a recurring theme he also addressed in paintings such as Voyager, 1992, and Great America, 1994, both in the collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., Gulf Stream, 2003, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, as well as in installations such as Wake, 2003-2005, Rennie Museum, Vancouver.

    Executed in 1991, Terra Incognita celebrates a crucial period in Marshall’s career. Indeed, when gallerist Jack Shainman saw the exhibition Terra Incognita: Kerry James Marshall and Santiago Vaca at the Chicago Cultural Center in 1992 he immediately decided to give the artist a solo show – marking the beginning of a crucial working relationship. Just a year later, the Los Angeles County Museum purchased De Style, 1993, the first work by Marshall to enter a major museum collection. These early works paved the way for Marshall’s inclusion at the Whitney Biennale and, soon after, Documenta X in Kassel in 1997, which garnered him international attention and set in motion his ascent to one of the foremost living painters.

    The present work sees Marshall employ the distinctly expressive painterly language characteristic for his work between the early to mid-1990s. Gestural swathes of blue paint drip down the height of the canvas, resembling the flowerlike blotches or “flourishes”, as Marshall has referred to them, that reference Cy Twombly, Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. As Dieter Roelstraete has argued, “above all…these elaborate marks can be seen as the unmistakable physical traces of the artist’s formative struggle with the legacy of gestural abstraction as allegedly the only legitimate form of truly modern American art” (Dieter Roelstraete, Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 2016, p. 52). Like artists as diverse as Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Hammons, Romare Bearden, Charles White, and Barkley Hendricks before him, Marshall rejects the primacy of abstraction – embracing figuration instead to bring the black subject into center view. As he postulated, “It is my conviction that the most instrumental, insurgent painting for this moment must be of figures, and those figures must be black, unapologetically so” (Kerry James Marshall, “Shall I compare Thee…?", Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, exh. cat., The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 2016, p. 79).

    Terra Incognita takes a key position in Marshall’s agenda of probing the idea and history of representation, as well as how the imbalance of power, struggle for equality and recognition unfolds over time. As Marshall explained, “For me, the question I begin with is, why are we here in the first place? Why are there black people in the Western hemisphere?” (Kerry James Marshall, quoted in Kerry James Marshall, New York, 2017, p. 40). Terra Incognita is perhaps the most explicit of all of Marshall’s paintings to delve into the crux of that question through the inclusion of cartography as a visual and conceptual framework. Indeed, its title conjures the very cartographic term used in antiquity to refer to the “unknown land” that was reintroduced in the 15th century when European empires began a period of extensive overseas exploration. Yet what is commonly referred to as the Age of Discovery was of course also the beginning of the military conquest and economic dominance of Africa, and the trans-Atlantic slave trade – a historical narrative Marshall visualizes in his inclusion and transformation of the map at the lower right.

    Marshall’s painterly collage exemplifies the artist’s strategy of working off a visual and literary archive of found material as a means to address the cultural and political rhetoric of racial representation. Starkly reduced to a schematic and partial rendering of the African continent, the black and white map identifies a number of known colonies at the time – starting with Liberia in the far West and ending with Angola – yet remains largely devoid of cartographic nuance. The continent's diverse populations and cultures are reduced to depictions of Egyptian pyramids and a prototypical African warrior, suggesting a large unknown yet to be discovered and conquered by the European galleon seen dominating the sea. The depiction of the African warrior figure also alludes to the fact that the history of modern art itself was borne out of similar impulses of colonization. "African masks and statues inspired Pablo Picasso and friends,” Marshall emphasized,“…to Europeans those objects were proof of an uncivilized, primordial consciousness” (Kerry James Marshall, “Shall I compare Thee…?", Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, exh. cat., The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 2016, p. 73).

    Terra Incognita ambivalently probes how this imbalance of power and struggle for recognition unfolds over time. In Marshall’s painterly composition, the warrior’s dominance of the land is a distant memory. The specific West and Central African countries previously labelled in the map now float like abstract signifiers around the composition in the form of geographic coordinates, heightening the notion of the sea as the very locale of the black diaspora. The figure’s traditional waiter attire and the presence of the ocean liner – a mid-19th century invention used for intercontinental travel rendered obsolete after World War II – conjure a not too distant past when African Americans were granted freedom on paper, yet were at social, political and economic disadvantage. “When black people were introduced into the Western world,” Marshall emphasized, “they arrived with no independent agency, institutions or economies that would put them in a competitive relationship with the market-driven milieu they were folded into. Because of this imbalance of power, the struggle for equality and recognition has always been our primary challenge” (Kerry James Marshall, quoted in Kerry James Marshall, New York, 2017, p. 38).

    Terra Incognita subtly anticipates the themes of class mobility and aspiration that would take center stage in Marshall’s ensuing Garden Project and Boy Scout series, but also echoes the religious imagery of Marshall’s concurrent paintings at the time. Indeed, Marshall presents a figure of seemingly icon-like stature: hovering over the ocean and surrounded by a halo, oddly reminiscent of the adjacent compass roses, he conjures the image of Jesus walking on water. The loaded symbolism of water here imbues the painting with a more hopeful undertone of transformation, an association emphasized by Marshall when he explained, “The very idea of the baptism is being born again, dying in the water and rising as some new thing” (Kerry James Marshall, quoted in Kevin Nance, “Kerry James Marshall: In the Tower”, The Washington Post, June 21, 2013, online).

    Propelling the ongoing dialogue on art, history and the black subject, Terra Incognita captures the unparalleled vision of an artist, who, as Madeleine Grynsztejn so poignantly observed, “demands of himself nothing less than to make a lasting contribution to the history of art with commanding paintings that, over time, change their attributes and direction of art itself” (Madeleine Grynsztejn, Kerry James Marshall: Mastery, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 2016, p. 7).

Property from a Distinguished Private Collection


Terra Incognita

signed and dated "K. MARSHALL 91" lower right
acrylic, ink and paper collage laid on canvas with metal grommets
94 1/4 x 74 5/8 in. (239.4 x 189.5 cm.)
Executed in 1991.

$2,500,000 - 3,500,000 

Sold for $2,775,000

Contact Specialist
Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+1 212 940 1278

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 15 November 2018