Kerry James Marshall - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, May 17, 2018 | Phillips

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  • Video

    Kerry James Marshall and Arnold Lehman on Reframing Black Representation

    “I make work that has a relationship to art history, but is not a recapitulation of a particular image or style. There’s an evocation of a classical ideal of love. I started replacing some of that imagery with those of black independence and Black Nationalism. What you don’t see a lot of in representation just about anywhere, are images of black people who seem to like each other…to be in love with each other, because the news media is filled with black folks associated with crime or some kind of trauma.” Kerry James Marshall and Arnold Lehman discuss Marshall's own unparalleled vision for new modes of Black Representation in Art History that both recalls the past but looks determinedly forward.

  • Provenance

    David Zwirner Gallery, London
    Private Collection
    Private Collection, California

  • Literature

    Kerry James Marshall, Look See, exh. cat., David Zwirner Gallery, London, 2014, pp. 48-49 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    As timely as it is visually stunning, Kerry James Marshall’s epic Untitled (Blanket Couple) takes a key position in the artist’s programmatic agenda of probing the idea and history of representation. Painted in 2014, it belongs to the seminal body of work depicting quotidian moments of recreation that debuted at David Zwirner Gallery in London and was most recently celebrated in the lauded solo exhibition Kerry James Marshall: Mastry that was co-organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 2016 and 2017. Demonstrating his characteristic formal prowess and painterly virtuosity, Marshall builds a brilliantly colored pastoral scene of romantic quietude– one that is reminiscent of Édouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, 1862-1863, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, but is firmly situated within the contemporary here and now. In his depiction of a black couple affectionately entangled on a blanket on the grass, Marshall puts forth a scene that is intimate in touch, but voyeuristic in scale – reminding us of the universality of human pleasures, as well as of the complicated nature of representation. Taking a key position in the Marshall’s iconoclastic practice, Untitled (Blanket Couple), announces itself with an undeniable objective physicality and monumentality that confidently claims its place in the pantheon of art history.

    Conceived on an epic scale akin to the grand tradition of history or myth painting, Untitled (Blanket Couple) speaks to Marshall’s self-identification as a history painter that imbues the seemingly straightforward scene of a couple taking a moment of respite from a bike ride. As he explained, “I’m acutely aware of and obsessively interested in how the narrative of art history is structured, and the burden that history imposes on artists ambitious enough to dream of being part of it. Black artists have not really been significant players in that narrative for very long…So the challenge is to gain an uncontestable place in the pantheon of art history without surrendering the desire to make pictures with black figures” (Kerry James Marshall, quoted in Kerry James Marshall: Look See, exh. cat., David Zwirner Gallery, London, 2014, n.p.).

    With Untitled (Blanket Couple), Marshall has depicted a black couple in a state of recreation, romantic infatuation and leisure as way to subtly reclaim their marginalized position within art history and the public consciousness. In its invocation of a host of art historically iconic imagery, such as Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884, 1884-1886, Art Institute of Chicago, Marshall refers to the history of the rising leisure class in late 19th century Paris and prompts a consideration of the dilemma of race in that context. As curator Helen Molesworth deftly pointed out, Marshall’s works suggests that, “not everything is available to everyone at the same time and that the battles for rights, and access to the freedoms that attend those rights, are fought-for things that some people already have, and that one powerful record of how they possessed those freedoms and rights comes to us through the history of culture and, specifically, through the history of art” (Helen Molesworth, Kerry James Marshall: Mastery, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 2016, p. 41).

    Like much of Marshall’s oeuvre, Untitled (Blanket Couple) is indebted to the epiphany the artist had in his reading of Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel, Invisible Man and the work that it inspired, Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self, 1980, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. As Marshall explains, this watershed moment in his practice both “launched the use of the black figure in my work” and set him “on a path where I could look at things that were really important and dynamic in the art historical record, and not have to copy them, but instead use the knowledge that determined their appearance as a basis for constructing pictures of my own” (Kerry James Marshall, Kerry James Marshall: Look See, exh. cat., David Zwirner Gallery, London, 2014, p. 96). The dichotomies of absence and presence that Ellison explored provided a sort of ground zero for Marshall to begin his objective to explore the black figure in his art, and ultimately make this visible in the art historical canon.

    Ellison’s prologue —I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me – informs Marshall’s work 34 years on. And indeed, how could it not given the frequent racial injustice and inequality our current climate is embroiled with. In Untitled (Blanket Couple), as in all great history painting, the viewer is confronted with an image that it is at once documentary and contrived; is this a real scene or one conceived from creative license? This duality of reading, this “simultaneity of presence and absence” that Ellison evoked also finds precedence in Marshall’s Lost Boys series from 1992, where he considered the “young black men cut down very early in their lives, and many of them probably with promising futures…” (Kerry James Marshall, quoted in Charles Gaines, ed., Kerry James Marshall, London, 2017, p. 91). The tension between absence and presence is synecdochally represented in the present work within the deliberate placement of a cap over the male figure’s head. By obfuscating the man’s visage from the scene Marshall conjures ways of reading the composition that are now much more loaded than a simple genre scene. And so the absent male visage leaves the viewer to question whether he was ever really there and experienced this moment of romantic quietude, or rather, whether this is an example of a loss of experience due to circumstance.

    This notion of absence Marshall alludes to is also heighted in his distinct approach to the arsenal of painting. Indeed, Marshall’s formal and conceptual interrogations of representation in Untitled (Blanket Couple) complicate the reading of the work as a straightforward depiction of reality. In his deft use of medium and color, Marshall emphasizes the surface materiality of the work and the legacy of his Saturday painting classes with an artist named Sam Clayberger, who, according to Marshall, taught him the most about the metaphorical and discursive potential of color. In Untitled (Blanket Couple), Marshall has painted his figures in his signature palette of opaque black pigments, at once rendering and abstracting them. The limitations and contradictions of style and subject are further heightened by the way Marshall depicts the shadows of tree branches – while his near pointillist daubing of paint conveys the sensation of a cool shade on a sunny day, it also creates an abstract pattern that spreads across the scene as if detached from reality and draws our attention away from the iconography towards the painting’s surface. Marshall, as he explained, strives “to have everything on the surface—revealing everything but revealing nothing at the same time…people can engage in a textual reading of the work, but at the same time the work should resist the need to be interpreted” (Kerry James Marshall, quoted in “Luc Tuymans and Kerry James Marshall”, Bomb Magazine, July 1, 2005, online).

    Marshall’s strategic multivalence here gives rise to a commanding image that shows us different ways of seeing. Propelling the ongoing dialogue on art, history and the black subject, it is a generous work that is as relevant today as it will, undoubtedly, be tomorrow. It is within Untitled (Blanket Couple) that we recognize an artist of unparalleled vision, one 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).


Untitled (Blanket Couple)

signed with the artist's initials and dated "K.J.M 2014" lower right
acrylic on PVC panel, in artist's frame
60 x 96 3/8 in. (152.4 x 244.8 cm.)
Painted in 2014.

$3,500,000 - 5,500,000 

Sold for $4,335,000

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

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 17 May 2018