SINCE THE 1980s, KERRY JAMES MARSHALL has crafted a kind of history painting all his own. The Alabama-born artist is known for painting figures with skin that’s literally black; often, they’re shown enjoying everyday activities, like having a picnic or getting a haircut, but he manages to imbue these ordinary scenes with both monumentality and mystery. For his latest exhibition, on view last fall at Jack Shainman gallery in New York, he swapped his signature style for an unexpected technique: the exquisite corpse. When the Surrealists made these, one artist would begin a drawing, then fold back the page before passing it on to another artist to add their own marks. No one involved could see the whole picture; nonsense ensued. Marshall, though, signed each segment of his works as his own, and there were no creases or folds to be found.
When Marshall graced the cover of Artforum in 2017, inside, artist Carroll Dunham called him “one of the most consequential painters among us.” Around then, his goal was to make seeing Black figures in museums no longer exceptional. By and large, his plan worked: around the 2010s, as critic Julian Lucas put it in the New Yorker, matters related to the representation of Blackness became “a national conversation,” led by artists like Marshall, Kehinde Wiley, and Charles White. Now, the conversation is shifting beyond representation, and as ever, Marshall is two steps ahead. His new commission for this spring’s Sharjah Biennial is not a painting at all. Instead, the artist created an installation resembling an excavation site that engages histories and fantasies of slave trade and colonialism in the Arab world.
It’s rare—and risky—for an artist to depart so dramatically from an approach that’s brought considerable critical and commercial success. But Marshall’s departure is less surprising when you look closely at what he’s doing: his paintings have always incorporated critiques of painting, and even as figures dominate his canvases, they’re also emphatically elusive and opaque. A.i.A. spoke to Marshall about his big pivot.
Why did you decide not to include a press release or any text for “Exquisite Corpse: This Is Not the Game?”
I didn’t want to give anybody a crutch for figuring out the show. I wanted them to really look. It’s become common for people to lean too hard on the press release to try and figure out what the artist is saying. I wanted to break that chain of behavior. I put a lot of energy into doing the work, and it’s not that opaque. The title is a clue to let you know that it’s not random choices being made.
What are some of those choices?
Each exquisite corpse has four segments, and each segment has a different version of my signature. They all represent me at different stages of my development. There are Black figures that look a lot like the images I do all the time, but there’s also some cross-hatching—I don’t use that technique much now, but I used to.
With each piece, I started with a head, then created a body. Together, those segments constitute relationships and meanings. I’ve described myself as a history painter, and that’s relevant here too. I’m looking at history and trying to draw out connections that people don’t automatically make.
What’s an example?
In Untitled (Exquisite Corpse Iceberg), 2022, there’s a man’s head at the top, connected to an iceberg. The iceberg becomes a pair of pants, and his feet are in sneakers on a basketball court. The portrait is of a man named Tippu Tip. He was one of the wealthiest African slave traders. He’s from Zanzibar; some people also describe him as Arab. There are viewers who might recognize him.
All kinds of people have profited from imperialist, colonialist, and commercial transactions, and all the exquisite corpses speak to those complicated histories. Today, you have the NBA and all those basketball players flying around and slam-dunking—this is happening in the wake of that history. History isn’t always tragic, but it is always complicated. My paintings tackle history in its most complex form. Nobody is getting off the hook.
Still, I really tried to avoid making any parts look grotesque, as the Surrealists often did. You can demonstrate how much you care about the representation of Black people by not treating Black people like silly putty that you can make into any kind of form you want. If “exquisite” means anything, it means do the thing well, make it elegant. I will not make monsters; that’s just too easy.
Doing the thing well has always been essential to your work, but at first glance, some of these paintings might look less finished. Have you experienced pressure to keep making art in your signature style?
Yes. Artists are professionals. There’s nobody who goes to art school who doesn’t mean to come out of there and be a professional. No matter what they say, all the things we do are aimed at a certain kind of mission. Part of that mission is to achieve recognition, and to establish the kind of singularity that sets your work apart from everybody else’s—and, in doing that, to try and produce something that might be meaningful. Some artists might call that a careerist position. But I think the moment you sign up to go to art school, you sign up for a profession.
Your project for the latest Sharjah Biennial, Untitled: Excavation, was certainly not recognizably Kerry James Marshall.
But it is consistent with the way I think about everything. The Sharjah Art Foundation asked me if I’d make a permanent installation. The title of the biennial is “Thinking Historically in the Present,” which is what I do. I developed a proposal for land they acquired in Al Hamriyah. In that square, the Foundation is building a café and doing some landscaping, expanding their footprint. I thought I’d do something to interrupt that development.
What disrupts development in that region? Hitting an archaeological site! Suddenly, you have to pause and figure out how to build around it. So I decided to create an excavation site. First I asked if there were an archaeological site in that particular place in Sharjah, what would it be? I had never been to the Middle East, but I did know 1001 Arabian Nights, that set of fairy tales from the Middle Ages based in the Islamic world. I wanted to confront how history is part fact, part fiction, and part fairytale, because people tell stories that sound nice and exciting to them.
The biennial also dealt with the impact of colonialism. Well, the Arab world participated in colonialism too. Egypt was a colonial empire, and today, people speak Arabic in a whole lot of places where Arabic didn’t originate. Egypt has been occupied by the Sudanese, the Greeks, the Romans, and the Arabs—like an exquisite corpse, broken up into four parts. The installation includes a mosaic with four segments. The top segment says “head” in hieroglyphics; then “torso” in Arabic; “pelvis” in Roman; and “feet” in Greek. That mosaic is in an empty pool, part of the small villa I created.
What else is in the villa?
It has three rooms and a small courtyard. You view it from a footbridge that hovers above the site. It’s all connected to the 1001 Nights tales, and to the Arab slave trade out of Africa. Maybe the villa belonged to a merchant. In all the 1001 Nights tales, there are genies, or jinni, as they’re called in the Quran—mischievous or evil spirits. In fairytales, you rub a lamp, and the genie comes out, then gives you three wishes; they’re servants. In the 1001 Nights, they are always Black.
I read an early translation by Richard Burton. In that version, the whole narrative starts when two sultans discover that their wives have been cheating on them with a Black man. Then they decide women can’t be trusted. You marry them one night and kill them the next morning!
It sounds like for you, combining exquisite corpses with history painting is a way to get at the idea of history as a combination of fact, fiction, and fairy tales.
Exactly. I want to undermine that tendency to project a certain kind of image of who we are into the world, and to interrogate our relationship to the struggle, and to the history of slavery. None of it is as simple as it seems.
You were making figurative paintings before the big boom, and now, you’re onto something new.
I’ve always gone against the grain. In 1966 Ad Reinhardt declared he was “making the last painting which anyone can make,” referring to his monochromatic black abstractions. Well, that was just a few years after I was born.
You told an interviewer that when you were applying to school, someone said your portfolio was too varied, that they wanted to see more consistency.
That comment has haunted me for most of my career. I make works because I want to see what they look like. I make works because I want to understand how images operate, so that I can best use those operations to do the kinds of things that I think need to be done. I’m not limited to doing one thing, because one thing never covers all the bases. When Jackson Pollock hit the end of the road—when he couldn’t see himself doing any more of those drip paintings—he crashed his car. Mark Rothko, too [he took his own life]. You can only make ephemeral rectangles for so long.
Some younger artists have expressed skepticism toward the rise of figuration. It’s less a critique of a work itself, more an uneasiness toward the tokenism institutions bring to it. They’re also wary of the way representation gets conflated with material change. Such criticism is only possible because of the work that artists of your generation have done: now, it’s no longer so exceptional to see Black figures in museums. But do you share any of that skepticism?
You can’t be all that worried about what other people might do with things that you produce and also reap the benefits of making them. It’s all about finding a formal solution to whatever problem of representation you’re trying to address. The market forces people to look for a gimmick, but those things won’t last long. Novelty is not that interesting, but for a moment.
The best way to sum it up comes from the avant-garde jazz musician Cecil Taylor. An interviewer asked him about how he felt watching younger artists, who seemed to be capitalizing on his innovations more than he’d been able to. The interviewer asked if he was bitter. He said [paraphrasing], “Bitter?! I am not bitter; nobody asked me to do this.”
For me, I’m just doing what I think needs to be done. I do the pictures I want to. I always have. If they have an impact on people, that’s fine.