There’s a painting by Vincent van Gogh in the Thannhauser Collection in New York’s Guggenheim Museum that’s been on my mind this week. It’s from his Paris period, and it’s a tiny thing, a painting just 33x41cm of a very unremarkable corner of a road in the unremarkable suburb of Asnières, rendered in oils on the couldn’t-be-more-mundane cardboard. ‘Roadway With Underpass (Le Viaduc)”,1887
has been in my head because for many years it was assumed to represent van Gogh’s emotions at the time; muted, greyed out, with quite literally no light at the end of the tunnel. Yet in 2018, conservationists at the Guggenheim removed a layer of resin that had been added by restorers working in the 1920s and discovered that for all these years, we had been looking at it the wrong way. Instead of a dull, washed out scene of greys the painting glowed with rich, intense colour, and most of all, there was very clearly a light at the end of the tunnel. Le Viaduc wasn’t a piece about the artist’s emotional state at all; rather, van Gogh had been using the familiar landscape to experiment with new techniques of brushwork and colour theory. We had taken what we knew about the world around the artist to project a narrative onto the work that van Gogh himself hadn’t intended.
In this most symbolic of seasons, in these most uncertain of times, I have been thinking hard about what a column about art and image should discuss, and whether and how we should use the power of art to take on the challenges that confront us. In this space last month we spoke about whether art, as a powerful influencer of attitude and behaviour should be responsible for the impact it creates. This time I thought we’d look at an artist who has flipped the idea on its head, who started with the idea of impact and using our entrenched ideas of how to construct a narrative around art to achieve a very specific goal; increasing the value of Black lives.
In recent times, Western societies have privileged art as a sphere free of social constraint - a laboratory of idea, emotion and sensation - in a way that has allowed us to ascribe value to objects of indeterminate purpose. This constraint-free value creation system rests on the power of the cultural establishment; the ecosystem of art colleges, curators, museums, essayists, and critics, to achieve consensus on the quality of artists and their work, and feed into the commercial art world of galleries, art fairs and auction houses. In this commercial world the value of the art comes in part from the fact that the world that has approved these works has no commercial stake in their future - that it is unbiased.
It’s a problematic idea that, as a young man, the artist Kerry James Marshall saw as an opportunity. His killer insight was to recognise that the way that the cultural establishment works to create value could be used to increase the value of Blackness. Identifying the power and influence that art history exerts over the wider culture, Marshall’s more than 30-year career has been a study in the effective planning and execution of a strategy to ensure that both the canon of art history, and the museum and academic infrastructure that support and promote it, contain far more evidence of Black participation as subjects and as practitioners.
The artworld of the late 1970s, when Marshall was reaching his artistic maturity, was filled with artists withdrawing from painting in preference for more ‘modern’ feeling approaches like installation, performance art, video art, and others. Yet the art history that he had studied, and the reverence with which long dead painters continued to be treated suggested to the young artist that painting would be a surer route into the heart of art history. Now known for his painterly technique, Marshall rejects the idea that painting well requires specific skill, instead comparing it to writing as a mark-making communication technique that can be taught, and effective composition as something that can be learnt.
The subjects in Marshall’s work often appear extraordinarily relaxed
. Whether lying on a blanket on the grass, chatting at the hair salon, or just watching TV in their pants, the visual context is one that rejects the extremes of strength and weakness in favour of a reflection of the more ordinary daily comforts of life, a context specifically related to the moment in time, post-industrial collapse, where an upwardly mobile Black population has begun to remake urban spaces in a way that provides a more comfortable way of being.
Marshall has spoken of the role of the artist as being “...to show people things they might not have thought about until you put it in a form that gave them a chance to see it”
, and the settings of his work and his subjects draw explicit parallels with works throughout art history that define desire through their use of leisure and peace, the state Baudelaire termed ‘luxe, calme, et volupté’. In the cover he painted for this year’s September issue of Vogue Magazine
, a woman in a ball gown by Off-White stands looking out at a penthouse terrace, lost in her thoughts. She is not there for our gaze, and not there to educate a white audience. The privilege she embodies is unstated, our understanding of the rules of painting, of ball gowns, penthouses, of Vogue Magazine all creating a narrative where valued and valuable Black life is unexceptional.
Kerry James Marshall’s ambition was to change the rules of cultural discussion, not only bringing more Black voices into the conversation, but to set the agenda. “The privileged position is to be able to make a character that operates within the culture as if it is essential, that it can’t be done without and that it begins to shape the paradigm against which everyone else has to measure their success”.
From my vantage point in this time of darkness, illness and ill communication, Marshall has achieved something wonderful. Like the Guggenheim’s conservationists refusing to assume that Le Viaduc needed to be seen a certain way, and in doing so unlocking something positive and life affirming, by looking at the artworld in a new way; looking at its mechanisms not as part of creative life, but as part of valued life, Kerry James Marshall has unlocked the power of art to change how lives are seen.