Kerry James Marshall: Better Homes, Better Gardens, 1994, acrylic and collage on canvas, 100 by 142 inches; at the Met Breuer.

The title of Kerry James Marshall’s retrospective, “Mastry,”  functions on multiple levels. It alludes to Marshall’s comic strip “Rythm Mastr” (1999–), which features black characters wrestling with problems in African American communities using the power of new technology and the mythologies of the African past. It additionally evokes the old masters whose work Marshall often cites in his paintings, as well as the artistic mastery he himself has achieved over the past four decades. The title also, of course, conjures the power relations of slavery, whose traumas and inequities still pervade this country.

Issues of race are central to Marshall’s work. The African American artist was born in Alabama in 1955, during the Jim Crow era, and grew up in Los Angeles, where he witnessed the 1965 Watts Rebellion and the rise of the civil rights and Black Power movements. One can see the beginnings of his investigation of race in the earliest works in the exhibition, which was organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, where it debuted; the Metropolitan Museum, which presented the show at its modern and contemporary branch, the Met Breuer; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, where the show is on view through July 3. In the 1980 painting A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self, a man rendered primarily in black on a black ground stares at the viewer with an unsettling grin, the whites of his eyes, teeth, and shirt collar gleaming in the dark. Inspired by Ralph Ellison’s modernist novel Invisible Man, the portrait captures the book’s complex mood—a mixture of slapstick humor, ferocious satire, and tragedy. A later diptych, Two Invisible Men (The Lost Portraits), 1985, features a version of the same portrait on the right, and a monochrome of light pink—often dubbed “skin tone” in premixed paint sets—on the left. The visual disparity between the two panels produces a strong psychological tension: the near-invisibility of the black figure prompts viewers to peer more closely into the other panel—and despite its apparent emptiness, the pink monochrome seems to gaze back at them with invisible eyes. The diptych reverses the traditional terms of art history by spotlighting the black figure and wiping out its white counterpart, but, paradoxically, the empty panel maintains a powerful presence in the piece. 

The forces of an unseen white presence are felt in much of Marshall’s work. His world of low-income neighborhoods, barbershops, nightclubs, and homes populated with black characters may appear autonomous and self-sufficient, but it exists within a universe whose rules and standards have been determined by white people. Even though white people are not portrayed directly in the paintings, they are invariably present in oblique symbolic or referential ways. Sometimes we hear their judgmental voices, as in Beauty Examined (1993), which depicts a black woman on an examination table with critical remarks floating about her body: BIG THIGHS, BIG HIPS, BIG ASS, etc. Sometimes the white presence is suggested through the socioeconomic factors that shape the black characters’ living conditions and their lifestyle ideals. Taken as a whole, Marshall’s practice functions within the traditions and conventions of Western art history: his works echo and respond to those of white “masters,” filling in their erasures and omissions and challenging assumptions concerning which artists and subjects are worthy of canonization.

At the Met Breuer, the lavish retrospective presented a historical progression of Marshall’s work over two floors of the museum. His early works have densely packed surfaces, with every plane and shape modulated or textured; they combine painted figures with abstract gestural marks, stenciled patterns, fragments of text, and collaged book and calendar pages. A 1992 piece, Could This Be Love, shows a black couple undressing in a bedroom while listening to a romantic song, its musical notation and words drifting above their heads. The pair appears vulnerable and slightly self-conscious: the woman looks at us sideways as she pulls her red dress over her head; the man faces us with an uncertain smile, his left hand feeling inside his underwear, a line of text floating by his lips, WHAT A WOMAN WHAT A WOMAN. In a distorted echo of the scene, a cover for a plantation romance novel attached near the bottom of the canvas shows a shirtless black man, presumably a slave, pulling the red dress off a fevered blonde.

Perhaps the most important works of Marshall’s early period are those of the Garden Project (1994–95)—five large paintings that offer semi-fantastical portrayals of life in public housing projects in Chicago and Los Angeles, depicting children playing and adults relaxing amid the idyllic-looking grounds of the urban locations. These paintings and four others that are thematically related but generally show suburban settings covered the walls of a single gallery at the Met Breuer, forming a loose narrative sequence resembling Renaissance fresco cycles. The scenes, with their realistic imagery and pastoral character, might bring to mind Socialist Realist paintings if not for their artificial, staged atmosphere and the solemn, inscrutable expressions on the characters’ faces. Amid the richly decorated compositions are floating banners bearing equivocal inscriptions: BETTER HOMES BETTER GARDENS, WE ARE ONE, etc. 

In the late 1990s, Marshall’s work changed stylistically and began to suggest a different psychological position. The paintings he has made from this time on bear tighter, more carefully constructed compositions and demonstrate greater control in execution; gone are the collage elements and stenciled patterns, the spills and drips, that complicate his earlier works. As Marshall’s approach has become more conventional and restrained, his characters have grown tougher and more assertive. The 2014 Untitled (Club Couple) shows a young black couple sitting at a table with cocktails before them, their smiles wide and happy, their fingers entwined, their faces pressed close together as if for a snapshot; behind the woman’s back, the man flaunts a small jewelry box that suggests the occasion for the photo. Unlike the partially exposed, vulnerable-seeming couple from Could This Be Love, these figures present themselves the way they wish to be seen and admired by strangers. 

Self-display and self-styling have become dominant themes in Marshall’s recent work. A magnificent canvas, School of Beauty, School of Culture (2012), shows the interior of a beauty parlor, with more than a dozen figures conversing, posturing, or primping themselves in front of multiple mirrors. The scene has an oddly disturbing detail hovering in the foreground—an anamorphic image of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty that provides a pop-culture echo of the skull found in Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassadors (1533). Another echo, this one of Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656), occurs by way of a photographer figure reflected in a mirror at the back of the room. While present in the reflection, the man is absent from the visible space of the parlor and appears to be standing where the viewer of the painting would be. He captures the scene but is himself largely unseen, since his camera’s white flash blots out his face in the reflection and his body is blocked by another figure.

The logic of mirrors, reflections, and optical deceptions is at the heart of Marshall’s practice. His work points toward the major paradox of vision: while we may choose to see or not to see others, we remain somewhat obscure to ourselves and need a counter-presence to throw back at us our more or less distorted reflection. To depict the black figure, Marshall employs and inverts traditions, stereotypes, and expectations established by white culture. The image he constructs becomes another mirror, in which black and white Americans may face themselves and each other.