Saturday, February 21, 2009


Artist Kerry James Marshall is a certified genius. The MacArthur Foundation confirmed it when they awarded him their $500,000 genius award.

But don't take the MacArthur Foundation's word for it. His work was also awarded places of honor in the Whitney Museum biennial, Venice Biennale, and the prestigious German Documenta show. Marshall's paintings sell for $400,000 to prominent museums and collectors.

People of great stature and prominence who pride themselves on their taste have bestowed upon Marshall almost every form of recognition that our society offers. His NY art dealer boasts, "He's kind of recession-proof." No wonder art critic Blake Gopnik writes, "Can an artist get much more successful than Kerry James Marshall?"

Marshall himself is not surprised by all these honors. He says, "Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael.... my objective is to be listed in the history among those artists."

I hope that all of you would-be Michelangelos out there who aspire to recognition, museum shows, wealth and fame are taking notes on what it takes to ascend to the top of the pyramid in our time.

A sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay somehow comes to mind:

Country of hunchbacks! — where the strong, straight spine,
Jeered at by crooked children, makes his way
Through by-streets at the kindest hour of the day,
Till he deplore his stature, and incline
To measure manhood with a gibbous line;
Till out of loneliness, being flawed with clay,
He stoop into his neighbor's house and say,
"Your roof is low for me — the fault is mine."
Dust in an urn long since, dispersed and dead
Is great Apollo; and the happier he;
Since who amongst you all would lift a head
At a god's radiance on the mean door-tree,
Saving to run and hide your dates and bread,
And cluck your children in about your knee?


Rob Howard said...

It's amazing the extent to which members of this society will apologize for the sins of their great-great grandfathers. A reading of Vonnegut's 'Harrison Bergeron' is called for (for the short attention-span crowd, this is the perfect length).

I suppose that it's a rare privilege to have one's life span the growth to prominence of this nation and to also see the voluntary relinquishing of that position to second-class stature.

Marshall is emblematic of that decline. He's in the fashionable redoubt of being unassailable because any criticism of the works and actions of a black man with a soulful back story is considered to be a racist utterance.

Matthew Adams said...

David, you wrote,

Marshall himself is not surprised by this recognition. He says, "Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael.... my objective is to be listed in the history among those artists."

I think you might need to put that in perspective. Marshall is a black artist who is trying to get art produced by black people to be put up in museums, not as token "Black art exhibtions" but as the equal to european artists like Leonardo etc. That is why he has that rather lofty objective. He is now of course starting to be listed amongst those artists (though for how long remains to be seen), so one has to give him full kudos for acheiving his objective. This should also mean that his work is open to criticism, and that he is not in fact "in the fashionable redoubt of being unassailable because any criticism of the works and actions of a black man with a soulful back story is considered to be a racist utterance", as put forward by Rob Howard. If his work is to be listed amongst the greats, it should also be open to the same level of critique as the greats.

While I would agree from what small amount of his work that I have seen he doesn't really qualify as a genius, that in itself doesn't mean his work shouldn't be honored. Of course, the extent to which his work deserves to be honored is I suspect one of the questions you are trying to raise in this post.

David Apatoff said...

Rob and Matthew, I hope it is possible to separate the quality of the art from the race of the artist. I guess future comments will let us know.

I am one of those who believes that sins against African Americans did not end with our great great great grandfathers, and in fact, that some of them continue today. I also believe that Marshall does not draw or paint well, that his compositions are mediocre and that his themes, while occasionally clever, are rarely profound.

I think his work is of the quality of a mid-tier comic book artist-- both in form and content. Yet, the arbiters of taste have proclaimed him a "genius" whose pictures are worth $400,000 apiece, while comic artists everywhere try to eke out a living. I would have less of a grievance if comic artists weren't treated with such disdain by the same audience.

I am sure Mr. Marshall is a very nice man, but if he aspires to be a modern day Michelangelo, he needs to work on his drawing.

Jesse Hamm said...

Gah! Usually my ugly-filters are good for a few hours of websurfing, but this guy's art clogged 'em right up.

Has anyone tried to justify in words the honors he's getting, or is it one of those "his greatness is obvious" routines?

Anonymous said...

oh david, another envy debate?

Dominic Bugatto said...

I think we'll be revisiting a lot of the comments/ critiques expressed in previous posts on the likes of Pettibone & Gary Panter.

What the 'Art Establishment' deems worthy or important or sellable will always be up for debate.

I like some of the qualities in Marshall's work, primarily it graphic boldness , but can't say I'm blown away by it.

N.Aoyagi said...

I work at the SFMOMA and he's been installing a mural here. I've been watching him in action this week. Coincidental? Thanks for the article!

Gerard said...

It's just plain crap. Always has been, Always will be.

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous, I'm not sure that every challenge to a successful artist can be dismissed as "envy." For example, I question the social taste that made Kinkade a wealthy artist, but I'd never want to be him.

It does pose an interesting philosophical question: who do you envy, the successful artist or the excellent artist?

leemoyer said...

Not really the sort of inspiration I usually find here is it?

Quite a raspberry to all of us working in the trenches...

Anonymous said...

Awards talk about the award-givers, not the award recipient. Price tags talk about the market, not the artwork. Ignore awards and price tags and you will be a smarter, happier critic.

Matthew Adams said...

I don't think you can fully seperate the quality of art from content, and intent of the artist. The intent of the artist often decides the medium and style in which an artist will work (or the artists abilities will decide this, and therefore decide the content or intent). One of the main themes (content) of Marshall's work is race, so I don't think you can seperate race from the quality art.

I belive his theme of race is why he has chosen to mimic folk art and mimic comic art in a lot of his work. A lot of comic work and a lot of folk art is pretty mediocre, and so when he appropiated comic art, he also appropiated the mediocre drawing.

Im not saying that he deserves that accolades that he is getting, or that his work is brilliant or anything like that. In fact, I tend to agree with David's judgement regarding the work of Marshall. I don't think marshall's work does what Marshall seems to want it to do. But I don't think you can fully critique his work (even the quality of his drawing) without looking at things like his theme of race.

Brian said...

I am one of those who believes that sins against African Americans did not end with our great great great grandfathers, and in fact, that some of them continue today.

I guess affirmative action doesn't really affect high-end lawyering much. Have you noticed that the only group that it is legal to discriminate against in the US are white men? Its only been happening here for the last, oh 40 years or so. Check it out when you have time. Its a big story.

Hey, whatever happened to spotlighting great artists here instead of rubbing the ol' race sore? If you don't think the work is good, why post it? Do you run a sociology blog or an art blog? You need to make up your mind if you want my and other people's continued attention. The "edgy" bull-session line is getting old.

Rob Howard said...

All of this unearned guilt and unearned pride makes as much sense as today's Christians playing the race card with today's Romans. That was a long time ago and hardly relates to today's realities.

Rather than basing a career on bad feelings, why not concentrate on a black man who is also an illustrator. For that I can find no better example than my former studio partner, Jerry Pinkney.

Unlike Marshall, Jerry's work elevates and makes the viewer feel good about art. His skill is undeniable but what permeates his work is a shared humanity. Jerry's ability with color is what sets him apart from the pack and, judging from the welter of awards he has received through his lifetime, his good nature reaches across all lines to touch our shared humanity.

Marshall is a societal throwback to the Great Society. Perhaps he's a bellwether for the next attempt at social engineering. Who knows? But whatever the future, Marshall's work adds very little to the field and his references to Michelangelo, Leonardo and all of those Dead European White Men he holds as exemplars is pathetic on many fronts.

This is a case of having some awards lying around and they had to be bestowed on somebody. Marshall just happened to be in the right place with the right con.

kev ferrara said...

The text-based theories, (which is to say, the politics), of the twentieth century have been nothing more than the catalyst for a hundred year long process of stupefaction. One good thing about the transcendentally shallow political mindsets of the cynical culture priests... when the counter-revolution comes, and I think it will come soon, they will be too addled by art prattle to recognize its manifestations. They will think the pitchforks mere signifiers of threat, possibly an antiquated reference to the biblical character beelzebub, and the flames nipping at their heels a merely academic arrangement of tongue-like ornament in the baroque manner. "How bourgeoise! How hegemonically narrativistic!" they will cry as their imbecilic paper edifices filled with "artist's statements" curdle into carbon cinders and float skyward.


David Apatoff said...

Kev!!! wow.....

Laine said...

Have you read Scott McCloud's stuff, especially his theories on the 4 tribes of art?

Wondering what you think of them

D.H. said...

...well this is "post-racial" america, the president is Black,
so all racial commentary must now shift to a new paradigm...
mr. marshalls race can surely be of no significance in debating whether he is worthy of the accolades or gobs of, the playing field is even now, right?
the race monster has been neutered.
so, those of you that can draw real well, go create some painstaking, photo realism, wow the teople, and get paid...(though the pool of talent is really thick)...
those who are merely proficient draftsmen, get off your butt, earn a few degrees, go promote yourself and your big idea, become a brand, get in the scene...

the good stuff has all been done before, better,...photoshop is the only hope for "new" art...

don't knock a guy for finding his niche...and certainly don't add race to the debate...not with all the white, art world millionaires who skewed the martket to begin with...millions for a pollock?, a rothko?
yes, lets keep race out of it.
after all, picasso stole all of his good ideas from africa.

for what i consider a better view of Black social commentary/art i suggest romare bearden (classic), and kadir nelson (contemporary), as examples,

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous, you write "Ignore awards and price tags and you will be a smarter, happier critic."

It is quite possible that I would be smarter, but I doubt I would be happier. There are lots of reasons for the yawning gap between quality and success in the arts. We have certainly visited a number of those reasons here in the past. When I observe such a gap, the fun part of this job is (in the words of the great H.L. Mencken) to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted." I don't think I would be nearly as happy if I had to give that up.

Rob Howard said...

D.H. don't think of an elephant.

Oh darn, you thought of an elephant, didn't you? Kinda like looking at all of the race-based stuff that Marshall does and being a good little Doo-Bee and saying...don't think of race. Let's get beyond it. Let's congratulate ourselves on voting for the first black president...but don't think of race.

So let's see, Marshall makes some pictures of complaining "hos" (or are the "bitches" in the current sexist argot of the inner city?) and, don't think of the street...err, race...err the elephant.

D.H. said...

er, that is my point...
the elephant,
do you have any "Black" images on your walls?
let a Brotha get paid for some "racy" art...
most artists paint what they know/see
is rockwell race art? is warhol?

Rob Howard said...

Are we talking about quotas..."let a brutha get paid for his art" is tantamount to racial quotas and set-asides. The field of Art has largely been a meritocracy -- the best rose to the top and their work was preserved, and all of the junk art of the centuries was largely discarded. With that attitude of quotas and the illusion of egalitarian society.

As for having "black" art on my walls I suppose that I do, in the sense that two of my partners were (coincidentally) black and I have some of their art on my walls. During the dashiki-wearing Black Pride days, one of my partners was confronted by a young, angry black firebrand who demanded to know, "what are you doing for your people." My friend just looked at the fool and said..."I didn't know that the artists were in trouble."

Out here in RealityLand, where have to make make our living with a brush and are only as good as our last piece, we don't get quota work. We identify with being artists. We have a lot more in common about the vicissitudes of composing for the printed page, meeting deadlines yet keeping the quality high and, most important to professional illustrators...getting paid fairly and on time (yes, we are ho's). The differences in race and background shrink in importance to the day-to-day realities of being a full time working artist.

Someone like Marshall could never hope to make it in the field of illustration. He simply hasn't got the chops. However, Fine Arts is a totally different bag and much of it swirls with politics and social engineering, so a minority artist (or a majority, like women, who claims to be a minority) has their own ethnocentric or gender-centric museums and exhibits from which white males of European background are summarily barred. Can you imagine having a Caucasian Male show (the guys who made the bulk of Western art) from which people of color and women were excluded?

In this society, turnabout is not fair play and that's why an incompetent artist with a soulful bio has found an audience willing to support his mediocre work. The reason I am exercised about people like Marshall is because I have seen how difficult it can be for artists of real worth to become recognized. And just because he makes money at it doesn't reflect on quality. If that were the case, McDonald's would be haute cuisine.

Jesse Hamm said...

"a minority artist (or a majority, like women, who claims to be a minority) has their own ethnocentric or gender-centric museums and exhibits from which white males of European background are summarily barred. Can you imagine having a Caucasian Male show (the guys who made the bulk of Western art) from which people of color and women were excluded?"

I have no interest in defending Marshall's work, but I would disagree with this complaint.

In the fine art world, women are indeed a minority -- for every Helen Frankenthaler there are ten Pollocks, Rothkos, and Warhols -- and most of the latter are white. Excluding them from occasional shows hardly puts white males at a disadvantage.

Anyway, why care which race is more welcome in the Bad Painting Club? Like cancer, mediocrity is a disease which doesn't discriminate.

David Apatoff said...

I am always amazed (and often pleased) by the path that these discussions take. I did not mention (or even think about) Marshall's race in my original post. My only concern was that he was one more mediocre artist who is held up as a "genius" for society to admire, when far superior artists are ignored. Sometimes bad artists achieve exalted status through cunning marketing (as did Kinkade or Schnabel); sometimes they attain it through the arrogance of the gatekeepers at the New Yorker or the opportunism of the mercenaries at the auction houses. Sometimes they attain it because they have a ghetto chic message which becomes the flavor of the month. I don't find any of these windfalls more odious than the others, I just care about the underlying art.

My view is that we should try to resist being distracted by the press releases and political agendas and conjurer's tricks of the art racket. We should keep our vision fresh and receptive to true quality wherever it may exist-- even on the lowly comic book page, or in a car advertisement, or on a cave wall. I, too, "have seen how difficult it can be for artists of real worth to become recognized." These people deserve defending, and one of the real joys of this blog is that I can defend them using intemperate language that they can't use on their own behalf. (I will add that many years ago it was also difficult for African art or Japanese art with real worth "to become recognized" in the west. In both cases, the underlying quality was there. And underlying quality is the focus of this blog.)

I don't have any problem with grouping art by race or gender or political message or medium or any other organizational device that is potentially illuminating. I don't have any conceptual problem with a gallery of feminist art or a museum of African art, any more than I have a problem with a museum of illustration art. But such groupings have to justify themselves by producing worthwhile insights about worthwhile art. If they simply fill a market niche or a political agenda, then I am not interested.

Andy S. said...

Not drawing per se, but further to DH's suggestions of other examples of social commentary, I love Kara Walker's silhouettes.

This story about her is interesting in light of this discussion:

kev ferrara said...

Please don't call comic book pages "lowly" David. Any artform is only as good or as bad as its best and worst practitioners. So comic books can be transcendent as well as crap. And Mr. Marshall would in no way qualify as a second-tier comic book artist, or any tier comic book artist. He would not be allowed near a tier. He simply would not find paying work in the industry. Period.

And for those who think the large sums of money diverted to Mr. Marhsall don't matter, what you fail to understand is that every service that is encouraged monetarily proliferates. If you give money to bullshit, you get more of it. If you don't give money to quality, the people who could produce it don't bother. This of course assumes there is a finite amount of disposable income being spent on artwork at any given time.

Rob Howard said...

I have to agree with Kev on this one. If you pour money and adulation at something, others will pick up the cudgel and it will proliferate and grow. The reverse is also true. An example is the field of illustration. A few decades ago, the US Department of labor listed illustration as the highest paid profession, surpassing doctors, lawyers and Indian chiefs. It was difficult to master.

Then came the Mac and Everyman was suddenly able to render with the best of them. Forget that he couldn't compose or tell a decent story, the surface was flawless. Soon, the old art buyers and art directors were replaced with younger designers who were brought up with Macs and, absent any filters of developed taste, it was to Hell in a hand basket. that the quality of the art has dropped is undeniable. What many of the remaining oldtimers complain about is that they are now paid the very same dollars they made when they were kid illustrators, just starting out forty years ago.

Competition is based on costs not quality and this is a good example of how economics affects quality. Sure, the devoted artist will want to produce quality but the pro is unlikely to produce an award-winning effort for peanuts.

Marshall's work shows that playing the race card has more than compensated for a dearth of talent and skill. The lesson is clear and it will attract others to do likewise.

Anonymous said...

BTW, I forgot to mention I nominated you for the 2009 Bloggies. Should have mentioned it while they were still on so folks here that might not know about them would check it out and maybe nominate you too.

I didn't see you in the winner or runner up lists.

I didn't see you in the Times 25 best blogs list either.

What's wrong with these people????


Anonymous said...

I guess I should have read the comments before I wrote mine...what's wrong with THESE people???

You guys, and I do mean guys, are waaaaaaaay too serious. Lighten up, willya?


D.H. said...

...only the artist can inject racial clues in his work,
can you detect race in a splatter of paint?
my point is, race had always been encouraged as subject matter for Black artists.
i remember during my college klimpt/schiele obsession a professor asked me why i did not draw Black models...shattering my naivete, i thought you could paint whatever you wanted!
this created a mini-complex about whether my imagery was "black enuff"
i think this happens to many young Black helps create a market of Black Jesus', angels, man with a banjoe, black fraternity surrealism, night at the jazz club, etc...
i don't think caucasian artist deal with this stigma,
i guess the question is, can you observe a piece of art without regard to the race/sex of the person who created it?
is race a necessary context in which to digest someones creation? far as mr. marshall, for some of his work i "get it", in spite of his perceived lack of illustrative prowess...
King and the Kennedys over the fireplace, my grandmother had that.

River Cocytus said...

Art is the skill of creating frames. Your challenge is meaningless, D.H.

In this case, people love the frame of 'black narrative' - even if there is nothing else to it other than that.

Beyond the frame there is the actual content, the layers, and so forth.

Marshall's work belongs along with the Americana you see up in Ruby Tuesday's or T.G.I. Fridays. A Frame for a buck.

To boot, it's 'edgy'. What more could hipsters want?

Dominic Bugatto said...

I think you guys need to lighten up on Marshall. Too much hostility .

All this stuff is market driven. If no one was willing to pay the amounts mentioned for his work this dicussion would be moot.

For every hack, there's someone with exceptional skill who makes equally stale and uninspiring work.

kev ferrara said...

D.H. You mean mimetic, not illustrative. Illustration means a "making clear", as Thornton Oakley was fond of saying. Mimetic means mimicking the way nature looks in a more or less scientific way.

The use of the word "illustrative" to put down illustration as "mere academic drawing" or "pandering to people who like stories but can't be bothered to read them" is a political tactic well used by people who can't draw or paint well, write meaningful poetry, discern decoration or mimesis from metaphor, and/or dream beyond their assigned dreams. No doubt much illustration is "mere illustration", but the baby shouldn't be thrown out with the bathwater.

Artists... ain't we a scrappy bunch! :)

Rob Howard said...

Even though all that's been said is a bit too accurate for the comfort of some, let me pull a Rodney King and say..."can't we all get along?"

Jack R said...

Rob: I'm glad you brought up Jerry Pinkney. His work on the Little Match Girl is so poignant it's hard to look at.

D.H. said...

...i am not necessarily defending marshalls work, more his making lots of money from it. to question or analyze how and why he is paid so much leads to an argumentative quandry.
getting paid well for whatever you do is a puzzle most of us seek to solve.
river- to my point, how much Black Americana do you find in those "exhibits" at ruby tuesdays or t.g.i.f.'s?

regardless of anything else, the election of barack obama changes the paradigm of how Blackness, art and otherwise, is woven into the fabric of america.

kenmeyerjr said...

Rob, good call on Pinkney. Amazing artist and pretty underrated (or under reported). said...

Okay Marshall is a conceptual artist plain and simple. Technical skill is just in service of concept. I would have to study his work in greater depth to pass judgement on the quality/brilliance inspired nature of his conceptual aspects, but from what I can tell especially by the reactions here, he's um kickin ass.

David Apatoff said...

josspaddock, I always have a hard time identifying art that is NOT conceptual on some level. Usually when people insist that conceptual art is a separate subcategory of art, they do it to demean the role of technical skills, saying "Technical skill is just in service of concept." If the concept is great, that doesn't bother me-- there's no single formula for a successful work of art, and a great concept can certainly offset poor technique-- but I find nothing terribly profound or creative in Marshall's concepts. Some of them are mildly clever, the way that drawings in Simplicissimus or MAD magazine migt be, but the technical skills aren't nearly as good.

Brad Sturgeon said...

It's total crap. Plain and simple.

If he wants to be compared to the great Renaissance masters, he needs to sculpt and paint at their level first, and then he can weave in his cultural factoids as he pleases.

Until he does that, to imply that he is of their level with regard to his race is to say that, in the black community, the level of "greatest" and "master" is his level, which is at best terrible.

As a student of art and an art student, I deal on a regular basis with "bad art." I have no idea who pins the drawings and paitings to the walls of the giant art studio building at my university, nor do I care: race, gender, political affiliation - these are the crutches and labels of the unskilled. The pieces must speak for themselves: if I recognize a particular kind of brushstroke or style, that is one thing, especially if it contributes to the pieces' quality. Contrastingly, if it is vital to the quality of illustration in a given image that I know the author's biography offhand, then it is garbage, not a piece of art worth my time, ever.

And as far as I'm concerned, that rule is black and white.

ralfdh said...

Strange to to my white mind is also the current beatrification of bpp hateartist Emory Douglas. But then some of his stuff is at least very powerful, which I can not see here with this Marshall guy. But if somebody wants to give him his hard stolen cash?
Don't we have enough problems to cope with the work of real artists like Romare Bearden or Ronald B. Kitaj, even R Smithson and R Schwarzkogler?
And then there are the tons and tons of perhaps even more interesting, "more human" 3rd or 4th or even nth rank artists like Manny Farber or Brion Gysin and probably every traditional japanese or chinese kalligrapher that ever lived...Any regard for the "ruling art" world seems to be just such a waste of time

Anonymous said...

Art, and the accompanying criticism thereof, has always been subjective. What is a genius, or who is or isn't one, also subjective. And recent visits to several Modern Art Museums confirms in my mind, that so-called "quality" is not the defining measure for merit.

There is a New York Street artist that sells his work, of all places, on eBay. No McArthur award, no major galleries representation, by what are the traditional valuation methods he's a nobody. Yet, I and others around the world marvel at the provocative genius of what this nobody creates.

Kerry James Marshall deserves the recognition given to him, because in the opinion of the awarding organization, he's a creative genius. Those of differing opinion feel free to bestow an award of their own elsewhere.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion. And for me, it doesn't get much more Black and White than that.

Kerry Finearts said...

Really excellent blog. I am also an Artist and loved your blog very much.


Anonymous said...

LACMA just posted a new interview with Kerry James Marshall where he talks about growing up in LA, and how he would go see the Veronese paintings at LACMA and think about being an artist.

Sarah L said...

I love his work. Not all work is memorable, but his work speaks to me. I saw a show of room sized paintings at the Santa Monica Art Museum about a decade ago. I still feel moved by it and have been intrigued ever since. There is room in the world for every art, but Kerry James Marshal's stands out as honest, and contemporary painting with a deeper message, that of community and legacy. I respect what he is doing and I applaud.

David Apatoff said...

Sarah L-- I believe that Mr. Marshall's work "speaks" to you and "moves" you, but it would help me and perhaps others if you could explain more about why. What makes his message of "community and legacy" any deeper or more profound than anyone else's? What is it about his execution that puts him in the same category with the all time greats?