Black Penelope at the Window: Romare Bearden and Kerry James Marshall

My copy of January’s Artforum arrived yesterday and its cover compounded my disappointment that I’ll not be able to see Kerry James Marshall’s exhibition Mastry at the Met in the flesh.

I was, however, lucky enough to be living in Madrid when Kerry James Marshall: painting and other stuff was on display at the Palacio de Velázquez in the Retiro. I remember being drawn to Untitled, 1998-9an epic 12-part woodcut of a cinematic sweep of an interior, where a group of black men were deep in conversation. To the left of the work, a yellow wall and a blue window looked out onto a railway track, while to the right a door opened to a blue bed with yellow headboard.

I was intrigued by the drama of this scene – who were these men and what were they discussing?

When thinking about figure, colour, interior and exterior I was reminded of Romare Bearden’s painting about Penelope, weaving at the window, while staving off the suitors and awaiting the return of Odysseus, as a ship passes by the window. There are two versions of this moment, one in which the bright reds and oranges fill the canvas with a light and almost frivolous air:

Another version is darker, moodier and fits more closely to the palette of black and blue that Bearden adopted for other works in the series.

Kerry James Marshall has expressed the significant influence of Bearden’s work on his own practice and a few years ago he contributed to an exhibition called ‘The Bearden Project’ at The Studio Museum in Harlem. The work that Marshall showed at that time was called The Woman at the Window, a collage in direct homage to Bearden’s iconic works in the same vein.

In a review of the exhibition, Marshall was taken to task for being too derivative of Bearden’s work. One review notes:

It is in the look-alike work that disappointment lies: Kerry James Marshall’s work is generally striking, but here his The Woman at the Window cut-paper collage is a dead ringer for Bearden, and ends up just looking derivative.

However, what strikes me, when contextualizing this work, as well as Marshall’s use of the black figure in general, is how the collage is not merely a response to iconic Bearden photographic collages (e.g. Block, 1971), but of the black figures from the later Odyssey series of 1977. The origin of Bearden’s collage works, in a meeting of the Spiral group of African-American artists during the Civil Rights movement, specifically on the eve of the March on Washington of 1963,  marked a political gesture to move away from abstraction to black figuration.

As Bearden transformed Homer’s Odyssey into the Black Odyssey using the black figure, for Kerry James Marshall he has worked to reassert the place of the black figure within the canon of Western painting. Given this, the dismissal of his homage to Bearden seems to be operating within the same disparaging (and racist) register, whereby if an African-American artist enters into dialogue with another African-American artist, it must somehow be derivative, while the rich vein of artists that return to the Old Masters, again and again, can never be questioned in the same way.

Here is what Marshall states himself on his use of the black figure and the case of Bearden:

“I am convinced that we would never have heard of [Romare] Bearden had he not abandoned abstraction for the representational collages with which he has become synonymous. Of course, I hope someday that it can be said that I showed another way to the summit of achievement in painting. To be sure, the mode of black figure representation I employ is a clear departure from most popular treatments of the black body. I am trying to establish a phenomenal presence that is unequivocally black and beautiful. It is my conviction that the most instrumental, insurgent painting for this moment must be of figures, and those figures must be black, unapologetically so.”

On the eve of MLK day, as twittering Twump denigrates Civil Rights icon John Lewis, and days before another Civil Rights March on Washington, perhaps it is too simplistic (or idealistic) to want the men huddled in Marshall’s epic Untitled work to be that same group of Spiral artists, working together to fight another fight and lead another insurgence. Or to see in The Woman at the Window a black Penelope, using her cunning to stave off the suitors and weave her many wiles as a more than equal partner to Odysseus.

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This post was written in honour of my friend and fellow Classicist Tom Hawkins, whose birthday it is today. Tom has dedicated his recent teaching and research to making connections between the Department of Classics and the Department of African-American and African Studies here at Ohio State, including a new course called ‘Black Cultures and Classical Education’. His ambition is to show how there is a place for the discipline of Classics to intervene promote multiculturalism and counter racism within education in US culture and beyond, earning him a much-deserved Ratner Distinguished Teaching Award. Happy Birthday Tom!

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