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To You, From Me // Meditations On The Poetics Of Revolution: A Letter To Kerry James Marshall


I don’t subscribe to transcendental notions, generally. I like for things to be firmly rooted in reality and then negotiate from there. I’m not evading, trying to avoid, or trying to distance myself from anything. Let’s get in it. As most of us recognize…no matter how dire circumstances seem to be for human beings, we always find a way to preserve the capacity for joy and the capacity for pleasure at the same time that we’re negotiating disturbing and troubling circumstances. This is just how we do it. I think we should never forget that. [1]

Sometimes it’s hard to see everything when you’re standing so close. But then again, sometimes closeness leads to clarity. Maybe this is why I gravitated toward color field paintings in the first place. When possible (and likely to the horror of security guards and conservationists everywhere), I stand really close to the canvases, allowing my entire view to be engulfed by vibrating colors. I find something liberating and unabashedly human within myself when indulging my senses—in this case mostly sight, but sometimes smell because when you’re that close you can smell the color. Everything becomes palpable and visceral. I fell in love with color field paintings because they ask to be loved at all distances. Mimicking my favorite things about love, they seduce me up close and equally from across the room. They allow my mind to wander to wherever. I fell in love with color field paintings because the first time I saw one in person was one of the first times during my early, canon-centered art history education that I saw something I recognized and a reflection of myself within a painting.

Mastry reminded me of my love for color field. I smiled when I relocated that memory not for the high of the nostalgia, but more for the metaphor and complicated relationship I’ve had with art. Loving someone (and art) is complicated and messy. I fall in and out. My love changes over time. People change. The world around us changes. And I (we) then must decide how much I (we) acknowledge those changes and how they influence my (our) decisions, actions, and love.

I bring this up in part because how you demonstrate your appreciation for Black people and Black culture has served as a lesson in the highest form of love. A love that embraces the spectrum of humanness. One that is rooted in reality, but romantic.

The other part is that even in moments when new art trends and global happenings could easily derail and distract, you have remained focused. You have maintained an unwavering dedication to this question of visibility and figuring out how to paint yourself (us) within art history and its central canons. And let’s not forget that you’ve never strayed too far away from the language of painting in order to continue forefronting these questions. I’ve stood in awe watching you relentlessly work to carve out your seat at the table of unforgettables. What was perhaps more quiet yet still evident some thirty years ago is explicit and irrefutable now. Your work has meant so much. I, for one, may not have clawed my way through the sometimes intolerable throes of art history without artists like you.[2] It is you and those like you who have provided a glimmer of hope and a blueprint for what survival looks like and how to alter and build the world we want to see. You are teaching us how to transform art history through diligence, observation, and utilizing the tactics that the canon has taught us.[3] You have identified and revealed an arsenal of tools to add to our wheelhouse. Care and concern like this is hard to forget.

Installation view, Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, MCA Chicago, April 23–September 25, 2016. Black Star 2, 2012 (left); Still Life with Wedding Portrait, 2015 (right). Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago


The third level of success that has to be achieved, and this is the one I haven’t reached yet, is to gain a place in the historical narrative of art that is secure and not contingent upon the generosity of one art historian or one critic or one writer…but that exists in that space because part of the narrative of art history cannot be told unless your name is used in the telling.[4]

How can anyone (other than maybe us) articulate then incorporate what is happening within and around your work when it’s a force that harnesses so much power and history? Audre Lorde told us that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”[5] I often think about these words and wonder if the way in which your work is impacting the narrative is only one way to think about what you do and how you do it. I wonder if using the tools of art history in the effort to change it really works. It often seems like an undertaking that happens in vain (in the wetness of blood, sweat, and tears) and, as you said, relies (far too much) on the subjectivities of gatekeepers who decide whether or not to let certain artists in, and how far.

But there’s something to be said about an artist like you who uses the tools of art history to chip away at the walls of its rigid narratives. Anyone who is paying attention might also realize that you’re not just chipping. You’re actually taking a sledgehammer to it. Instead of seeing your work as something to infiltrate the canon, I propose we talk about your work as a tool for dismantling the canon. You’re opening a window and sometimes even welcoming us through the main entrance. And what you are leading me (us) to and reminding me (us) of are the ways in which we are the keepers of our own narratives and the architects of more inclusive, unignorable, and far more exciting future canons. Rather than holding tired, limited narratives at the most high, you have reminded me (us) that reconstruction is an option. Not only is it an option, it’s happening.

As I sat in the audience at the MCA back in 2010 and listened to you talk about a few of your measures of success, I started to list my beliefs and think about how I could have a hand in remaking the history to include the crucial, genius outliers who are often beyond the canonical purview. On that day your quiet fire, urgency, and approach was something significant and real for me to latch on to. And now, after seeing more and more how these ideas become visible in social justice and historical revisions, that charge I created for myself has evolved to include how much I do or do not want the audience for my work to be those who subscribe to exclusive narratives as central and most essential. I want to be where the new architects of history roam. Those who walk the line between the Tracers’ black text on a white background, and the white text on a black background, with the majority of my weight falling to the right.[6] Those with the desire to see things from all sides—uncomfortably close and surrounded by color, at the edges, in the hidden parts, and those who step back to see things from a distance. Instead of focusing on how to maneuver into history, let’s take a moment to think about how empowering and revolutionary your work becomes when placed in the context of future canons.

But I suspect you have known for a long while that there has been revolution brewing. I can see it in their eyes, looking back at me from the canvas. Mastry so appropriately ends on the looming rumbles and ellipsis of a sentence in need of completion.

If they come in the (the) morning…[7]

A mostly red, but absolutely Black, Newman-inspired color field painting reminded me of what I’ve always known. Your work isn’t just a conversation with art history. And neither is it only a way to see and celebrate within the walls of museums the perseverance, pleasure, allure, strength, and virtue embedded in Blackness. It is as much a call to arms as it is an homage. It’s a demand that we continue to evolve the work of our foremothers, forefathers, sisters, brothers, parents, cousins, tricksters, rebels, leaders, martyrs, hellcats, caregivers, and dreamers at the highest level of excellence and sophistication, while always remembering to hold tight to our joy. While impressive, the exhibition itself and the works within it aren’t the best barometer to measure your legacy. The true testament of your mastery is the way in which the actions from your roles as iconoclast, catalyst, and teacher will reverberate within those of us who will continue the work from this century into the next.[8]

Kerry James Marshall, Slow Dance, 1992–93. Purchase, Smart Family Fund Foundation for Contemporary Art, and Paul and Miriam Kirkley Fund for Acquisitions. Photo © 2015, Courtesy of The David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago

I sit confidently in my hopeful, reality-induced romantic space as I suggest this: just as much as you should know the incredible influence you’ve had on art history, I hope you also see that you’ve had just as much influence as a foundational reference for the new architects. You are already a central figure in the narrative that is being built around you. Your absolute Black is unapologetic, powerful, and stark against all other colors around it.[9] Your Black joins the chorus of many and the cadence continues.

In the center is Black
The left corner, Black
On the table, Black
Snaking along the floor, Black
The right foreground, Black
In the notes that arc into the air, Black
In the folds and ripples,
In the shiver of the brother’s spine [10]

With your Black we plot our next moves within a spectrum of emotions, memories, characteristics, and callings we’ve held, witnessed, and inherited. For that I (we) will be forever grateful.

And know, without a doubt, that if they come for you in the morning, we got your back.

—Tempestt Hazel

Kerry James Marshall, Voyager, 1992. Corcoran Collection, gift of the Women’s Committee of the Corcoran Gallery of Art
Installation view, Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, MCA Chicago, April 23 – September 25, 2016. SOB, SOB, 2003 (left); Gulf Stream, 2003 (right).
Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago


Tempestt Hazel is an independent curator, writer, artist advocate, travel addict and co-founder of Sixty Inches From Center, a Chicago-based online arts publication.

This review was originally published on ArtSlant, a platform for art with a social slant.

[toggler title=”NOTES” ] [1] Your final thoughts at the end of the press preview at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago forMastry, April 21, 2016.
[2] This may sound a bit dramatic, but sometimes the erasure felt unbearable and infuriating.

[3] When I say ‘us’ or ‘we’ in this letter, I am usually referring to young and future generations of Black artists, writers, curators, historians, activists, and all other contributors to and producers/nurturers of (Black) culture. Sometimes I’m referring to Black people in general.

[4] From your talk “Kerry James Marshall: The Artist in the Studio at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago,” May 22, 2010.

[5] From the 1984 essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” by Audre Lorde. In this essay there are many gems. She also says, “What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow of perimeters of change are possible and allowable.” She then goes on to say, “Within the interdependence of mutual (nondominant) differences lies that security which enables us to descend into the chaos of knowledge and return with true visions of our future, along with the concomitant power to effect those changes that can bring that future into being. Difference is that raw and powerful connection from which our personal power is forged.”

[6] This is in reference to the revised history created by Tracers Book Club that’s installed in the MCA’s 4th floor foyer just before you enter the exhibition. The right side (bold, white text on a black background) holds the revised history with contributions from a group of brilliant women. I must also give a shout out to Glenn Ligon’s Untitled (I Feel Most Colored When I Am Thrown Against a Sharp White Background) and Zora Neal Hurston’s writing How It Feels to be Colored Me as references in the back of my mind when writing this line.

[7] Reference to your painting Red (If They Come in the Morning), with the quote taken from An Open Letter to My Sister,Angela Y. Davis by James Baldwin. Baldwin writes, “The enormous revolution in black consciousness which has occurred in your generation, my dear sister, means the beginning or the end of America. Some of us, white and Black, know how great a price has already been paid to bring into existence a new consciousness, a new people, an unprecedented nation. If we know, and do nothing, we are worse than the murderers hired in our name. If we know, then we must fight for your life as though it were our own—which it is—and render impassable with our bodies the corridor to the gas chamber. For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.”

[8] “Paint a perfect picture. Bring to life a vision in one’s mind. The beautiful ones always smash the picture. Always, every time.” —lyrics from “The Beautiful Ones” by Prince. I heard the news that Prince passed as I was leaving Mastry and the world went quiet. I immediately started thinking about the role of modern masters as game-changers after which the world and its artists are never the same. It seems necessary to show reverence for Prince while also referencing the ways both of you have broken down barriers and have made the world a more welcoming place for Blackness and difference.

[9] “Unapologetically Black” is a declaration adopted by the Black Youth Project 100 (BYP 100), an activist organization of young people committed to action, education, and inclusion around issues of social justice.

[10] From “Is What Is Refused To See: After Kerry James Marshall’s “Slow Dance,” 1992-93,” a poem by Krista Franklin in response to your painting.[/toggler]


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