Thursday, February 23, 2017

Meandering at the Met: What An Artist Looks Like

Untitled (Painter), 2009, acrylic on PVC panel

Kerry James Marshall’s recent 35-year retrospective at the Met Breuer, Mastry, ran October 25, 2016 to January 29 this year. It was a big show—almost 80 works, most figurative, depicting the experience of black history and culture, his experience. The two times I went large crowds were gathered around Marshall’s enormous canvases, so much so that photography was impossible. But one gallery was just a little less crowded, and as luck would have it, it held the works that moved me most: a series of portraits of fictional painters that answered the question, “What does an artist look like?”

Ebony-dark figures are depicted with outsize palettes. Some are seated in front of self portraits. These are idealized contemporary figures, most exquisitely coiffed and dressed. Referring to the title of his show, Marshall says in an exhibition-related video, “In the narrative of art history as we know it, there is not a single black person who has received the title of Master, certainly not an Old Master.” 

In the not-so-simple act of painting a self portrait, every painter inserts himself or herself into visibility, into the history of art whether it is recorded or not. That is exactly what Marshall has metaphorically done here, refuting the narrow Western paradigm of the artist as a white man. Male artists of other ethnicities, and women of any and all, can certainly relate.

Untitled (Painter) in a quieter, less crowded gallery at the Met Breuer

Untitled (Painter), 2009, acrylic on PVC panel

Untitled (Painter), 2008, acrylic on PVC panel

The Artist in a Velasquez

Also as luck would have it, at the Met Fifth Avenue there was a different figurative exhibition, Velasquez Portraits: Truth in Painting (which remains up through March 12). The portrait that holds pride of place in the exhibition is the magnificent Juan de Pareja from the Met’s own collection. Against a shadowed gray background a man of regal bearing looks directly at the viewer--which is to say, the painter--with sadness, tinged perhaps contempt, his coppery skin tone offering the only warmth in an otherwise somber palette.

We know from art history that the eponymous de Pareja (sometimes called Juan de Pareja Morisco) was Velasquez’s indentured assistant, a mulatto Spaniard (morisco) whom the master had inherited. What I did not know, however, is that the assistant learned from observation and painted in secret, and that a short time after the portrait was completed in 1650 Velasquez freed the young man from servitude (the story of de Pareja's manumission
here.) From that point on, until his death in 1670, Juan de Pareja maintained a studio and clients in Madrid.  

This story was, to me, an important coda to the painting. And the painting, splendid on its own, is an important precursor to Marshall’s contemporary series. This, too, is what an artist looks like.

Diego Velasqez, Juan de Pareja, 1650, oil on canvas

Below: Juan de Pareja, La Vocacion de San Mateo (the Calling of Saint Matthew), 1661; in El Museo del Prado, Madrid. Click here to explore the work in detail on the museum site. Well aware of art history, de Pareja inserted himself into it. The gentleman standing at far left holding a slip of paper is a depiction of the artist himself

And the artist whose work opened this post, Kerry James Marshall

More info
. Velasquez at the Met Fifth Avenue, through March 12
. Juan de Pareja's La Vocacion de San Mateo at the Prado


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