Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas brings together the works of three singular American artists whose work redefines history painting in a contemporary context. Bridging three generations and shaped by distinctive historic events, the large-scale tableaux of Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, and Mickalene Thomas open compelling perspectives on Black culture and representation in an ever changing social and political landscape. Though unique in style and subject matter, these artists are united by presenting counter-narratives to an art history dominated by European ideals. These alternative histories challenge and reinterpret the exulted lineage of history painting.
Born in Oakland, California, Robert Colescott (1925–2009) witnessed the Great Depression in his early years and later served in the Army during World War II. Several years of studies and teachings in France and Egypt following the war gave him an outside perspective and critical edge on the racial conflicts in the United States. The cartoon-like aesthetic of his earlier works take to task celebrated milestones in the history of painting from Van Eyck to Picasso. A decade later, he applies his boldly expressive style to stories that weave the fate of ordinary individuals into the fabric of stories weighed down by the colonial past. He poses his black subjects as observers, agents and narrators of an incomplete history, in need of revision.
Kerry James Marshall (b. 1955) was born in Birmingham, Alabama; he and his family moved to the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1963, a formative time and place for the artist, who now lives and works in Chicago. Marshall’s paintings employ a gravitas that centers on black experiences. His commanding portraits and tableaux of recent years combine familiar representational forms, such as the portrait of the artist or the academic life-drawing class, with political references that frame deeply probing historical narratives.
Mickalene Thomas’ (b. 1971) monumental portraits and nudes of women recall the odalisques and muses familiar from a long line of European art history. Her figures do not lend themselves to passive consumption but are powerful agents who confront us. Material culture and the aesthetics of ornamentation play a central role in her work as she inflects and reimagines Matisse’s arabesques and quasi-cubist spaces through the aesthetics of contemporary fashion and style. The power dynamics shift profoundly as Thomas negotiates gender and sexuality through a contemporary female gaze.
Image: George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook, 1975, Robert Colescott, acrylic on canvas, 84 x 108 in., Private Collection, St. Louis, © 2017 Estate of Robert Colescott / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Photo: Jean Paul Torno.