Culture Type: Figuring History

June 11, 2017

Victoria L. Valentine

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‘Figuring History’: Seattle Art Museum Announces Major Three-Artist Exhibition Featuring Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, and Mickalene Thomas
By: Victoria L. Valentine

The Seattle Art Museum is organizing a major exhibition of three critically recognized African American artists—Robert Colescott (1925-2009), Kerry James Marshall, and Mickalene Thomas. The exhibition will explore how their distinct approaches to figuration and history painting have recast the Western canon and challenged perceptions of race and representation in a contemporary context. “Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas” opens Feb. 15, 2018.

The exhibition brings together large-scale paintings by the artists drawn from institutions and private collections, including works from SAM’s holdings. In announcing the exhibition, the museum noted the legacy of history painting and the ways in which Colescott, Marshall, and Thomas have distinguished themselves in the category.

“The genre of history painting occupies a privileged place in the history of European art. Beginning in the Renaissance with representations of mythological, religious, and literary themes, the most famous artists of the time were commissioned to commemorate pivotal historical events that defined national identities. These large-scale works, done in the grand style, were displayed in ceremonial venues and celebrated the ruling class,” SAM said. “Colescott, Marshall, and Thomas all lay claim to the history of the genre, but with a poignant retelling of American history from a Black perspective, giving prominence to histories and individuals that have been erased or suppressed.”

OSTENSIBLY REPRESENTING THREE GENERATIONS, Colescott, Marshall, and Thomas have each developed a powerful visual language.

Brooklyn-based Thomas, 46, is recognized for her large-scale, rhinestone-embellished paintings and has also pursued photography and video. Her powerful images of black women explore perceptions of beauty and representation, while her pattern-rich interiors are inspired by vintage home and garden magazines. Organized by the Santa Monica Museum of Art (now ICA LA) and also presented at the Brooklyn Museum, “Mickalene Thomas: Origin of the Universe (2012-13) was the artist’s first solo museum exhibition. Surveying just two years of Thomas’s practice, it featured more than 90 works, providing a relatively comprehensive overview.

Marshall, 61, lives and works in Chicago. Marshall has long said that he paints unapologetically black figures using black paint in order to push the Western canon of art history in a more diverse and representational direction. Large-scale images of black people and the black experience should hang in museums alongside the so-called “masters,” he says. “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” the artist’s 35-year survey opened at MCA Chicago last year, traveled to The Met Breuer, and is being presented at its final venue, the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, through July 3.

Colescott was the first African American artist to present a solo exhibition in the U.S. Pavilion at the Venice Biennale (1997). Organized by the San Jose Museum of Art, “Robert Colescott: A Retrospective, 1975-1986” (1989) was the artist’s first major survey. It was presented at eight museums, including SAM and the New Museum in New York, where it was co-curated by Lowery Stokes Sims and John Olbranz, then-director of the San Jose museum. SAM provided the following biography of the late artist, who would be 91 if he were alive today:

Born in Oakland, California, Robert Colescott 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 subjects as observers, agents, and narrators of an incomplete history, in need of revision.

SAM’S COLLECTION includes works by Marshall, Thomas and Colescott. “Les Demoiselles d’Alabama: Vestidas” (1985), a recently acquired painting by Colescott will be featured in the exhibition. Meanwhile, Thomas plans to create new works for “Figuring History.”

A full-color catalog will document the exhibition and include an introduction by Catharina Manchanda, SAM’s Jon & Mary Shirley Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art, who organized the exhibition. Art historians Sims and Jacqueline Francis are contributing essays and interviews with Marshall and Thomas will also be featured.

“’Figuring History’ opens a door into a labyrinth of questions,” said Manchanda. “Who writes history, who is present in its accounts—but also how do we square, reassess, and go forth with the artistic, social, and political histories that we have all inherited? These artists and their work speak about the past as much as the present.” 


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