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The title of Figuring History, an exhibition of twenty-six large-scale works by Robert Colescott (1925–2009), Kerry James Marshall (b. 1955), and Mickalene Thomas (b. 1971), signals at least two of the show’s significant themes. Both terms have double meanings. “History” refers to people and events of the past as well as to the history of art. “Figuring” indicates both the representations of the human figure and the artists’ attempts to “puzzle out the place and meaning of those figures” (39) in historical and art historical narratives. Employing different strategies, all three artists grapple with figures in history and histories of figuration, particularly—but not exclusively—the underrepresentation and misrepresentation of people of African descent in historical European and American art.
The exhibition presented the artists’ work more or less chronologically, but the narrative of artistic engagement with “history” and “figure” that emerged was nonlinear, echoing Colescott’s, Marshall’s, and Thomas’s own storytelling methods. Colescott brought satire and irony to his appropriations of iconic European and American paintings in order to critique the conspicuous absences of black figures within textbook accounts of Western (art) history. In the exhibition’s opening work, Colescott replaced the heroic white male revolutionaries portrayed in Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 Washington Crossing the Delaware with a cast of crude black stereotypes surrounding George Washington Carver in the place of his presidential namesake. By the mid-1980s Colescott shifted his approach, creating original large-scale history paintings such as the ones shown in the exhibition’s second gallery. With their kaleidoscopic arrangements of densely packed figures, the canvases in the Knowledge of the Past Is the Key to the Future series (1986–87) emphasize, as curator Catharina Manchanda argues, “the inconsistencies of official narrative, and shine a light on the intertwined lives of black, white, and indigenous Americans and the politics of representation” (15).
Marshall likewise uses the Western canon as the basis for his critical centering of black figures within art history, but, in contrast to Colescott’s appropriations, Marshall refers to revered artworks without reproducing them. Such is the case with the Vignette series (2005–8), which, in a nod to Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s The Swing (ca. 1767–68), updates French Rococo portrayals of courtship by depicting a modern black couple’s romantic revelry. Marshall’s Souvenir series (1997–98) and Memento #5 (2003), installed together in what was, for this reviewer, the most impactful room of the exhibition, memorialize the politicians, artists, and activists who lost their lives during the civil rights and black liberation movements of the 1960s. The unstretched canvases evoke resplendent Christian annunciation and lamentation scenes by representing black female angels adorned with gold and silver glitter.
The exhibition’s emphasis shifted somewhat in the galleries dedicated to Thomas’s multimedia paintings, which focus attention “on the female body and the politics of vision” and engage “the history of modernism—more than the genre of history painting” (18). In Le déjeuner sur l’herbe: Les trois femmes noires (2010), Thomas lifts the compositional arrangement of the trio at the center of Édouard Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863)—which Manet himself apparently took from Marcantonio Raimondi’s print after Raphael’s Judgment of Paris (ca. 1510–20)—to portray three black women who, in contrast to the original, all confront the viewer’s gaze directly. Set in the courtyard of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and composed of fragmented, collage-like forms, Thomas’s painting claims space for confident black female bodies within this site and within the modernist art historical narratives presented there.
Despite the considerable differences among the artists’ works, the exhibition established connective threads that wove throughout the show. Marshall’s School of Beauty, School of Culture (2012) and Colescott’s Colored TV (1977), for example, probe racialized conceptions of beauty and desire, juxtaposing black figures with idealized white blondes—an anamorphic Sleeping Beauty in the former and a buxom fairy princess in the latter. New works made by Thomas for Figuring History strengthen the linkages between her practice and those of Colescott and Marshall. Raquel: Come to Me (2017) was “inspired” by Colescott’s Colored TV (75), and Resist (2017), an assemblage of photographic images from the civil rights struggle, relates thematically to Marshall’s Souvenir series and Memento #5 but also “implicates Colescott’s work,” according to Lowery Stokes Sims, who argues that Thomas “wanted to create a ‘contemporary response’ to [Colescott’s] more satirical, social, and political predilections” (51). However, hung alongside Raquel and Le déjeuner, Resist also departs conspicuously from many of the aesthetic and thematic concerns that united Thomas’s other contributions to the show.
Fortunately Figuring History was installed in rooms spacious enough to afford visitors opportunities to step back and view the exhibition’s large-scale works in their entirety. Smaller, more intimate spaces interspersed throughout the exhibition provided different kinds of possibilities for viewer engagement. Thomas’s living-room installation, for which she arranged soft furnishings and flooring in the center of a room, was one such space. A wall text invited viewers to “sit and linger in this communal space,” where they could peruse a collection of books largely written by and about black women. A separate reading nook, the Figuring History library, featured texts about art history, the civil rights movement, and literature and poetry by black writers, among other topics. Figuring History also incorporated a space for viewers to “reflect & respond” to the exhibition either by using computers to create images of subjects they “want to see represented” or by writing on small squares of paper posted to a wall the “current event, movement, or person [they] want to make sure is remembered in history.” Previously recorded interviews with the artists (a 2014 interview of Thomas by LeRonn P. Brooks; a 2014 interview of Marshall by Kasper Bech Dyg; a 2016 interview of Marshall on the occasion of the exhibition Kerry James Marshall: Mastry at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; and a 1991 interview of Colescott by Jim Johnson) were screened toward the end of the show. Regrettably, Colescott’s interview was installed in a corner of the special exhibition gift shop, where it was far less visible to visitors than Thomas’s or Marshall’s.
The exhibition catalogue is slim but richly illustrated; each painting in the exhibition, except for Marshall’s 2018 Vignette (The Kiss), is reproduced as a color plate. Many of the works do not reproduce well, however—this is especially true of Marshall’s glittery Memento #5 and Souvenir series and all of Thomas’s works, with their enamel-, impasto-, and rhinestone-covered surfaces. Three scholarly essays consider different aspects of Colescott, Marshall, and Thomas’s shared concern with the “reassessment and repositioning of the black figure within Western art history and thought” (11). Manchanda and Sims examine various artistic, intellectual, and cultural contexts for understanding the three artists’ production and explore points of intersection between them. Manchanda situates their work in relation to traditions of European history painting, a history that she traces from Leon Battista Alberti’s 1435 treatise On Painting, to its shifting status around the French Revolution, to its decline in the late nineteenth century with the rise of modernist art (12). This important context could be expanded productively to incorporate discussion of the genre’s history and significance in the United States as well. Jacqueline Francis’s essay has a more specific focus, examining the various strategies used by Colescott, Marshall, and Thomas to portray women who “forcefully occupy” the interior spaces “in which they stand, sit, or lie down” (69), even as these spaces and the identities of those who inhabit them are not made fully accessible to viewers’ “incessantly prying eyes” (72).
Figuring History makes a significant and timely contribution to recent dialogues about contemporary artists of color whose work confronts the racist exclusions of European and American (art) history and the roles played by institutions within these histories. One wonders how the inclusion of work by artists like Kehinde Wiley, Faith Ringgold, and Titus Kaphar, among others, might have inflected the important dialogue staged by Figuring History. With the diversity of artistic strategies and thematic viewpoints presented by Colescott, Marshall, and Thomas, Figuring History raised more questions than it answered. At times the exhibition’s scope paradoxically felt both too broad (does the shift in emphasis away from history painting in Thomas’s work make the exhibition feel disjointed?) and too narrow (why these three artists and not others?). But overall the exhibition balanced these continuities and discontinuities in a way that felt fitting for a thematic exploration of the elisions, contradictions, misrepresentations, and limitations of Western (art) historical narratives.
Allan and Mary Kollar Endowed Fellow in American Art and Acting Assistant Professor, Art History, University of Washington