Ralph Ellison and Kerry James Marshall's "Portrait of the Artist"
|Kerry James Marshall, A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self, 1980. Los Angeles County Museum of Art|
"Ralph Ellison’s book presented me with an idea that struck me as being really meaningful and worth exploring, the way in which a thing could be two things at once—the condition of simultaneously being present and absent in the world, but not as a phenomenal condition. When HG Wells writes The Invisible Man, he physically becomes invisible, transparent to view. But in the case of Ellison’s character in the novel, it’s not a physical invisibility, it’s a psychological invisibility. That whole scene in the prologue of the book, where he has the encounter with the man on the street and he talks about the fact that, “I could cut his throat right now and he wouldn’t know what happened to him.” Because, essentially, he doesn’t see me. Even though we just bumped into each other here, this is an interaction we’re having because he is psychologically incapable of seeing who I am."
|First edition (1952) cover of Invisible Man|
Incredibly, Marvel Comics wanted to do a comic book version of Invisible Man, decades before Black Panther. It's hard to imagine what that would have been ("Invisible Man" is no superhero)—but in any case Ellison nixed the idea.
|Gordon Parks, Untitled (Harlem, New York), 1952|
|Elizabeth Catlett, Ralph Ellison Memorial, 2003|
Marshall's small picture has moved to the first rank of Ellison-inspired art. The subject is black on near-black, reduced to the jack-o-lantern grin of a crude joke. Christopher Knight finds a parallel to Ad Reinhardt's black-on-black abstractions (noting that, in the novel, the Invisible Man is repeatedly confused for a doppelganger named Rinehart.) Like Ellison's tale, A Portrait of the Artist… is a bitterly comic take on African-American life. Its mordant tone served as a template for Marshall's mature, large-scale paintings.
|Kerry James Marshall, De Style, 1993. Los Angeles County Museum of Art|
|Kerry James Marshall, Orange Pants, 2014. The Broad|