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
Steven and Deborah Lebowitz have given LACMA a pivotal Kerry James Marshall, A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self (1980). Just 8 inches high, the tempera-on-paper picture was featured at the beginning of the 2017 MOCA retrospective. Billed as a self-portrait, it is no less an imaginary portrait of the nameless protagonist of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952). In a 2017 interview Marshall explained,

"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
Ellison studied sculpture with Harlem Renaissance artist Richmond Barthé before he "blundered into writing," as he put it. Lena M. Hill noted that Ellison was reluctant to allow visual interpretations of Invisible Man. Throughout his life he refused to sell movie rights to the book. (A Hulu adaptation of Invisible Man is now in the works; for the time being Ellison's closest TV avatar is Atlanta.)

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
Ellison's friend Gordon Parks did a Life magazine photoessay on the novel, managing to be both visually compelling and faithful to the text. But in a letter to Richard Wright Ellison dismissed Parks' essay as little more than "an excellent ad" for the book.
Elizabeth Catlett, Ralph Ellison Memorial, 2003
Ellison never saw his posthumous memorial in New York's Riverside Park, near his longtime home. Designed by Elizabeth Catlett, another friend of Ellison's, it is a rather literal interpretation of the invisible-man metaphor.

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
LACMA was the first major museum to purchase a Marshall painting (De Style, 1993, acquired the year of its creation). Recently the Broad has bought three paintings dating from the past five years, giving Los Angeles institutions an unrivaled representation of Marshall's development. A Portrait of the Artist debuts in "Life Model: Charles White and His Students" at LACMA's satellite gallery at Charles White Elementary School (through Sep. 15, 2019). All three of the Broad's Marshall paintings are currently on view.
Kerry James Marshall, Orange Pants, 2014. The Broad


Anonymous said…
I admire Marshall's figurative artwork. They display more technical skill and effort-time to create compared with canvases of mainly pure colors, splotches and inscrutable abstract concepts. Although works by a, for example, Jackson Pollock do have an originality that can be immediately identified and appreciated.