Perspectives Black History

Inside the Studio

Decoding the symbolism of Kerry James Marshall’s 2014 painting Untitled (Studio).

Feb 22, 2021

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Kerry James Marshall’s Untitled (Studio) is full of signs and symbols that draw you into the Chicago-based artist’s creative process and place him in conversation with the history of painting.

The subject of a landmark 2017 retrospective at The Met, Mastry, Marshall is extraordinarily influential among today’s most celebrated figurative artists, from Jordan Casteel to Henry Taylor.

Known for his cinematic depictions of Black subjects, Marshall’s artworks evolve and expand the possibilities of representation.

Untitled (Studio) contains all sorts of clever references to the history of painting, but it’s not just a simple ode. It challenges us to ask bigger questions about the role of art and artists in our lives today.

Who has been allowed to paint throughout Western art history? Who’s represented in those paintings? Where are these paintings displayed, and ultimately, who’s invited to see them?

Take a look around …

You’re inside the artist’s studio. It’s an energetic scene.

A model poses under a spotlight and another woman adjusts the angle of her head. Two men stand on the room’s periphery: one puts on his shirt, the other is nude.

The table is crowded with cans of paint, brushes, and knickknacks. To the left, an unfinished painting sits on an easel.

One of the figures gazes out directly at you.

What’s her role here? Is she the artist, pausing her work to adjust the model’s pose? Is she a studio assistant, looking to the absent artist for direction?

Marshall doesn’t give us any clear answers. Instead, he sets up an intricate puzzle that riffs on storied traditions.

For example, an assortment of seemingly random objects is displayed as a still life next to the painting supplies. Are they props for the composition? Possibly, but they can’t yet be found in the unfinished painting.

In Dutch still lifes, skulls served as memento mori (reminders of death) or symbols of vanitas (transience).

Marshall places this skull—with its cartoonish eyeball and cutaway cranium—beside a small bust of President Abraham Lincoln, who was assassinated just months before the 13th Amendment enshrined freedom for enslaved persons across the country.

Or take the flowers arranged in a tall glass jar. They evoke floral arrangements by early modern Dutch painters like Margareta Haverman or later studies by French Impressionists like Edgar Degas.

This miniature still life set within the painting brings together a range of diverse sources and influences; it creates a dialogue between Marshall and artists across time and traditions.

Marshall is also a graphic novelist and collector of comic books. Here, the skull’s cartoonish aesthetic sits cheek-by-jowl alongside more painterly or finessed elements reminiscent of the Old Masters.

Marshall is keenly aware of the grand painting tradition in which artists invite viewers into the inner workings of their bustling atelier or studio.

There’s Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656), Johannes Vermeer’s The Art of Painting (1666–68), and Marie Victoire Lemoine’s The Interior of an Atelier of a Woman Painter (1789).

The genre gives visual form to private mental processes, allegorizing the mystery of creation. Marshall extends this tradition to Black subjects and viewership.

A second glance at the four figures in Marshall’s scene reveals another layer of meaning. For years in European painting schools, women weren’t allowed to paint nudes—although they were often invited to model for them. In Marshall’s painting, both women are fully clothed. It’s the men who are nude.

The Black male body has a fraught history of representation—often depicted as threatening, overly sexualized, supremely athletic, or sentimentalized.

Here, the man on the left stands in contrapposto, a relaxed pose that recurs throughout art history, from Michelangelo’s “David” to the “Venus de Milo.” It’s a position that signifies grace and a certain seductive quality. He’s comfortable in this space.

But look at the artwork on the easel. While the painting is unfinished, it seems unlikely the man will feature. Clearly, the painting-in-progress is a portrait of the seated model, yet what’s happening in the studio doesn’t entirely correspond to what’s happening on the canvas.

The unfinished image suggests that the future of painting is still unfolding.

It’s not just the canvas that’s left deliberately crude and unpolished; look at the area around the easel.

The can of yellow paint on the table, with its black comic-book outline, stands out against the messy splotches of paint coating the table, as well as the other paint cans to its right.

Look at the floor, with its broad, lateral brushstrokes. See the drips of red paint? The easel’s awkward, geometric shadow?

Notice how it differs from the shadows elsewhere in the scene, like the one under the model’s chair.

All of these details remind you that no matter what you see, you’re looking at an intentional composition. Every part of the scene is deliberate.

For example, the huge window could let plenty of natural light into the studio. (Think of Vermeer’s paintings, where sitters pose by north-facing windows.) Here, it’s blocked out by a red sheet, creating a sense of enclosure.

To control the light on the model’s face, the artist uses a spotlight. Marshall even includes the brand name—Lowel Tota—to represent the tools an artist uses to achieve certain illusionistic effects.

And note how confidently the woman in the blue smock adjusts the model’s pose. Her hand grips the top of the model’s head with intensity and purpose.

With skillful, delicate brushstrokes, Marshall captures the light on their faces.

In this room, the messy work of painting comes under the artist’s control. As you look from left to right, the work grows more visually coherent and the artist reveals his craft. Things feel cleaner, more defined. The scene resolves.

Marshall distills this inexplicable process into a single image. He shows you how the magic trick works.

The atelier genre was subversive from the start. One of the earliest examples, Velázquez’s Las Meninas was painted in 1656, widely considered a golden age of Spanish art and literature. Now at the Prado in Madrid, it’s one of the most perplexing—and written about—works in Western art.

Notice that in Velázquez’s painting, the artist is present. In fact, he’s looking directly at us. Las Meninas is a self-portrait of the artist among Spanish royal courtiers.

We can’t see Velázquez’s canvas—he keeps his process to himself—but we know who he’s painting because a mirror hung on the room’s back wall gives us a clue: it’s the artist’s patrons, King Philip IV and Queen Mariana of Spain.

This seemingly dignified and aristocratic scene actually presents a playful puzzle. We barely catch a glimpse of the Spanish monarchs, and instead focus on a group of attendants who look on as the royals pose for their portrait. The act of looking becomes the painting’s central subject.

This was a radical idea. Here was an artist who suggested that the mystery of his art was as worthy a subject as literal nobility. And he did so while placing its viewers—likely nobles for much of the painting’s history—in his sitters’ position, breaking open the boundaries of his own picture.

Now, what to make of the artist’s ambiguous presence in Marshall’s atelier?

The woman’s guarded expression suggests some hesitancy in opening up this intimate space. Perhaps it’s better to maintain the secret process of this craft and pass it down traditionally, master to apprentice.

But Marshall seems to ask, does withholding access to artistic practices perpetuate the historical exclusionism of Euro-American traditions?

Here, Marshall gives one possible answer. His influential paintings of Black life have ushered in a more diverse and inclusive era of painting. In this picture, Marshall expands painting’s potential to depict the experiences of women, of Black people, and via the woman’s direct gaze, of you, the viewer.

In fact, this large-scale 2014 painting was inspired by the first time Marshall visited an artist’s studio, decades earlier. In middle school, he visited the preeminent African American artist Charles White, a muralist and social realist known for his dignified depictions of Black life in America.

It was a critical moment of inspiration. Marshall already knew that he wanted to be a painter, but standing in his childhood idol’s studio, he saw how it was possible. Years later, White became Marshall’s mentor.

Marshall’s Untitled (Studio) relays the spark of that original encounter, and in capturing the moment, makes that experience available to us.

Through this extraordinary painting, with its layered meanings and playful allusions, Marshall broadens whose experiences are represented within such grand traditions. In doing so, he invites the next generation of young painters to reimagine the possibilities of their art.

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Untitled (Studio) is currently on view in Gallery 915.


Kerry James Marshall (American, born 1955). Untitled (Studio), 2014. Acrylic on PVC panels, 83 ¼ × 119  ¼ in. (211.6 × 302.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Foundation Gift, Acquisitions Fund and The Metropolitan Museum of Art Multicultural Audience Development Initiative Gift, 2015 (2015.366). © Kerry James Marshall

Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (Spanish, 1599–1660). Las Meninas, 1656. Oil on canvas, 126 ¼ × 110 ¾ in. (320.5 × 281.5 cm). Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid (P001174). Public-domain image via Wikimedia Commons