15.3 / Black Painting / Erin Jenoa Gilbert

Black One Shot stages brevity and precision in response to the art of blackness, contemporary and/or prescient. At 1000 words a pop, these pieces divest from academic respectability to inhabit the speculative, ambivalent, irreconcilable ways of black forms, and move through the fires this time. Seditiously, we are object forward, conjuring up the necessary intimacy generated between a critic and their object and keyed to the channels and frequencies of blackness. We hold fast to the given/taken works, the cultural productions without reduction, the condition of knowing all-too-well, and the imagining of something otherwise. Object love in the time of pandemics and insurrections.

b.O.s. will run the course of summer 2020, come what may. We invite you to follow and share hard. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Abram Foley, Aurelie Matheron, and Irenae Aigbedion of ASAP/J.

– Lisa Uddin and Michael Boyce Gillespie (Editors)

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Kerry James Marshall, Black Painting, 2003-2006
Acrylic on fiberglass
72 in. x 9ft.

On April 23, 2016 I attended the Chicago opening of Kerry James Marshall’s MASTRY.1 Most people, seduced by Marshall’s vivid figurative tableaux, passed by the premiere of Black Painting (2003-2006). I stood seduced by its radical departure, a theatre of refusal, a seemingly blank, black canvas. Cosmic in its opacity, shades of blackness comprise a constellation, revealed by a luminous flag oscillating in the uppermost corner of this obsidian skyscape. Within the frame, this light pushes and pulls the eye until forms emerge: two figures recline in a bedroom. On the nightstand sits Angela Y. Davis’s, If​ They Come in The Morning: Voices of Resistance​.

Kerry James Marshall, Detail. Black Painting, 2003-2006

At 4:00am on December 4, 1969 fourteen members of the Special Prosecutions Unit of the Chicago Police Department were stationed around the Black Panther Party apartment at 2337 West Monroe. Entering with a “no knock” warrant and allegedly looking for arms, “They fired 98 shots into the apartment with a submachine gun, shotguns, pistols and a rifle.”2 Their target was Fred Hampton, the incandescent commander-in-chief of the “international proletarian revolution.” In the absence of Huey P. Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, Hampton at twenty-one years old was Deputy Chairman of the national Black Panther Party.3 According to accounts, Hampton fell asleep mid-sentence while speaking with his mother on a wiretapped telephone line. Simultaneously present and absent, sedated by secobarbital, his body slumped over the right side of the bed.

Black Painting reimagines the mise-en-scène of this room moments before police entered the bedroom. In the painting, a tabletop pyramid, a family photo, a pillar lamp, and two books rest upon a three-drawer nightstand. Above the bed hangs a kaleidoscopic composition of concentric semi-circles that conjures AFRICOBRA artist Jeff Donaldson’s Paternal Homage.4 Its radiating light produces a halo illuminating the figures in the shrouded bed. A Black Power fist stands on a second nightstand

Jeff Donaldson, Paternal Homage, 1971
Mixed Media
27 x 27 in.

beneath a another pillar lamp casting light on two hieroglyphic pictograms on the black shale wall. The first evokes Aaron Douglas’ TheFounding of Chicago (1928). Upon it hangs a beaded pendant necklace. In Heirloomsand Accessories (2002) Marshall employs this charm device to isolate the faces of white women who are witnesses at the scene of a lynching.

Aaron Douglas, The Founding of Chicago, c. 1933Gouache on paperboard57 3/4 x 138 1/4 in.
Kerry James Marshall, Heirlooms & Accessories, 2002
Three ink-jet prints on paper in wooden artist’s frames with rhinestones
57 × 54 ¼ × 3 in.

In Black Painting, the witness is pictured as a Black woman, likely Akua Njeri. Hampton’s fiancé, Njeri gazed into his eyes as he took his last breath. She lay in bed beside him before the raid began; then during it, she laid atop his barely clothed body, blocking bullets. Eight months pregnant at the time, her trauma, like an heirloom, was passed from generation to generation.

In the shadows, his white-collared shirt hangs on the chair rail; his pants drape over the seat of a now eternally empty chair. In the uppermost corner the Panther flag, inscribed with “Power to the People” flies above a four-drawer dresser. Only the panther’s body is visible, its head blocked by a lampshade; the Panther has been decapitated. At the lowermost point of the composition a pair of what I imagine to be ruby red slippers suggest the pool of blood where the final two shots seared into Hampton’s brain. When the shooting stopped, Njeri heard an officer announce, “He’s good and dead now.”5

In a memo written nine months prior to the murder, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO (COunter INTELligence PROgram) instructed officers to neutralize the Black Panther Party by “preventing the rise of a Messiah who could unify and electrify the Black nationalist movement.”6 Hampton’s bodyguard, an FBI informant, betrayed him by drawing a floor plan of the apartment, detailing his bedroom. Ironically, by assassinating this rising star, they assured his immortality. Disciples queued outside the shrine, stood in the bloodstained scene, snapping shots of bullet holes, sorting papers, saying prayers. Over 5,000 attended Hampton’s open casket funeral. As the casket closed, they chanted in unison Hampton’s call and response, “I am a revolutionary.”

Local, national, and international media circulated black and white images of Hampton’s bloody body being dragged from his bedroom. Although archival photographs, the drawing, survivor testimony, collective memory, and film footage inform it, the painting transmutes all traces of photographic evidence.7 Resisting the pornography of violence, Marshall exploits the revolutionary potential of the underpainting.

Black Painting inverts the invisibility of Black heroes, interrogates the illegibility of Black radical narratives in the Western pictorial tradition, and expands the aesthetic possibilities of black paintings.8 ​Exploring the phenomenology of blackness and the chromatic effects of this single hue on fiberglass, Marshall subversively inserts himself into a lineage of white abstractionists famous for black paintings. He contests Kasmir Malevich’s ​The Black Square (1915) as “ground zero,” the canonical transition between representation and abstraction. Consecrating the sacred site of the Black liberation struggle, 2337 West Monroe, Marshall also defies Ad Reinhardt, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko’s definition of monochromes as apolitical, nonobjective, nonrepresentational, nonfigurative. Mixing Ivory black, Mars black, Carbon black acrylic pigments, juxtaposing warm against cool, he perfects a process begun with Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of his Former Self (1980) and Invisible Man (1986).

Kerry James Marshall, Invisible Man, 1986
Acrylic on canvas
50 x 37½ in.

As a witness to the Watts Riot/Rebellion (1965), Marshall constructs a ‘counter-archive’ that inscribes Black icons and iconography of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements into the canon through black paint as medium.9 An image of Black life to counteract images of Black death, this is a painting for the people. Composed by contorting the artistic language of white men and infusing the lineage of Black activists/artists, Marshall invokes a lexicon of Black liberation. Marshall argues, “that extreme of color, that kind of black, is amazingly beautiful and powerful…What I was thinking to do with my image was to reclaim the image of blackness as an emblem of power.”10 Black Painting is a weapon of political warfare, signaling solidarity against systemic, state-sanctioned violence. Marshall’s monumental, politicized picture plane declares, as Fred Hampton did, “You can kill the revolutionary, but you can’t kill the revolution.”

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This is one of four essays from the fourteenth transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays here:

b.O.s 15.1/All Is Written/Fumi Okiji
b.O.s 15.2/Noirblue/Janaína Oliveira
b.O.s 15.4/The Distraction of Symbolism/Terri Francis
b.O.s 15.5/Narcissister Breast Work/Ariel Osterweis

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Lisa Uddin is author of Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), and has recent writing in the volume Race and Modern Architecture: A Critical History from the Enlightenment to the Present (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020), ASAP/J, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Postmodern Culture. She’s here for the freedom.

Michael Boyce Gillespie is the author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Duke University Press, 2016). His recent work has appeared in Black Light: A Retrospective of International Black Cinema, Flash Art, Unwatchable, and Film Quarterly. He hopes that people are still outraged in November.

Endnotes

  1. Co-organized with the Metropolitan Museum and the MOCA LA, that brought together works created between 1980 and 2015.
  2. Jeffrey Hass, in “The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther,” Democracy Now (December 4, 2009): https://www.democracynow.org/2009/12/4/the_assassination_of_fred_hampton_how   Mark Clark, on security at the front door, was shot and killed instantly. Finger on the trigger as his body fell, his was the only bullet fired by a Panther.
  3. Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, was incarcerated in for twenty-two months, at California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo, CA. During this time he had no contact with the Panthers. Eldridge Cleaver, former Minister of Information for the BPP, was exiled in Algeria.
  4. In 1968, the five founding members of AfriCOBRA, one of which was Donaldson,  created an aesthetic philosophy to guide their collective work—a shared visual language for positive revolutionary ideas. The group defined its mission as “an approach to image making which would reflect and project the moods, attitudes, and sensibilities of African Americans independent of the technical and aesthetic structures of Euro-centric modalities.” See ​​“AFRICOBRA: Philosophy” (University of Chicago, 5.28–8.11.13): https://arts.uchicago.edu/logan-center/logan-center-exhibitions/archive/africobra-philosophy
  5. See: http://www​.hrcr.org/ccr/njeri.html
  6. Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall,  Agents of Repression: The FBI’s Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement (Boston: South End Press, 2002), 58.
  7. See TheMurder of Fred Hampton (Howard Alk, 1971)
  8. Black Painting was completed after One True Thing: Meditations on Black Aesthetics, an e​xhibition that featured urban landscapes of Chicago’s South Side. It opened at MCA Chicago October 2003 and toured to Miami​ Art Museum, Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland, Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama and The Studio Museum in Harlem.
  9. Anonymous, “Kerry James Marshall Biography,” David Zwirner Gallery
  10. “Identity,” Art21, September 28, 2001, PBS: https://art21.org/artist/kerry-james-marshall/
Erin Jenoa Gilbert
Erin Jenoa Gilbert is a curator specializing in modern and contemporary art. Most recently the Curator of African American Manuscripts at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, she has previously held positions at The Art Institute of Chicago and The Studio Museum in Harlem. Her curatorial projects examine the physical and psychological connection to land, the trauma of displacement, and the body as a contested terrain. Gilbert presents work by those whose contribution to the canon has been overlooked, particularly women, abstract, conceptual, and performance artists from the Deep South and the Global South.