When Anne Mei and I went to Spain last summer, we saw Velasquez’s “Las Meninas” at the Prado in Madrid, As I mentioned in a blog post at the time, we also saw Picasso’s revisioning of Velasquez in Barcelona. “Las Meninas” has continued with me throughout this past year. Each month the kitchen calendar I bought at the Museu Picasso shows one of Picasso’s more detailed studies from this work.
Today we discovered an African-American take on “Las Meninas” in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.
An exhibit of Kerry James Marshall’s works takes up the entire fourth floor of the museum. The curator’s notes on “Untitled (Studio), 2014” (above) explain:
In this painting, Marshall continued the tradition of artists painting their studios or themselves at work, in particular referencing classic examples by Diego Velazquez, Las Meninas (1656) and Gustave Courbet, The Painter’s Studio (1855). With models posing and traces of the painter’s work— paintbrushes, lighting, stacked canvases—throughout the image, evidence of the artist’s presence remains. Yet Marshall’s tableau appears to be missing an artist.
What struck me about Marshall’s piece and really most of his works was how powerfully black it is. First the color hits you, but then you see the perspectives. The absent artist could not be more present in our view of his studio and its inhabitants. Then, the themes: romance and love between black men and women recur again and again.
I was reminded of a phrase I heard some years ago to describe Michelle Obama: “Black from across the street.” Unfortunately Google failed to find the interview where I heard this phrase. I did find what was probably its source for the person I heard. In an entirely different context Melissa Harris-Perry describes a
place which is a very old place around slavery, around Jim Crow that says, “Your physical self is an unacceptable, sort of orientation of blackness. I can see that you’re black from across the room, and that’s unacceptable to me.
Marshall’s art is so black from across the room that it challenges me to explore that “very old place” deep in my aesthetic outlook. Like Velasquez and Picasso before him, this artist makes the viewer aware of how s/he enters into the making of the art. Sometimes that perspective becomes disorienting.