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Detail comic book panel with figure launching rocket at a water tower

Kerry James Marshall, Rythm Mastr (detail), 1999

A Radical Act: A Black Superhero Emerges in the Museum World

I’ve been a fan of Kerry James Marshall since I first saw his work in the 1999 Carnegie International. To be more specific, I actually first saw his work in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where his Rythm Mastr comic strip was published each Tuesday during the run of the exhibition. What was so interesting to me about Marshall’s work was how he, as a fine artist, engaged American comic books in a way I had never seen before. It was beyond Warhol; beyond Pop Art and simple appropriation.

Being a comic book fan and having grown up in Pittsburgh around great comic book stores and art museums, this was the first time I saw comic books treated seriously in Pittsburgh, aside from the usual Pop Art associations. Comics at the museum and a special tie-in with the local newspaper to connect it all? It felt like new territory because, for most of their history, comic strips and comic books have not been taken seriously as art. I had never known of a fine artist who also created comic books. They just didn’t exist. Most masters of the comic book form are seen as illustrators, not artists or authors. A painter of Marshall’s stature engaging in comics was something completely new.

I think this may be an old-fashioned idea though, because times have changed and superheroes are all the rage. However, as a comic book fan and fine art enthusiast, I discovered that Marshall’s new fusion was confounding others as well. My friend, Jason Molyneaux—a local artist, music historian, and record collector better known as J.Malls—attended a lecture that Marshall gave in 1999 at Carnegie Mellon University. Afterward, he excitedly told me how Marshall had spoken about Fantastic Four, number 52, the first appearance of Black Panther.

This is how I first heard of Marshall. Jason was volunteering as an art handler for the 1999 International and had the opportunity to talk to him. Jason said, “Yeah, he said he didn’t own the first appearance of the Black Panther and always wanted it, so the next day I saw him and I gave him my copy!” Jason told me that he and Marshall had a nice little talk about Black Panther’s creator Jack Kirby, and assured me that Marshall was genuine and a real fan of the form. Again, it’s difficult to transmit this idea now, but no one—and I mean no one—in fine art circles was talking about Jack Kirby, let alone Black Panther. To me and Jason, this was an affirmation of our chosen art form, one that had been in suspended animation for so long that we never thought things would change. Sure, those ideas changed with underground and autobiographical comic books by artists like Art Spiegelman, Lynda Barry, and the Hernandez brothers, however superheroes and Jack Kirby had been passé among progressive cartoonists for decades. The late 1990s were a very interesting time and Marshall’s Rythm Mastr seems to have, in retrospect, played an important role in how comics are seen within a museum setting.

After hearing about Jason’s encounter with Marshall, I had still not seen his work in a museum setting. It was with high expectations that I went to the International that year. I liked what I had seen in the newspaper leading up to the opening of the exhibition, but it was hard to collect them all. I had hoped that all the episodes of Rythm Mastr would somehow be collected and presented. I had no idea what to expect. Maybe there would be a free comic book newspaper giveaway? Maybe there would be pages of the story carefully arranged for everyone to read one page after another like other art gallery presentations of comics I’d seen?

Newsprint featuring a two-page spread of colorful comic panels of artist Kerry James Marshall's 'Rythm Mastr' series.
A two-page spread from Rythm Mastr, which appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette each Tuesday during the run of the 1999 International. © Kerry James Marshall. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Instead, Marshall chose to use that very same fragmented language built into episodic comics to present the work. He took over a small hallway-like enclosure within the museum that was called the Treasure Room. The space consisted of a series of small vitrines, which at one time displayed jewels and other valuable artifacts, but was under construction or was about to be closed because of future renovations. The glass casings on each of these vitrines were essentially blocked out windows and had the appearance of closed storefronts. There was dim light coming from the interior of each, which was covered over with newspapers. Upon closer inspection, the newspapers were all the color comics section and they weren’t arranged carefully, but haphazardly. Trying to read the sections was difficult. Page 1 would not be paired with page 2, which is what happens when you take apart a newspaper’s print signatures.

Years later, while researching Marshall’s work in the museum’s archives, I found a memo with instructions on how to create a dummy to make sure the work was in the correct order for printing, and that, in the Treasure Room, “pages will have to be put up individually, out of printing sequence.”1  What this did for me was clarify the purposeful fracturing. Marshall, to my mind, was using the power of comic books’ infinite possibilities of narrative combinations. Cut-ups and collage, for sure—yet more a cocooning of knowledge. Marshall blocked out the Treasure Room with newspaper comic strips featuring stories of black superheroes which could not be read. The story is out of order. Obscured. The Rythm Mastr installation at the 1999 International could, in many ways, be viewed as an origin story for black superheroes in a museum context. Marshall has made a career of fusing the everyday and commonplace with the historical. What he was saying to me was simple: I wasn’t ready for this comic book yet.

Architectural drawing for artwork proposal featuring Treasure Room display cases
Marshall’s plan for the layout of the Rythm Mastr installation in the museum’s Treasure Room gallery. © Kerry James Marshall. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

“Synthesize, Synthesize, Synthesize,” Marshall wrote in all caps to a young artist asking advice in a letter. “Force relationships between forms that may seem incompatible. If they fuse, maybe you’ve found something fresh.”2 

Cut to 2018 and Black Panther, and the idea of a comic book reality with heroes and villains seems all too real. Part of the zeitgeist. When speaking of Warhol and Lichtenstein’s influence on 20th century painting, Marshall said that he saw “the re-emergence of representation as a radical act.” He later added that they “brought back into the field of representation categories that formerly hadn’t been part of the avant-garde narrative, for example firmly establishing comic book images as real, legitimate art.”3 

Twenty years ago, the notion that a superhero called Black Panther would be a legitimate and far-reaching cultural idea was not really imaginable. Yet, back in 1999, Marshall introduced a black superhero comic within the context of an art museum—a radical act, especially given its layered presentation in the Treasure Room. Not only did it pique the public’s curiosity, but it also encouraged slow looking. He understood the immense possibilities of introducing this language of comic books—and particularly a black superhero fusion—to a fine arts tradition.

Installation view of museum of art exhibition display cases with collage artwork arranged on the glass featuring newsprint superhero comics
Installation view of Kerry James Marshall's Rythm Mastr in the Treasure Room during the 1999 Carnegie International. © Kerry James Marshall. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

What Marshall was communicating through his installation in the Treasure Room was essentially as follows: the public wasn’t ready to read this unlimited narrative of black art that reaches back to Egypt and beyond. He just wanted to set the table. The plot description of Rythm Mastr, which I found in the museum’s archives during my research, reads:

A brilliant young female high school student with a talent for science is caught in the crossfire of a drive-by shooting. Paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair, she withdraws deeper and deeper into the virtual world of cyberspace via her computer. She rejects her friends whom she blames for her condition. Her anger at gang-bangers increases to maniacal intensity. She vows to get even.

Hacking into the top-secret files of a robotic institute, she sets up a shadow institute of her own. She secures access to the institute’s most advanced technology and unlimited funds. With these resources, she develops fleets of robot vehicles programmed to do drive-by shootings by remote control. These vehicles, which always self-destruct when approached, perplex police and city officials. No human remains are ever found in the remnants of the accidents and suspects are therefore impossible to track.

Her lust for vengeance goes too far. Many innocent people die as a result of her actions. The end justifies any collateral loss in her mind.

This plot today sounds like a very mainstream movie idea and carries with it a broadly cultural relevant mythology that creates what Marshall calls “a place where[…] expansion within the field that makes a lot of things possible for people who thought they’d never be able to participate. But at the same time, with the introduction of popular images that were formerly outside and now inside, they seem to be completely detached from the objectivity of the person who’s making them.”


Additional Information

The 2018 Carnegie International is on view at Carnegie Museum of Art until March 25, 2019.


Endnotes

  1. Note from the artist, 1999.
  2. Kerry James Marshall, Charles Gaines, Greg Tate, and Laurence Rassel. “Letter to a Young Artist.” In Kerry James Marshall. London: Phaidon Press, 2017.
  3. Kerry James Marshall, Charles Gaines, Greg Tate, and Laurence Rassel. “Charles Gaines in Conversation with Kerry James Marshall.” In Kerry James Marshall. London: Phaidon Press, 2017.