The New Danger of the Pure Idea

Kerry James Marshall’s (b.1955) Who‘s Afraid of Red, Black and Green are pictures so visually imposing they may terrify some of their viewers. The three canvases, produced in 2012, vary in size, surface quality, orientation, and level of figural depiction. The picture’s immersive scale and structure challenge the viewer’s perception to the point of intimidation. The compositions do violence to orthodox understandings of colour field painting, because they challenge the viewer’s perception of colour itself.

I had the desire to make that central thing black and the rest of the painting was black. Well, I was in the state of terror because what would happen—I never had black on black… The terror of it was intense. As a matter of fact, it took me, you might say, weeks to arrive at the point where I finally did it… Well, I finally made it black. And that moment was almost, I don’t know, it would be wrong to say it was violent. At the same time I think that every stroke one makes is violent because once you make it, it’s there and you’ve got to handle it

—Barnett Newman (1)

Kerry James Marshall’s (b.1955) Who‘s Afraid of Red, Black and Green are pictures so visually imposing they may terrify some of their viewers. The three canvases, produced in 2012, vary in size, surface quality, orientation, and level of figural depiction. The picture’s immersive scale and structure challenge the viewer’s perception to the point of intimidation. The compositions do violence to orthodox understandings of colour field painting, because they challenge the viewer’s perception of colour itself.

The series Who‘s Afraid of Red, Black and Green features unapologetic fields of colour fdelivered on a scale that exceed many of Marshall’s previous works. A shared motifis the use of the hues red, green and black, colours that are deployed with fiery intensity, enveloping serenity or dark subtlety. The combination of abstract colour and large-­‐scale form might be taken as the central structural principle in these pictures because colour poses complex problems to seeing. The visual impact of the large, simplified, abstract compositions might thereby be neutralized by a common denominator that manages meaning and protects the viewer’s imagination. But there is no such comfort for the viewer of these pictures. Rather, in Who‘s Afraid of Red, Black and Green dramatic fields of chroma are punctuated by lines, shapes and figures, leaving the viewer threatened by a cacophony of meanings and representational modes.

If they come in the morning 

If they come in the morning (2012) is the first of three paintings in Marshall’s series. The painting is organized with bands of color to the far left and right of the canvas. A flat black band on the left and an incident of green to the right dramatize the unapologetic red field that dominates this picture. The flatness and symmetry of the field of red produces an unusually direct perceptual experience of its chromatic span. At eighteen feet, its breadth is too wide to take in the full scene and observe its details simultaneously. The painting offers forthright colour in combination with flatness, symmetry and a spartan format. This combination establishes its visual vocabulary as Abstract Expressionist, colour field painting.2 There are shifting values within its red span—the phrase “If they come in the morning” is legible in large block letters across the field. A main characteristic of colour field painting is the use of colours close in tonal value and intensity in simplified compositions and large formats. While If they come in the morning demonstrates these features, the inclusion of text is an extraordinary move to representation.

I want to argue this representational gesture signals subtle conceptual complexity in the Who‘s Afraid of Red, Black and Green series. The paintings in this series assert their authority by scale and colour, formal references which, in context, invoke the absolute and the infinite. The move responds to modernist orthodoxy, but also associates the painting with a chain of ideas that include autonomous will, conceptual elasticity, cultural integrity, and blackness as aesthetic model. Alone, the power of any one of these ideas may be intimidating to a conservative western visual canon.  But Marshall goes further. By consolidating the strengths of these principles and ideals, Marshall transforms the potential power of colour into an actual force in society.  The pictures, then, open to discourse about ways of preserving the poetic and sublime without reduction to pure form.