Figuring History at the Seattle Art Museum

Figuring History: Robert Colescott, past NA, Kerry James Marshall, NA, Mickalene Thomas, NA

Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas brings together three generations of contemporary American artists, whose work challenges a Western painting tradition that underrepresents people of color. The vibrant and monumental paintings by these artists offer bold perspectives on Black culture and representation. Presented together for the first time, the figurative paintings of ColescottMarshall, and Thomas are shaped by distinctive historic events, unique in style, and united in questioning the narratives of history through Black experience.

The works of these artists together reassess both history painting and history itself through layered references to paintings from the European art history canon. History painting began in 15th-century Europe and traditionally featured imagery that demonstrated the power and the values of the ruling elite. Missing from these works of art were the histories of people of color told on their own terms. In their portrayals, Colescott, Marshall, and Thomas provide testimony centered on Black perspectives in a contemporary context.

Robert Colescott’s paintings speak to the history of colonization by examining the inherited human condition. Full of symbols, Colescott’s work critiques society as a whole through the use of irony and sarcasm. The protagonists of his paintings bear the burden of the history of racism as he works to set the historical record straight.

Unlike Colescott, Kerry James Marshall aims to create artworks that continue the canon of European art history but enrich it with a Black aesthetic. Overwhelmed by the prevalence of white figures and symbols in art history, Marshall’s paintings in the Souvenir series focus on Black history as reconciliation.

Mickalene Thomas, meanwhile, engages with the history of modernism in her use of pattern, fabric, and fragmented images which reference Cubist imagery. The female figures arranged in challenging poses throughout her work give new agency to the female form, long placed as passive in European art history. For this exhibition she has created three new pieces that expand her work in new dynamic directions. In addition, an installation will be in the galleries for visitors to interact with as an example of the sets Thomas builds for her models.