The Painting That Jerry Saltz Can’t Stop Thinking About

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Kerry James Marshall, A Portrait of the Artist As a Shadow of His Former Self. Photo: Kerry James Marshall, A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self, 1980/Matthew Fried/© MCA Chicago/Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Kerry James Marshall’s tiny egg-tempera icon A Portrait of the Artist As a Shadow of His Former Self fires like a time bomb in the mind. The painting haunts “Mastry,” Marshall’s newly opened, magnificent retrospective at the Met Breuer, like an avenging angel of art history. Small, spectral, cartoonish, smoky, scary, an uncomfortably racial self-caricature, it reverberates with a power reminiscent of Ralph Ellison’s horrific “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” Made in 1980, when the artist was only 25 — the astounding first figurative image he made after years of abstraction (“pushing around paint,” he later called it) — the self-portrait is one of the most potent of the 20th century. And a picture of the spirit, self, drive, desire, and ambition that taught Marshall to paint. 

“Mastry” is at the Met Breuer through January.

*This article appears in the October 31, 2016, issue of New York Magazine.