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The recent purchase of the painting Past Times by Kerry James Marshall marks the highest that a living African-American artist has ever been paid for a single work of art. The sale happened via Sotheby’s, for the price of $21.1 million (£15.8 million) – officially quadrupling Marshall’s own auction record at the renowned art house.
At first glance, Past Times is a stylized depiction of idyllic pastimes. However, the title actually refers to times in the past – a poetic allusion to a history that’s yet to come, a desire that’s yet to be satisfied. The overall composition is reminiscent of impressionist and post-impressionist depictions of idyllic picnics, such as Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party – likely an intentional parallelism with classical depictions of European leisure, but in an African-American context. The figures in the foreground give an interrupted stare back at the viewer. Meanwhile, the other figures engage in culturally white, upper-class leisurely activities. As the artist himself has explained in the past, it is his intention to reclaim the missing presence of black people in the canon of Western art.
A closer look at the musical notes reveal lyrics that present two divergent but crucial outlooks at the perfect picnic: “with my mind on my money and my money on my mind” from Snoop Dogg’s Gin and Juice and “just my imagination running away with me” from the Temptations’ Just my Imagination. What appears like two contradicting outlooks actually complement each other in the context of social change – social reality and untethered imagination combined on one picnic blanket. And in the background, at the very top of the painting is a row of housing projects, highly reminiscent in style to the work of architect Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago’s South Side projects.
There’s no denying that Past Times is a politically charged image that chronicles African-American ambitions, problems, and experiences by subverting Western art traditions. A look back at the artist’s foundational work can lend some insight into understanding this particular painting. From 1994 to 95, Marshall released five artworks collectively known as the Garden Project paintings. Each depicts a romanticized view of the daily routines of the black residents of major housing projects in both Chicago and Los Angeles. The paintings call attention to two important things. First, is the wide gap that exists between idealized notions of black community versus the harsh realities faced by low-income housing residents. Second, is the disconnect between the untethered hope of these residents versus the extremely dire living situations imagined by outside observers. Marshall’s use of public space and government housing projects in the series calls to mind the words of conceptual art pioneer Joseph Kosuth – “Architecture is the most political of all art forms.”
In many ways, the concepts and messages behind the Garden Project paintings culminate in the masterpiece Past Times. It’s perhaps rather fitting that the painting now belongs to Harlem-born Sean “Diddy” Combs – as reported by Quartz. Diddy was and continues to be an instrumental producer and artist in the development of African-American hip-hop and R&B. Out of his many collaborations with fellow artists, the biggest in terms of influence was Christopher George Latore Wallace aka The Notorious B.I.G. – arguably the greatest East Coast gangster rapper who ever lived in terms of flow and rhythm mastery.
Today, Diddy continues to be a major player in mainstream music as a judge in Fox’s The Four, a new reality show in the vein of American Idol. He is joined at the judge’s table by other influential figures in music: The Black Eyed Peas’ Fergie, record executive Charlie Walk, and singer-songwriter Meghan Trainor. As the sole African American on the judges’ panel, Diddy invariably represents black music in the eyes and ears of The Four’s mainstream target audience. It’s undeniable that Diddy’s experience as an artist resonates with the messages in Marshall’s Past Times. Perhaps that $21.1 million price tag was a bargain after all.
“If you want to get in the game, you’ve got to play it at the level that the people who are playing it at the highest level are playing it at.” —Kerry James Marshall