The Wonderful One


Charcoal on paper

127 × 96.5 cm (50 × 38 in.)

At first glance, this appears to be the projected shadow of a man's naked silhouette performing a dance step; on closer inspection, it is a caricature of a stereotypical racist representation of a black man. His naked body, with its anatomical details fading into the deep black of the charcoal, becomes a monochrome cut-out on a white background. His face is reduced to the light of a pair of sparkling white eyes and two rows of teeth that suggest a forced smile.

Made while Kerry James Marshall was in residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1986, The Wonderful One is an early and seminal work that encapsulates the artist's main concerns. Drawing on both Masaccio's Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1424–25) and Malevich's Black Square (1915), the work is one of the artist's first paintings to draw on art history to denounce stereotypical representations of African Americans. In discussing the genesis of the series to which The Wonderful One belongs, Kerry James Marshall says: “I was reading Ralph Ellison's book Invisible Man [and] I was struck by his description in the prologue of the condition of invisibility of black people in America.”

This masterpiece is a radical political act that is located on the boundary between “a completely flattened-out stereotype, a cartoon, and a fully resonant, complicated, authentic representation,” as the artist himself reveals.