Marshall made this painting at a time when news about police killings of unarmed black men, women, and children was proliferating across the United States, leading to the inception of the Black Lives Matter movement. Though unmistakably topical, the painting offers a somewhat unexpected and challenging visual response to these overwhelming events. Perched on the hood of his squad car, the figure occupies categories often presented in the mass media as implacably antagonistic: he is both a black man and a police officer, seemingly locked into two conflicting identities.
Since the 1980s, Marshall’s overarching approach has been to introduce the black figure into the legacy of Western art in order to produce what he has called a “counter-archive” of art-historical images. Echoing the traditional three-quarter-view portraiture format, Untitled (policeman) is another effort to inject a visually intense and complex black presence into contemporary painting. Neither a victim nor a hero, the anonymous policeman is no symbol for a cause. His unaffected posture and inscrutable, distant gaze betray a complex and independent individuality, as he deals in solitude with his particular circumstances. The painting’s five lampposts and the dominance of blues suggest that this is a nocturnal scene, yet the chromatic uniformity, far from implying an accentuated sense of drama or danger, adds to the work’s meditative eloquence and quiet unresolvedness.
Publication excerpt from From MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019).