To honor Martin Luther King, Jr., we’re looking at Keith Mayerson’s painting, Drum Majors (Martin Luther King, Jr., and Family), which was installed at the 2014 Biennial and is now part of the Whitney’s collection.
Keith Mayerson’s painting, Drum Majors (Martin Luther King, Jr., and Family), 2008
A rigorous, crescent-shaped composition, the image brings together Dr. King with his family. Their heads align like a chord on a musical scale. Coretta Scott King is at the top, the only standing. She embodies the ubiquitous adage, “Behind every great man is a great woman.” The Revered looks closely at his daughter, but Coretta’s elevated point of view enables her to survey all hands together. Still, the parents work in harmony; they mimic each other as each presses their right index finger to the keyboard.
The convergence of hands at the piano keyboard could remind us of the hands in Leonard Freed’s photo, Baltimore, Maryland: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. being greeted upon his return to the United States after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, October 31, 1964. In Freed’s photo, the composition radiates outward from Dr. King’s extended hand – or all hands home in toward his. Either way, the scrum of hands describes the currents of MLK’s mass appeal and resonance. In Mayerson’s painting, the hands extend in the same direction, as they might have done in a church pew, among other places.
Leonard Freed, “Baltimore, Maryland: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. being greeted upon his return to the United States after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, October 31, 1964”
This may be a stretch, but I see formal affinities between Keith’s painting and Matisse’s Goldfish and Palette. Begin with the slabs of black geometric planes on the lower right quadrant of each painting: in Keith’s, a piano; in Matisse’s, a “vestigial scaffolding” that abstracts Matisse himself clutching a palette. Then look to the left, where black and white alternate. In the background of each painting, we see arabesque contours, especially fulsome in the floral paisley of the King family’s wallpaper. Notice how the marigold bow corresponds to Matisse’s lemon. And don’t you see a goldfish shape on the surface of King’s daughter’s dress?