Kerry James Marshall
Summary of Kerry James Marshall
Kerry James Marshall has spent a lifetime at the crux of Identity Art and Identity Politics. As a young Black man growing up in areas of sociologically charged movements, witnessing activism spread through the rotted roots of systemic racism, he was familiar with the charged art and culture stemming from history's progressive call to change. Yet, as a modern creative he felt the Western art tradition was loudly absent of everyday Black voice and experience. He has focused his career as an artist working against this marginalization in the visual sphere by injecting Blackness into the grand narrative of art, seen through his symbolic, allegorical paintings where Black life and existence are memorialized for both extraordinary beauty and the sublime mundane.
- Marshall's signature figures, which populate his paintings, are unmistakable in their bold makeup of the darkest shades of black, placed on otherwise everyday, colorful backgrounds. These raw dark pigments represent a bravery of authenticity that does not need to be muted in order to be better seen or understood.
- Marshall's work combines a painterly realism within elements of collage, pattern, and environment that employ similar pictorial strategies to the grand tradition of history painting albeit with a distinct connection to the Black Arts movement.
- Never shying away from reality, many of Marshall's visual narratives of Black life in America act also as documentation of experiences lesser known to the mainstream vernacular such as the invisible communities within housing projects, communal Black mourning and connection, the civil rights movement, black power activism, and other contexts found within the perpetual search for racial identity.
The Life of Kerry James Marshall
Kerry James Marshall has developed an artistic language placing Black figures as the protagonists of his paintings, challenging the historical absence of Black individuals from art history, and, as art historian Debra Brehmer writes, succeeding in "wrestling with the sinewy, sneaky forces of colonization, privilege, imperialism, prejudice, disempowerment, and erasure."
Progression of Art
Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self
In this seminal painting that would cement the course of Marshall's career and mission statement, executed almost entirely in shades of black, Marshall presented a Black figure for the first time in his career. The figure's skin is rendered in dark black; he wears a black hat and a black jacket, beneath which we see a small portion of a white-buttoned shirt. The only other white in the work is seen in the whites of the figure's eyes, and in his gapped teeth, grinning widely and mischievously. The background is a slightly lighter shade of black. As LACMA director Michael Govan asserts, the overwhelming use of black in this work makes for "a pretty dramatic experience."
This work marked a transitional moment for Marshall, as up to this point, he had been producing abstract mixed-media collages. From 1980 onward, however, he turned his focus to black figures, often depicting them in the midst of everyday activities. Curator Ian White views Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self as representing a moment at which Marshall was "really trying to establish his own voice within figure representation." Going forward, Marshall would continue to paint his figures so dark that they appear, as he says, "at the edge of visibility," that is, at such an "extreme" that they are "mysterious but available."
Marshall found inspiration for this work in Ralph Ellison's 1952 novel, Invisible Man, which explored the harsh realities of being Black in America. Marshall translated the idea of being simultaneously visible and invisible into a signature language by using the hues of blackness to represent both being seen and being ignored. He wanted to address the "lack of Black figures in [...] the pantheon of important artworks." White also notes that, in this work, Marshall explored the chromatic richness of the color black, seeing it "not as a black hole, but as viable as primary colors, secondary colors, tertiary colors."
Says Marshall, "Everything changed when I made that painting."
Egg tempera on paper - Los Angeles County Museum of Modern Art (LACMA)
In this painting, two young black boys are depicted, one in a green sweater riding a coin-operated race car and smiling, and the other standing in front of the car, unsmiling, with his hands down by his side. The second's right fist is clenched, and his left hand holds a pink gun. Each boy is marked with the date of his death. In front of the racecar is an orange cherub sculpture, and beside that, a bouquet of white lilies and a small votive candle. On the ground lie four colorful toy balls. To the left of the image stands a tree with blue leaves, bearing round, green fruit. At the center of each fruit is a single grey bullet. Wrapped around the trunk of the tree is a strand of yellow tape stating "POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS." The ground is comprised of black and white checkerboard, and the background is deep red with white polka dots. Several white rectangles hang above the scene, including three along the top that bear the letters C, Y, and S, and two along the side that read "POW".
For Marshall, this painting (as well as others in the same series) was created to highlight the challenges faced by young Black boys in the United States. It also mirrors the concept of the "lost boys" who never want to grow up, from the story of Peter Pan by J. M. Berry applying it to "a concept of being lost: lost in America, lost in the ghetto, lost in public housing, lost in joblessness, and lost in illiteracy." The mixture of symbols of innocence lost within childhood along with symbols of violence and death serves as homage to the countless Black lives lost, and Black children who were never given the opportunity to grow up. He notes that these works were "seminal," explaining that, "When I finished those, I felt like I had arrived at a moment when I was more sure of myself as an artist and what I wanted to do, and how to do it, than I had been up to that moment. There was a kind of clarity."
Marshall explains that this series was somewhat autobiographical, as his youngest brother "ended up in prison - he spent seven years in prison - and went into jail just shortly before I started the Lost Boys series. A part of the reason I started that group of paintings was a reaction to how I felt about him being incarcerated. I mean it's one thing when you know other people or hear about people who are taken to jail or to prison and especially through certain violent kinds of incidents. But it's another thing when it's now at home and it's your own brother." Other works in the series feature individual portraits of young Black men who were murdered. Speaking of his portraits, Marshall asserts, "They exist completely outside of time because I think this question of representation is not an issue that's peculiar to this particular moment."
Acrylic and collage on canvas - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
In this work, three young black men in black trousers, white dress shirts, and ties, are seen weeding, raking, and digging in a vibrant green garden. On the ground are two cellophane-wrapped Easter baskets filled with toys. In the central flowerbed, pink flowers form the shape of the letters "SG." A playground can be seen in the background, and beyond that sit tall yellow residential apartment buildings. A red ribbon along the top of the image reads "IN MY MOTHER'S HOUSE THERE ARE MANY MANSIONS," an adaptation of the biblical verse John 14:2. At the center of the image is a large white real estate development sign.
Many Mansions is the first of five paintings in a series that depict public housing projects in Chicago and Los Angeles (such as Stateway Gardens, featured in this work). Marshall found it ironic that the term "gardens" would be employed to describe such "failed solutions" for low-income residents, and he sought to foreground the contradictions that exist in these spaces. In Many Mansions, we see a stark contrast between the natural (the plants in the garden) and the unnatural (such as the buildings that look like cardboard cut-outs). Even the men themselves appear "stiff and stylized: almost stereotypes," as writes critic Michael Kimmelman. On the other hand, the men's church-going attire, and the images of the Easter baskets allude to the resurrection, which for Marshall represents "hopefulness" and "the possibility that you can come back from anything."
Marshall explains, "What I wanted to show in those paintings is that whatever you think about the projects, they're that and more. If you think they're full of hopelessness and despair, you're wrong. There are actually a lot of opportunities to experience pleasure in the projects." For him, the works in the series present "a fantasy of happiness that's not necessarily an impossibility." This subject matter is personal for Marshall, as he grew up in the Nickerson Gardens development in Los Angeles, where he enjoyed working in the nearby garden, and flying kites at local field. He explains, "These [Garden Project] pictures are meant to represent what is complicated about the projects. We think of projects as places of utter despair. All we hear of is the incredible poverty, abuse, violence, and misery that exists there, but [there] is also a great deal of hopefulness, joy, pleasure, and fun."
Acrylic on paper mounted on canvas - The Art Institute of Chicago
In this work, a Black female figure with glittering, golden wings sets a vase of flowers on a round coffee table, in the center of a middle-class living room. She is reminiscent of the Annunciation angels who bear news in religious Renaissance paintings. Posted on the wall to the right is a large black commemorative banner featuring the names and faces of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr., over the words "We Mourn Our Loss." Floating in a pale cloud at the top the room are faces of several other Black leaders from politics, the arts, and civil rights activism, painted in pale pink and blue above the words "In Memory of."
In this work, as well as others in the Souvenirs series, Marshall adapts a visual style borrowed from the commemorative banners that were circulated following the death of Martin Luther King Jr., bringing a sense of communal mourning into the private, familial setting. This illustrates the real repercussions of grief that Black American families felt after the deaths of their iconic heroes and asks the viewer to participate in the mourning process.
As art historian Kobena Mercer writes, Marshall's paintings "open onto an imaginative or even fictional space in which the relation between past and present becomes the subject for a fresh set of narrative possibilities." Moreover, asserts Mercer, Marshall does not just directly reference the 1960s through the inclusion of figures who died as martyrs during that decade, but also "alludes to the 1960s indirectly, such that a more diffuse sense of 'pastness' associated with childhood memories and the intimacy of family life takes precedence over the public sphere in which the tumultuous events of the period took place."
Acrylic, and collage and glitter on canvas - Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
In this work, three black couples are pictured in various scenes of everyday romance. In the foreground, one couple stands under a tree, while a red robin flies overhead symbolizing springtime and new love. Further back, another couple engages in conversation on a park bench, while a brown dog (a common symbol of loyalty) sits in front of them. In the background, a third couple embraces. Surrounding these central scenes are purple flowers and pink fields of color, suggesting the shape of a heart.
Vignettes are inspired by Jean-Honoré Fragonard's late-eighteenth-century series The Progress of Love. The pose of the man at the bench recalls Fragonard's The Meeting (one of the four panels in The Progress of Love). Further art historical references can be found in Vignette 19, such as the dog, which alludes to Jan van Eyck's The Arnolfini Portrait, the pastoral romanticism of traditional landscape painting, and the layering of line and color akin to Abstract Expressionism. With Vignettes, Marshall sought to address the absence of Black figures in art history. Says Marshall, "If I don't do it, or if other people like me don't do it, we will be condemned to celebrate European beauty and Europe's artistic achievement in perpetuity."
Art historian Abigail Winograd writes that "Marshall's Vignette paintings deploy the irreverent, decorative spirit of the rococo as a strategy for imaging quotidian black love, a nearly invisible category in the canon of Western painting." As Winograd explains, "Rococo paintings created a space of fantasy in which amorous bliss came to be associated with individual freedom."
Acrylic on PVC - Private Collection
This colorful mural, painted on the exterior Western wall of the Chicago Cultural Center, was commissioned by the non-profit organization Murals of Acceptance. In it, Marshall pays tribute to twenty women who helped shape Chicago's cultural landscape, including poet Gwendolyn Brooks, AfriCobra co-founder Barbara Jones-Hogu, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Achy Obejas, and TV personality Oprah Winfrey. Against a vibrant backdrop of green trees, purple city skyline, and yellow sun radiating orange beams, the faces of the women take the form of brown portrait busts, reminiscent of Mount Rushmore, carved into the trunks of trees. In this way, Marshall indicates symbolically that the contributions of these women were foundational, and from them the city has been able to grow into the thriving cultural hub that it is today. Higher up, red birds hold ribbons that carry the names of the women.
This is Marshall's largest work to date, and the site of the mural was carefully chosen, as it was the site of the artist's first exhibition. Not only did he feel it important to "open up" the space, he also wanted to "[honor] the mission of the building as the hub of artistic activity in Chicago." As Mayor Rahm Emanuel added, the building was at one point "saved" by a woman. Eleanor Daley (the wife of former Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley) prevented the building from being torn down in favor of erecting an office tower in the early 1970s. This specific history provided Marshall the ideal opportunity to recognize women's contributions to the City of Chicago, as historically, men are most often glorified and commemorated in public monuments and statues. Thus, just as he has worked throughout his career to rectify the absence of Black perspectives in art history, Marshall created this mural to rectify the absence of women from local history.
Public mural - Chicago Cultural Center
Biography of Kerry James Marshall
Kerry James Marshall was born a son of the contemporary Black American experience. He was birthed in Alabama, the second of three sons to a homemaker mother and postal worker father, who later toted the family to the Watts area of Los Angeles. Growing up in the Southern California neighborhood that was notoriously near the headquarters of the activist Black Panthers as well as the location of 1965's infamous and violent riots charged Marshall's consciousness early with a sense that his life as a black man would always be rife with the concerns of social justice.
His pathway would not become actively antagonistic or politically charged though. For Marshall, activism would materialize through the medium of art. From a very young age, he was attracted to the idea of becoming an artist. In elementary school, he enjoyed assisting his teachers with holiday decorations and participating in student exhibitions. He also learned a great deal from the television program John Nagy's Learn to Draw, and notes that "Nagy was interested in more than just superficial forms of representation. [...] He showed me how to build forms, not just copy forms. Watching that program was the foundation for my search for the formal foundations of making art."
Education and Early Training
While still in high school, at the age of fourteen, Marshall began taking summer classes at Otis College of Art and Design. Particularly influential were his painting class with Sam Clayberger, and his figure drawing class with social realist artist Charles White, who intimidated Marshall at first, but then, "became as much as a friend as a mentor."
After graduating from high school, Marshall continued his studies at Otis, earning a B.F.A. in 1978.
It was during college that he became enamored with the work of Bill Traylor, a self-taught artist born into slavery in Alabama in the mid-nineteenth century. Traylor was known for drawing depictions of his own life on cardboard pizza boxes or any other medium he could find as a homeless man in the various dumpsters of his environment. When discovered, these pieces delivered a very real testament to the Black experience that had been altogether ignored in the history books. This was an important turning point for Marshall as a young artist, as he began to see the importance of placing his own life into the collective consciousness at large, one that had been largely ignored by the domineering white populace whose artistic narratives featured themselves, and themselves only.
Marshall had also become highly disillusioned with the American political system, a structure he viewed as formed of hypocrisy and confusion. He had registered as an Independent when he reached legal voting age but hadn't realized this meant he was limited to party lines. It was a wake up call that led him to lose faith in the electoral system.
A combination of personal apathy toward the powers that be, a personal history with being young and black in the United States, and the sparks of artistic impulse would all start to foment in the young man.
This creative energy building within the young artist was further stoked, both intellectually and artistically, by his engagement with others at Otis. Says Marshall, "One of the most amazing things about being at Otis, and hanging out in Charles White's classes in particular, was in the evenings when they took their breaks, the lunch wagon would come and everybody would retire to the student lounge and have these round table discussions about philosophical and historical and political issues. I felt so out of place because I was so young. I couldn't contribute to the conversation, but I wanted to more than anything. I thought, 'If I want to be an artist too, I've got to be able to do that. I've got to know something!'"
After graduating from Otis, Marshall participated in the residency program at the Studio Museum in Harlem, on the recommendation of African-American artist Allison Saar. He says, "I had this idea that you had to go to New York at some point. [...] There were a lot of people from the Brockman Gallery scene who had left LA and gone to New York - the Brockman Gallery was one of the first black-owned galleries in LA. But coming to New York, being at the Studio Museum, was an introduction to the black New York arts scene."
This emergence into the thriving Black arts scene and the fact that systemic racism was still lying beneath the covers of consciousness in the United States would propel Marshall's desire to depict Black existence in ways that hadn't been seen prior.
He has said, that "The work of African-American artists has for a long time been seen more as a kind of social phenomena instead of aesthetic phenomena. The social implications of the work - be it identity politics and things like that - seem to be privileged in terms of the way the work is received, as opposed to any kind of aesthetic project or intervention the work might be organized around."
Everywhere he looked, his specific experience was missing from painted documentation, so he sought out ways to represent this while lending his own insight to the mix. Even though his work had been largely construed of abstracts in the past, he boldly cemented his new mission to force blackness and contemporary Black existence into the fine art lexicon, when he painted Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self in 1980. It would become an introduction to Marshall's world full of signature characters, unapologetically presented in various shades of black, inserted into narratives that expressed and reflected Black life.
"Black people occupy a space, even mundane spaces, in the most fascinating ways," he explained. "Style is such an integral part of what black people do that just walking is not a simple thing. You've got to walk with style. You've got to talk with a certain rhythm; you've got to do things with some flair. And so in the paintings I try to enact that same tendency toward the theatrical that seems to be so integral a part of the black cultural body."
In 1987, Marshall moved to Chicago with his bride-to-be, playwright, director, and actress Cheryl Lynn Bruce (who had been working at the Studio Museum while Marshall did his residency). The move to Chicago was challenging at first, as he had no connections in the city other than his new in-laws. During his first two years there, he lived solo in a six-by-nine foot room at the YMCA, where he worked on small paintings, prints, and collages. Upon marrying in 1989, the couple moved to an apartment in Hyde Park, where Marshall was able to paint on a larger scale.
After receiving an NEA grant, Marshall was able to rent a studio, the same space he uses today. In 1993, he began teaching in the school of Art and Design at the University of Illinois at Chicago, a position he retained until 2006. In 1997, he received a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation "genius grant." In 1999, he was awarded an honorary doctorate degree from Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. In 2013, he was on of seven new appointees selected for the Committee on the Arts and the Humanities by President Obama.
The Legacy of Kerry James Marshall
Along with other Contemporary artists of color, including Howardena Pindell, Charlene Teters, and Fred Wilson, Kerry James Marshall has catapulted to the forefront issues of race and Black representation in his painting. By depicting Black bodies, he has sought to "offset the impression that beauty is synonymous with whiteness," or, that historical documentation of the American experience is exclusively delegated to whites. By bringing his identity-based work into conversation with Western art history more broadly, Marshall has challenged that historical invisibility and absence of the Black figure from fine art discourse and from the space of the museum.
Marshall's influence can be seen in the work of younger Black artists, such as Kara Walker, who, like Marshall, exaggerates the degree of blackness used to paint her figures. Marshall's mastery of representational and figurative painting serves to bestow his Black figures with a beauty and dignity they have long been denied, a project later taken up by American artist Kehinde Wiley, who similarly references the old masters in his paintings and portraits of contemporary Black individuals. Marshall has set out a challenge for current and future generations of Black artists, that is, to try "to find a place for themselves in an aesthetic regime or aesthetic system, and a history that did not include them as participants in the formulation of its authorizing idea."