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Kerry James Marshall

African-American Painter

Born: October 17, 1955 - Birmingham, Alabama
"It is possible to transcend what is perceived to be the limitations of a race-conscious kind of work. It is a limitation only if you accept someone else's foreclosure from the outside. If you plumb the depths yourself, you can exercise a good deal of creative flexibility. You are limited only by your ability to imagine possibilities."
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Kerry James Marshall
"I've always been interested in this place where popular art or vernacular works cross over and move from the popular realm into the mainstream, critical institutional realm."
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"If you really want to be competitive, it's not about trying to match and meet all of the requirements of the mainstream as it already is constituted; it's to try to figure out how to do something that the mainstream refuses to address, but to do it in a way that causes them to have to come to terms with it."
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"I want to suggest to people that art is a way of thinking about things. It has nothing to do with an innate ability to do anything. It's a way of thinking about things and it's available to anybody who wants to invest some time and energy into trying to do it."
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"It takes time to internalize the things that you've experienced. Before then, you can only deal with surface issues. Until you've internalized certain experiences, you don't have access to how complex those things are. You can't filter them through your personality the way you need to make the work speak in your own voice."
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"I actually don't think art is very important. In some ways I don't think artists should be given the benefit of the doubt under any circumstance. You still have to earn your audience's attention every time you make something."
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"If art is supposed to be about anything, it's supposed to be about an independent spirit and creative possibilities."
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"The mystery of the work isn't what it means or how it speaks, but why it is. How come it's made that way, as opposed to another way? What are the implications of the existence of that work within the much larger lexicon or image bank that people have access to?"
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"The challenge for black artists in general is trying 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."
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Summary of Kerry James Marshall

Kerry James Marshall has spent a lifetime at the crux of 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.

Biography of Kerry James Marshall

Kerry James Marshall Life and Legacy

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."

Important Art by Kerry James Marshall

Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self (1980)

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."

Lost Boys (1993)

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."

Many Mansions (1994)

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."

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Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols

"Kerry James Marshall Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols
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First published on 04 Mar 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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