- Kerry James Marshall: History of PaintingOur PickBy Teju Cole and Hal Foster
- Kerry James Marshall (Phaidon Contemporary Artist Series)Our PickBy Greg Tate, Charles Gaines, and Laurence Rassel
- Kerry James Marshall: MastryOur PickBy Ian Alteveer, Helen Molesworth, Dieter Roelstraete, and Abigail Winograd
- Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene ThomasBy Catharina Manchanda, Jacqueline Francis, and Lowery Stokes Sims
- Kerry James Marshall: Look See Hardcover - November 24, 2015By Robert Storr
- Kerry James Marshall: MementosBy Will Alexander, Cheryl I. Harris, and Richard Powell
- Kerry James Marshall: Painting and Other StuffOur PickBy Okwui Enwezor and Nav Haq
Important Art by Kerry James Marshall
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."
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."
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."