- 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
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 - 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