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Adding Black to Western Art History: Kerry James Marshall

Past Times, 1997

Kerry James Marshall

Acrylic and collage on canvas

9 ft. 6 in. x 13 ft.

Kerry James Marshall (b. 1955) is a figurative painter whose work depicts uplifting images of Black people and culture.

“I don’t do pictures in which the figures are abject in any way. I don’t do pictures in which the figures are traumatized in any way. I’m trying to create a certain kind of normalcy; a kind of everyday-ness, a commonplace-ness – a sense of simple presence.”

Marshall was born in Birmingham, Alabama. His father, James Marshall, served in the Army during the Korean War, and later worked for the US Postal Service. His mother, Ora Dee, was a singer-songwriter who made a record with a doo-wop group in Birmingham and co-wrote a song called “Lovin’ Feeling”. Later she ran a secondhand shop, selling objects bought at auction.

The family moved to Los Angeles in 1963 when Kerry was 7 years old, eventually settling in South Central. They were part of the Great Migration of more than six million Black people who left the Jim Crow South in search of better jobs and more humane treatment.

Marshall and his older brother Wayne were avid comic book readers growing up. He began sketching images of comic-book superheroes, and his siblings Wayne and younger sister Jennifer. In 1965, at the age of 10, Marshall took his first trip to a museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “I didn’t know there was such a thing as a museum. Once I learned how to get there, you couldn’t keep me away.”

A teacher in junior high school recommended Marshall for a summer drawing class at the Otis College of Art and Design. Here, he discovered the work of Charles White. White was teaching at Otis at the time. After hearing White speak to the summer school class, Marshall decided that Otis was where he wanted to go for college.

Juba, 1951

Charles White

Pen and ink on illustration board

24.5 x 16.5 in

During Marshall’s time in art school, conceptual art was the dominant force. Conventional painting, drawing and sculpture was seen as a thing of the past. Marshall learned abstract and collage techniques, but he craved the rigor of painting and drawing.

Shortly after graduating, Marshall traveled to New York to see the Picasso retrospective at the MoMA in 1980. He was awestruck by the historical painting Guernica. Around this time, he also read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Ellison’s insight, that Black people were invisible because white people refused to see them, was a revelation to him. This same year, he created “A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self”. In the piece, the figure is positioned in a portrait pose with his head and torso turned at an angle. The man's skin is a deep shade of black which blends with his wide-brimmed hat and jacket. There's a sharp contrast between the black and the whites of his eyes, the triangle of white shirt, and his white teeth. At first, many viewers only see the white parts of the figure. The wide, gap-toothed grin is a reference to (and satire of) the propaganda of the Jim Crow era.

“There’s a joke about people being so black that you can’t see them at night unless they’re smiling. Being Black was a negative, and for me this was the starting point from which I could build an image of Blackness without those negative associations.”

A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self, 1980

Kerry James Marshall

Egg tempera on paper

8 x 6.5 in

In 1985, Marshall returned to New York for a residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem. There, he lived and worked from a 6 x 9 ft. apartment once home to Malcolm X. He also met his wife, actress Cheryl Lynn Bruce, who worked for the museum at the time. In 1987, the couple moved to Chicago where they still reside.

Marshall’s professional goal has always been to match the expertise and proficiency of the Old Masters while inserting his own idealized view of the world into the art history canon. In particular, he wants art history to pay attention to Black subjects and to see them not in a traumatized state, but in states of leisure, play, love, and simple being.

“Part of my project is to escape this kind of imperative that everything you do as a black person is always about lack. That there’s never a moment in which you have simple pleasure – where you’re just there, where you’re just simply being. And your being is not fraught with all these other layers of historical meaning.”

Untitled (Club Couple), 2014

Kerry James Marshall

Acrylic on PVC panel

60 x 60 in.

Marshall prides himself in knowing how things work. He is an avid student of art history, and can paint using any technique. He constructs his pieces with logic and precision, likening his process to a mathematical equation. Not only does he paint, he builds: props, figurines, canvases, you name it. The workshop in his studio is three times the size as the area where he paints. “There isn’t anything I can’t do. I am not going to be found not knowing how something works.” Knowing how things work gives him freedom and an independence he would not otherwise have. Marshall craves this independence and enjoys working undistracted in the solitude of his studio.

In 2016-2017, Marshall's work was featured in his first major museum retrospective called Mastry which traveled from the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago to Met Breuer in New York and finally to the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles.

He is currently working on a comic book called Rhythm Mastr which seeks to remedy the absence of Black characters in the genre.

Marshall talks about his work in this promotional video for his Mastry retrospective:


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