Marshall, Kerry James
- Dennis Raverty
African American painter, writer, film production designer, and multimedia installation artist. Marshall’s works portray idealized subjects derived from African American experience in large-scale, multiple-figure paintings and installations that share many characteristics with European history painting in the “grand manner” of Peter Paul Rubens, Benjamin West, Jacques-Louis David, and the 19th-century academic tradition. This “high culture” Euro-American tradition is juxtaposed with elements of African American vernacular culture in order to reinsert African American subjects and aesthetics into the larger mainstream of America’s artistic and cultural history—a history from which, the artist believes, blacks have been largely excluded.
Marshall was born in Birmingham, AL, one of the most segregated cities in the United States at that time, and the site of civil rights demonstrations in the early 1960s. He moved with his parents in 1963 to Nickerson Gardens public housing project in Watts, CA, just a few years before the riots there. Consequently, the struggles of the civil rights movement profoundly affected him and are a major theme in his mature work.
Marshall studied art at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles while still in high school, and came under the influence of the African American social realist painter, Charles White, who was a professor at the Institute. From the older artist, Marshall learned to draw the human figure and was also imbued with a sense of the social responsibilities of artists. Marshall graduated from Otis in 1978. After participation in a number of group shows the artist received a resident fellowship from the Studio Museum in Harlem and in 1987 Marshall and his family settled permanently in Chicago. From 1993 to 2006 he taught at the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois, Chicago.
In works from the 1980s, Marshall explored themes of the social and historical “invisibility” of blacks in such paintings as A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of his Former Self (1980) or La Venus Negra (1984), where the dark figure is barely perceptible against a cooler, black background.
In the 1990s, he expanded his repertoire in a series of genre scenes on a monumental scale, such as De Style (1993), set in a barber shop, or a couple undressing for bed in Could This Be Love? (1992). In Lost Boys (1993), he commemorated innocent children killed in the cross fire of gang violence, combining compositional devices as well as specific details, like the tree of life, derived from Renaissance painting, but juxtaposes these with elements taken from black vernacular culture, like the plastic Kewpie doll in the extreme foreground, used by blacks in rural areas as decorations on the graves of children.
Rarely, if ever, are these references intended to be interpreted ironically, according to the artist, “When you talk about kitsch and commemoration, just go to the cemetery. All those angels, all those urns, there is nothing at all ironic about that.” He expanded on this elegiac mood in his first large installation entitled Mementos (1998), which includes large paintings on unstretched canvas in which black angels with gold glitter wings give homage to John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., along with a host of deceased black authors, musicians, and thinkers, floating in a decorative arrangement that is almost Rococo in spirit. Along with these idealized homages, there is also a video montage showing scenes of gang violence and a funeral, which is viewed through what appear to be holes in a wall of a stone mausoleum, bringing together the idealism of the painting and the reality of the video.
In 2000 Marshall started work on Rhythm Mastr, an ongoing comic book story that mixes urban and Yoruba myths, parts of which were published in serial form in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Drawn in the style of comics and without irony, they are an attempt to insert black superheroes into the medium.
From 2010 he executed large, exuberant, richly colored, almost radiant figurative genre scenes, where the idealized figures are truly black (i.e. not brown), an effect which art historian Robert Storr describes as “an essentially anti-Conradian heartfelt darkness framed by roseate flesh and tropical verdure.” Marshall also produced a series of large brightly colored abstract pieces in emulation of the Rorschach ink blots, a projective diagnostic tool once widely used by psychologists.
In 2016 a large retrospective exhibition organized by the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City brought together works spanning a forty-year career from the vantage point of the artist in his early 60s. As the catalog essay by Helen Motesworth states, Marshall’s subversive strategy amounts to “a tactical attack on the invisibility of ‘blackness’ and the structural absence of African Americans as a historically specific group of persons within the Western museum.” The museum confers not only legitimacy but almost an air of historical inevitability, while the visual language and rhetoric are taken from European Baroque art, but spoken with a creole dialect derived from vernacular black culture.
- Holg, G. “Stuff Your Eyes with Wonder.” ARTnews (March 1998): 154–156.
- “A Thousand Words: Kerry James Marshall Talks about Rhythm Mastr.” Artforum 38 (Summer 2000): 148–149.
- Sultan, T. Kerry James Marshall. New York, 2000.
- Kerry James Marshall: One True Thing: Meditations on Black Aesthetics. Edited by E. A. T Smith. Chicago, IL: Mus. Contemp. A., 2003. Published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name, shown at New York, Studio Mus. Harlem, and elsewhere, 2003–2004.
- Biro, M. “Representing Blackness: Kerry James Marshall’s New Work Re-thinks the Meaning of ‘Black Art’.” Art Papers 28 (Mar–Apr 2004): 34–39.
- Kerry James Marshall: Along the Way. London, Camden A. Cent., 2005. Exhibition catalog.
- Mellis, M. “History Painting: Kerry James Marshall Attacks Founding Fathers.” Modern Painters 21 (May 2009): 22–23.
- Storr, R. “Chromophilia and the Interaction of Color.” In Kerry James Marshall: Look See, 7–16. London: David Zwirner Gallery, 2014.
- Molesworth, H., and others. Kerry James Marshall: Mastry. New York: Skira Publication, 2016. Published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name, shown at Chicago, IL, Mus. Contemp. A., and elsewhere, 2016–2017.