Kerry James Marshall

Kerry James Marshall

According to Kerry James Marshall, “If you really want to be free, you have to take charge of your own capacity to shape the world.” Born into Jim Crow Alabama and raised in the Los Angeles Watts neighborhoods (at the time just twelve blocks away from the Black Panther headquarters) Marshall has consistently identified his own social responsibility, as well as his love of painting, as two powerful driving forces in his relentless production of art. For Marshall, confronting the absence of black artists and black art in an institutionalized art historical dialogue involves expanding black representation through his own artistic production. Unlike most paintings accessible in art historical surveys and publicly recognized art collections, Marshall’s grand canvases privilege the black subject.

Marshall maintains that the history of representation, the history of art, and the history of painting is almost exclusively the representation of white figures in pictorial spaces. To alter this norm and to secure the relevance of African American Art in the academy, Marshall felt he first needed to conquer the techniques of the Old Master Painters. For Marshall, “The lack of mastery makes you vulnerable to the imposition of somebody else’s will.” To redefine standard notions academic art, Marshall has reintroduced the black subject into portraiture, history painting, and genre painting, and Marshall’s figures are unequivocally black; While Marshall adds different hues in mixing variations of black paint, he does not alter the color’s value. The deepness and fullness of the black figure in Marshall’s paintings reinforce his negation of artistic convention and symbolically augment his exaltation of the black experience. Marshall has described this blackness as non-negotiable and unapologetic.

"7am Sunday Morning" (2003), acrylic on canvas banner, 120 by 216 inches. Kerry James Marshall / Collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

Photo: Michal Raz-Russo, MCA Chicago

“A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self” (1980), egg tempera on paper, 8 by 6.5 inches. Kerry James Marshall / Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

“A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self” (1980), egg tempera on paper, 8 by 6.5 inches. Kerry James Marshall / Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Photo: Kerry James Marshall, Collection of Steven and Deborah Lebowitz

While the tonal values of Marshall’s figures are universal, their impressions are extremely varied— Marshall’s figures assume all facets of black life. Marshall’s 2012 painting, School of Beauty, School of Culture portrays a scene inspired by the cosmetology school “Your School of Beauty Culture” located in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago’s South Side. The world defined in Marshall’s painting designates a space in which black women determine their own images of ideal beauty. With a nod to Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassadors, Marshall uses the anamorphic Sleeping Beauty head to register Euro-centric standards of beauty, populated in the academy for centuries, as a distorted reality. In Marshall’s other paintings, characters are lost, characters command the scene, characters are caught in grips of double consciousness. Some of Marshall’s characters portray the lives of ordinary people, some assume the stature of figures like Harriet Taubman. Regardless of the sitter, Marshall’s paintings merge versions of history that might otherwise be separated by the museum wall and in doing so, invite a reconsideration of representation across disciplines. The resulting paintings appear incredibly captivating, subtly playful, and extremely charged.

“Many Mansions” (1994), acrylic on paper mounted on canvas, 114 × 135 in. Kerry James Marshall

“Many Mansions” (1994), acrylic on paper mounted on canvas, 114 × 135 in. Kerry James Marshall

Photo: Kerry James Marshall, The Art Institute of Chicago

"Bang" (1994), acrylic and collage on canvas, 8 ft. 7 in. × 9 ft. 6 in, Kerry James Marshall / The Progressive Corporation


Kerry James Marshall received a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts from the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles in 1978, and holds an honorary Doctorate from the same school. Marshall has taught at the Los Angeles City College, the Los Angeles Southwest College, and worked as a professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago’s School of Art and Design from 1993 to 2006. In 1997, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awarded Marshall their “Genius” grant for his complex pictorial celebration of the African American existence. His work has been showcased at institutions such as New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, The National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, and the Venice Biennial. Marshall was appointed to former President Barack Obama’s committee on Arts and Humanities in 2013. In May 2016, his painting “Plunge” sold for over $2.1 Million at Christies Auction House.


Header Image: Photograph by Brad Torchia for the Guardian, TheGuardian.com

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