As a major retrospective of his career opened at The Met, The New York Times declared the artist is 'Shifting the Color of Art History'

Kerry James Marshall has mastered the game!

by Janel St. John


NOV 2016. As a middle school student, Kerry James Marshall already knew two things: He was passionate about art and planned to attend the Otis College of Art and Design; he was puzzled by the absence of African Americans from the works at the museums he visited in elementary school. These two tenets formed the basis of a lifetime of spectacular painting and have made the 61-year old Chicagoan, the most celebrated artist in the country.


"Ultimately, a museum was a place I wanted to go, but I didn't have to abandon the black figure to get here."




"MASTRY" opens at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, MARCH 12, 2017

For 35-years, he’s chronicled the Black experience, painting scenes from everyday life to key figures in American history like Harriet Tubman and Nat Turner. He is most widely known for large-scale, narrative paintings in which the black figure is not only predominant, but unapolegetic charcoal black. Rich in art history and Black culture, the tableaus are filled with political and social comment.

Now, the largest museum retrospective to date, of Marshall’s work, is on view at The Met Breuer in New York through January 29, 2017. Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, debuted at MCA Chicago in the Spring. After The Met, the exhibition heads west to The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Mastry encompasses nearly 80 works - including 72 paintings. The exhibition’s title is a play on words, referencing Marshall’s comics-inspired Rythm Mastr series, and other included works, from the early and iconic.

It’s also somewhat of an assertion, that Marshall, in his effort to counter the stereotypes of black people and reassert the place of the black figure within the canon of Western painting, has himself, become a ‘Master.’

“Mastry is an important concept,” he said, at MCA Chicago. “It implies having achieved a level of proficiency that you have the freedom to do what you want without fear of the consequences.”

This fearless use of a brush – painting black figures with black paint and masterfully fashioning their stories - has made Marshall one of the country’s preeminent contemporary painters.

Marshall is one of 'The Greats.' The NY Times Style Magazine feature celebrates seven people 'who are redefining our culture.'

The cover art is a self portrait painted by the artist.





Winning a MacArthur “genius” award in 1997, catapulted Marshall to international art celebrity status. The value of his works, which have sold for more than $2 million at auction, place him in a rarified air of the elite global art world where only a handful of African American artists reside. Right now, he's in three concurrent group shows in the UK, New York, and North Carolina in "Southern Accent" at Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art.  

When the National Gallery of Art (NGA) acquired Great America, his metaphoric rendering of the transatlantic slave trade, they hosted an exhibit to showcase the new acquisition.  The 2013 show was the first solo exhibition the National Gallery has ever organized for a living African American artist. It centered around his 1994 work, Great America, a 9 ½-foot painting in which the artist re-imagined the Middle Passage of slaves from Africa to the New World as a boat ride through a haunted tunnel at an amusement park. In true Marshall form, the powerful imagery - including a head bobbing in the water - foretell a journey that would be anything but great for the pensive black subjects piled into the overcrowded boat.

As Marshall’s first show in Washington D.C., it had great meaning for him. He told James Meyer, NGA associate curator of modern art, that  it was ‘one more step in the total fulfillment of all of the promises…in the Declaration of Independence.’ “If the word ‘all’ is to mean anything,” he said, “then the institutions the country has established to recognize or celebrate the genius of the American project have to demonstrate what that really looks like.”

His lament was heard around the world. More than 50 museums and institutions, including the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, The Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, have acquired Marshall's work for their public collections. In 2015, he was the featured artist at Americans for the Arts National Awards.

In the Tower: Kerry James Marshall National Gallery of Art 2013 Brochure

One of our 'must-see' exhibitions, Mastry continues to receive critical acclaim, while Marshall is being hailed as ‘the greatest living artist.’ He was recently named one of 'The Greats’ by The New York Times Style Magazine. The annual list of seven people, included First Lady, Michelle Obama, who visited the artist during the MCA Chicago debut. Also on the short list - singer/songwriter Lady Gaga, fashion designer Junya Wantanabe, chef/restauranteur Massimo Bottura, author Zadie Smith, and photographer William Eggleston, who's also featured in Southern Accent. The seven people chosen, according to the Times, “are redefining our culture” and “not only embodies our definition of great, but our understanding of its power.” Marshall is celebrated for “transforming the perception of figuration with the goal of pushing the Western art historical canon in a more diverse and representational direction.” The feature, “Kerry James Marshall is Shifting the Color of Art History,” profiles the artist at home in Chicago where he has lived since 1992, and explores the inner-city neighborhood that informs so much of his work. He spoke with fellow Chicago artist, Theaster Gates for an accompanying video special.  

In his video interview at MCA Chicago, he spoke about the importance of Mastry. "In the entire narrative of art history as we know it, there is not a single black person who has achieved the title of master - and certainly not an Old Master," he said. "Mastry means that one is able to self-determine... how one wants to be represented, how one wants to be seen. Ultimately, a museum was a place I wanted to go, but I didn't have to abandon the black figure to get here."



Kerry James Marshall: Bang, 1994, acrylic and collage on canvas, 103 by 114 in. Courtesy The Progressive Corporation, Mayfield Village, Ohio.



Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (Studio), 2014 Acrylic on PVC panel , 83 5⁄16 × 119 ¼ in. , The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Purchase, Jacques and Natasha Gelman Foundation Gift, Acquisitions Fund and The Metropolitan Museum of Art Multicultural Audience Development Initiative Gift, 2015



Marshall was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1955. In 1963, his parents moved him and his two siblings to Nickerson Gardens, a public housing project in the Watts area of Los Angeles. He came of age during the Civil Rights and Black Power movements and witnessed the Watts rebellion of 1965. Son of a postal worker, he was the first in his family to attend college. After earning his B.F.A. from the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles in 1978, he began to forge his own artistic path.

Deeply influenced by childhood experiences, Marshall decided to paint only black figures. He began a relentless pursuit of black beauty, representation and the mastery of figurative painting. "You can’t be born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1955 and grow up in South Central near the Black Panthers headquarters," Marshall has said, "and not feel like you’ve got some kind of social responsibility. You can’t move to Watts in 1963 and not speak about it. That determined a lot of where my work was going to go…"

At 25, he painted a self-portrait. Now iconic, his Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self (below) explores  Ralph Ellison's “Invisible Man” - a 1952 novel on the invisibility of American blackness. The black subject in Marshall's painting, almost fades into the black background creating a shadow. Only the whiteness is clearly visible: two eyes, large teeth forming a gap-toothed grin and a collarless shirt. Every black person in America has, at some point, felt like this image looks – small, embarrassed by his dark skin and trying to stand up and smile in a culture that has rendered him powerless and invisible. In an 8 x 6 inch painting, the artist effectively captured what blackness in America feels like. 

In his 1990s Garden Project series, he painted scenes from public housing projects. Among symbols of the American dream - bright sunny skies, white picket fences, chirping birds and kids at play - there’s graffiti-like smatterings of paint and other symbols of a false paradise - black family life in the midst of an American nightmare. In Bang, (above) which depicts a backyard Forth of July celebration, thick black smoke emotes from the grill while a garden hose coils around a child like a snake. Watts 1963, depicts the artist and his siblings at play outside Nickerson Gardens, where the 8-year-old Marshall and his family lived. The exhibition reunites the five paintings of Marshall’s Garden Project series, for the first time in 20 years.  



Kerry James Marshall, Vignette, 2003 Photo: Defares Collection, Image courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner, London



Mastry unfolds in chronological order, tracing Marshall's development as a painter. Pages from the Rythm Mastr project, ongoing since 1999, are also featured in the exhibition. These graphic novel panels, which he debuted as an installation in the 1999 Carnegie International, feature a band of black superheroes. He created the comic strip because the subject matter was ‘underrepresented’ and ‘undervalued’ in American pop culture.

I saw that black kids are interested in comics and superheroes just like everybody else, he told ART 21. “But the market has somehow never been able to sustain a set of black superheroes in a way that could capture the imagination, not just of the black populations but also of the general populations as a whole.” The characters are set in Marshall’s Chicago neighborhood, but derive their powers from the seven Yoruban gods of African mythology. The ‘jive-talking’ superheroes speak truth to power, but also intellectually debate history, philosophy and politics. He has expanded to series to include puppets, film storyboards and video and hopes to develop it into a graphic novel and a feature-length animated film. “I’m trying to find a way to make our knowledge of African history, our knowledge of mythology, and our love of fantasy and superheroes….all come together in a vital and exciting way by connecting it to a story that is meaningful, historically and culturally…”

An entire a suite of paintings in Mastry is dedicated to the exploration of Black love; it’s followed by portraits of members of the Cato slave rebellion, and culminates in paintings made during the Obama presidency, which feature a stunning set of portraits of black artists at work in their studios. One of these major, recent works - Untitled (Studio 2014, above), a monumental painting, measuring nearly 10 x 7 feet, was recently acquired by The Met.

"Marshall’s work illustrates the American experience as unimaginable without black history and culture,” said Ian Alteveer, Met Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. “Through the tropes of traditional painting - portraiture, landscape, and other narrative modes - he builds a conversation around visibility and invisibility. The result is a stunning body of work that is both intimate and monumental."

Kerry James Marshall: Mastry is organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. It's co-curated by Ian Alteveer, Associate Curator in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art at The Met; Helen Molesworth, Chief Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and Dieter Roelstraete, former Manilow Senior Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

While at The Met, Kerry James Marshall Selects, curated by the artist, runs concurrently. Marshall drew 40 works from The Met collection, ranging from the Northern Renaissance to French post-Impressionism, and from African masks to American photography of the 1950s and ‘60s, to underscore the global and historical nature of the influences that are predominant in his practice.

The exhibition is accompanied by a comprehensive and fully illustrated catalogue, with essays by the curators and other scholars, alongside new and collected writings by the artist. Published by the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and Skira Rizzoli, the book chronicles Marshall’s career and contains sumptuous color plates of all of the exhibition works. It is the most authoritative book on the artist’s work to date.





Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (Painter), 2009. Acrylic on PVC; 44 5/8 x 43 1/8 x 3 7/8 in. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, gift of Katherine S. Schamberg by exchange, 2009.15. © 2009 Kerry James Marshall Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago





Kerry James Marshall, Slow Dance, 1992–93, mixed media and acrylic on unstretched canvas. Lent by The David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago; Purchase, Smart Family Fund Foundation for Contemporary Art, and Paul and Miriam Kirkley Fund for Acquisitions. Photo © 2015, courtesy of The David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago.


Kerry James Marshall, A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self, 1980, 8 x 6 in., egg tempera on paper. Steven and Deborah Lebowitz. Photo courtesy MCA Chicago
From W Magazine: