Kerry James Marshall: Selected Press

For the first thirty years of his career, Kerry James Marshall was a successful but little known artist. His figurative paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs, and videos appeared in gallery and museum shows here and abroad, and selling them was never a problem. He won awards, residencies, and grants, including a MacArthur Fellowship in 1997, but in the contemporary-art world, which started to look more closely at Black artists in the nineties, Marshall was an outlier, and happy to be one. He had an unshakable confidence in himself as an artist, and the undistracted solitude of his practice allowed him to spend most of his time in the studio. The curator Helen Molesworth told me that during the three years it took to put together “Mastry,” Marshall’s first major retrospective in the United States, which opened in 2016 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and travelled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, “there were still people in the art world who didn’t know who he was.”

This is no longer the case. The exhibition outed Marshall as a great artist, a virtuoso of landscape, portraiture, still-life, history painting, and other genres of the Western canon since the Renaissance. The return to figurative art in the past two decades has been embraced by a new wave of younger Black artists, and for many of them, it is now clear, Kerry James Marshall has been a primary inspiration. “Kerry’s influence expands so far beyond his own project,” Rashid Johnson, who at forty-three is one of the strongest voices in contemporary art, told me. “He’s an electric and dynamic thinker who’s also had an enormous influence on those of us who use abstraction and more conceptual approaches. There are two artists without whom I probably would not have become one—David Hammons and Kerry James Marshall.”

Marshall, whose calm manner and impeccable courtesy put people at ease, talks about his work with clarity and precision. “Everything I do is based on my understanding of art history,” he told me recently. “The foundation of art as an activity among human beings has always been some form of representation, and there isn’t a mode of art-making that I haven’t explored, and put into use when it was necessary.” His painting is figurative but not realistic. In 1993, he made two paintings that set him on a course that was entirely his own. He was thirty-eight years old, living in Chicago with his wife, the actress Cheryl Lynn Bruce, and he had recently moved into his first real studio, a three-hundred-and-fifty-square-foot office space with an eleven-foot-high ceiling. The new paintings were much bigger than anything he had done for quite a while—nine feet high by ten feet wide. “The Lost Boys” shows two young Black boys, one of whom sits in a dollar-a-ride toy car; the other stands nearby, holding a pink water pistol, beside a tree that has a yellow “Do Not Cross” police tape around its trunk. The boys look directly at the viewer, and there is something unnerving about them, a sense of sadness and vulnerability.


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 Kerry James Marshall made this painting in 2018, the year after his career retrospective, “Mastry,” attracted large crowds and garnered rave reviews in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Most artists who get this kind of mid- or late-career attention flounder for a bit. “Untitled (Underpainting),” which is owned by Glenstone, feels like an unusually taut and tough-minded ­response to that period of sustained applause.

It’s a very self-assured painting. Consider just the mechanics.

You’re looking at a picture of a large gallery divided in half by two parallel white partitions. The painting’s two halves are not quite mirror images: the figure closest to us on the right, for instance, is a man, while the equivalent figure on the left is a woman. But look closer and you see that the arrangement of ­gallery-goers on both sides is approximately the same. If that makes you think of a Rorschach test, that’s probably Marshall’s intention: He is always interested in what the viewer projects.

Speaking of viewers, there are dozens of them spread through the divided gallery, including two groups of schoolchildren. The paintings in front of them are big, museum-ready canvases, like the one you’re looking at, which measures 10 feet by 7.

Most of Marshall’s paintings are vividly colored. This one, however, is in shades of grayish umber, evoking (as the title reinforces) a painting yet to be finished. “I’ve always been interested in unfinished underpaintings,” Marshall said in a recent interview, “like Leonardo’s ‘Saint Jerome in the Wilderness.’ ” It was from just such works, he said, that he learned how paintings were constructed.

If you can see how something is constructed, you can see more easily how it might have been different. And that is something I suspect Marshall thinks about every day.


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Where to start with “Black and part Black Birds in America,” the new series of paintings by Kerry James Marshall—modest, easel size—I stumbled on this July when, starved for art, I turned to the web. Does one begin with their manifest pictorial qualities—garish and gorgeous and cartoon-wonky? Or with the sly weave of sociocultural associations these faintly foreboding images improbably access? The twain—this holds, I suppose, for all incisive artmaking—will not be sundered.

Inspired by John James Audubon’s landmark 1827–1838 folio "The Birds of America", Marshall’s in-progress series of paintings hinges on the eminent birder’s art and life—or, more properly, on Marshall’s relationship to both. Audubon was born Jean Rabin in what is today Haiti to a white plantation-owning father and, depending on who you ask, either an also-white mother or a chambermaid who may or may not have been “part Black.” Like many, Marshall was surprised to discover Audubon’s art in David C. Driskell’s 1976 Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibition “Two Centuries of Black American Art” when he visited the show as an art school student in Southern California, and while he owns that the artist-ornithologist’s racial makeup remains something of a mystery, he has also stated that “I never forgot that assertion was made.” For an artist whose project has been to paint the Black subject into the almost-all-white canon, the "idea"that this esteemed precursor was possibly mixed race was as enabling as the particulars around the ornithologist’s identity were impetus for pause. Audubon saw fit to reinvent himself upon immigrating to the US, changing his name and thereby obscuring his foreign birth, and possibly opting to pass as white. The matter of Audubon’s racial identity informs the series’ title, an inspiration that makes absurd the excruciating ways Black identity has been parsed in our racist society by transposing said horror show into the no-stakes sphere of ornithology.

People are not birds, and black as a color from a paint tube does not have much to do with race, but Marshall’s title slyly extends both metaphors, lampooning the historical lunacy of equating a range of skin tones—from café to blue-black—with a hierarchy of behavioral characteristics fantasized to support the master-slave pecking order. The title spoofs the “one-drop rule,” whereby a person with so much as a single known African ancestor cannot be considered white or, by extension, benefit from, in Marshall’s words, the “privileges and rights that Americans are supposed to enjoy.”

In the two paintings that debuted this summer on the David Zwirner Gallery’s online-only platform Studio, each dominated by a baleful crow rendered in the luxuriant chromatic blacks that have become the artist’s signature, the one-drop rule, transposed to feather color, is made to show its essentialist folly. If a cardinal has a black spot on its head—so goes the illogic—then it’s a black bird! The first of the paintings, "Black and part Black Birds in America: (Crow, Goldfinch)", features a Dr. Seussian snarl of dead tree, fantastic flora, and a pair of Disney-whimsical birdhouses silhouetted against a subtly turgid aquamarine sky. Here, the hovering “all-black” protagonist (who is not really all black, as Marshall mixes his blacks with other colors) is flanked by a relatively innocuous finch perched on a lower branch. In the second, this one subtitled "(Grackle, Cardinal & Rose-breasted Grosbeak)", the three supporting birds, partially black in various degrees, are menaced once again by a passing crow, a symbol (the artist has said as much) of our culture’s volatile anti-Black legacy. If, like me, you consider Audubon’s art to count as more than adept illustration, you will appreciate that the ominous undercurrent of Marshall’s own avian arrangements echoes the bird-eat-bird side of Audubon’s not-always-so-peaceable nature vignettes. Indeed, the single Audubon composition selected as an online comparative features a chaos of partridges terrorized by a swooping hawk.

Difficult to fathom that the coincidence of Marshall’s painterly gambit and the confrontation between Christian Cooper, a Black man birding in Central Park, and Amy Cooper (no relation), a white woman he respectfully asked to leash her dog, could be happenstantial, but when the artist started his series early this year, the lightning-rod exchange had yet to rattle our raw-nerved polis. The tantrum of entitled spite triggered by the birder’s benign request (she threatened to call the police and tell them that “an African American man is threatening my life”) was chilling in its knee-jerk recourse to the not-so-subterranean current of prejudice rendered newly—intolerably—stark in this crisis-crossed period. There were direr symptoms of course, but this one would dynamite the fissured fiction of New York liberal civility and in so doing hit a close-to-home nerve.

“Nothing we do,” the artist has remarked, “is disconnected from the social, political, economic, and cultural histories that trail behind us,” and so, point taken, it is perhaps less than surprising that this apparently playful avian taxonomy (and that scary new pseudoscience of feather color that undergirds it) should figure the traumas that roiled worlds this summer.

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About 10 years ago, the artist Kerry James Marshall caught a crow with his bare hands.

The bird was cornered awkwardly near Mr. Marshall’s home on the South Side of Chicago, and curiosity got the better of him. “I’ve always been impressed by that kind of bird,” he recalled the other day.

Mr. Marshall, widely acknowledged as one of the best painters working today, wanted to photograph and take video of the crow, since he often used such documentation as the basis for his work (he prefers props now). So he grabbed it and took it home.

“At first he screamed like he was being murdered,” Mr. Marshall said. “The minute I put him by my side, he got quiet.”

On his second-floor deck, Mr. Marshall tied a cord to the crow’s leg, and provided a meal of mulberries “so he wouldn’t starve.” He showed the crow to his wife and documented the bird as planned. The next day, he let the bird go.

Some days later, he saw the crow being menaced by a cat. Mr. Marshall recalled: “So I picked up a rock and threw it at the cat. And I swear to God, that same bird, he stood there just looking at me. And I said, ʻYou better keep your butt off the ground because I’m not going to be around to save you the next time.’”

The crow meeting, which started out as research, somehow edged into a metaphysical encounter with deeper meanings, and it now informs Mr. Marshall’s newest series of paintings. His first two canvases officially debut Thursday in an online show,  “Studio: Kerry James Marshall,” at David Zwirner Gallery through Aug. 30.

As he has for decades, Mr. Marshall, 64, has harnessed history, especially the history of painting, in these new canvases: They are his reimagining of John James Audubon’s landmark series, “Birds of America,” the painstakingly rendered 435 watercolors made in the first half of the 19th century, significant achievements in the fields of both ornithology and art.

In one image, “Black and part Black Birds in America: (Crow, Goldfinch),” a large crow dominates the canvas, clearly too large for the birdhouses depicted behind it. There are glorious leaves, flowers and a small goldfinch in the bottom left corner. In the other picture, finished just last week, “Black and part Black Birds in America: (Grackle, Cardinal & Rose-breasted Grosbeak),” a grackle is the protagonist with a dainty birdhouse and brightly colored flowers. The cardinal and grosbeak are both flying in different directions, giving them a sense of being at cross purposes with the grackle.

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A pair of grand rococo frames, mirror images of each other, curl towards us from a diptych. In each panel, the back views of two young people are caught in the instant of arrival. He is cool, alert, body twisting to take in the scene, hands casually in the pockets of a white fleece. She is static, hair a sweeping coil, hands clasped behind her back, legs tapering from the fringe of a black and white mini dress to gleaming sandal straps and heels.

We gaze with them into a gallery, pictures hung salon-style high, filled with darting and absorbed viewers, children, teachers, poseurs, fashionistas, wanderers, receding in turn to further galleries, more people. Some are silhouettes, some rounded, beautifully modelled. Some mirror one another in each panel, others are unique. Every figure is black.

Kerry James Marshall’s “Untitled (Underpainting)”, the outstanding new work in David Zwirner’s supremely enjoyable exhibition of 2018 paintings, is a museum-quality picture about museums and looking: how we look, who looks, what these things tell us about our society. The work joins Marshall’s iconic series depicting black figures in imagined scenes of leisure and pleasure, including the picnic “Past Times”, sold to rapper P Diddy in May for $21.1m — record for a living African-American artist — and “Untitled (London Bridge)”, acquired by Tate in April.

As monumental and engaging as these, the new work differs in colour: underpainted with a layer of burnt umber — a Renaissance technique — it glows a warm brown, and is monochrome, executed in shades of white, cream, brown, black. So, although the composition is meticulous and rewards detailed scrutiny, the underpainted tonality makes it appear unfinished, a work in progress — terms that could also describe the representation of black people in art, or the presence of black visitors in museums.

Thirty years ago, Marshall set out to create a “counter-archive” of paintings of black subjects to hang in museums. Now, following his first American retrospective "Mastry," 2016-17, the project comes to fruition and opens out in inventive, ambitious ways.

Just returned from Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum display paired with Tintoretto’s “Susanna and the Elders” is a majestic untitled painting of a black woman in pink knickers, hair in a turquoise towel, bending to select a yellow garment from her clothes rack. We, the voyeurs, peer through a window into a well-lit apartment in a brownstone building, bricks delineated with smooth precision, casement, meshed grill, drainpipe all reiterating the verticals and horizontals of the modernist grid.

That formality recurs in the impressive imaginary portraits “Day and Night”. Half-length meditative middle-aged figures, the woman holding a mug, the man a glass, rest their arms on a ledge, as in Renaissance compositions; their heads are framed by a rectangle of sky above the structural anchor of another windowed brownstone. Black everyday experience here attains Old Master gravitas and charm, with colour contrasts both a painterly device and political tool: the blackness of the figures heightens the crystalline sky or glowering purple twilight, and announces, Marshall has said, “that blackness is non-negotiable [and] unequivocal”. Marshall primarily uses three blacks — carbon black, from soot; Mars black, from iron oxide; ivory black, from burnt bone, all blacker than actual black skin tones. In the large painting further presenting normal black life in urban settings, “Untitled (Dog Walker)”, a decoratively flattened figure, ebullient in striped shorts, striding forward with her dog, it becomes even clearer how Marshall’s pictures depend on blackness for chromatic pattern and even play of light, bouncing off black skin, making it luminous and vibrant.

They also toy with flatness and depth, wonderfully orchestrating space — the blocks and pavements receding behind the dog walker — and games of abstraction, as in the series “History of Painting”: black-outlined rectangles on saturated grounds imitating supermarket flyers but advertising instead auction results, asking us to consider how value is assigned.

Abstraction and figuration, artifice and representation, painterly formality and political agenda, were always fluid and inseparable for Marshall. Visionary and virtuoso, he began painting in the 1980s, rejecting both that decade’s irony and neo-expressionist indulgence. Instead, his work declared, simply and confidently, that it was too early to declare figurative painting dead before it included black lives.

That agenda, far richer than identity politics conceptualist strategies, looks back essentially to modernism: via post-cubist space to Manet painting modern life. And as for Manet, though for different particulars of social radicalism, artifice is the point; many scenes of leisured black lives are indeed fantasies. In Marshall’s assured compositions they are also calls to action: putting such paintings in museums is one step to making fact the imagined tableau in “Untitled (Underpainting)”, of a museum full of black visitors. No artist calls out more eloquently than Marshall for a major European museum retrospective.

"History of Painting" sounds like a bold name for an exhibition of contemporary art. But it neatly describes the preoccupations of Kerry James Marshall, worked out on canvas over four decades, in ambitious, large-scale depictions of African-American life.

“I’m not trying to dismantle the canon, the museum or any of that,” he insists. “On some level, the goal is to match the brilliance and …the complexity of things that are already there, [which] caused you to want to be an artist in the first place. It’s less about changing the narrative than it is about participating, being a part of it.”

Marshall is certainly participating. We meet at David Zwirner gallery in London, where his show of new work opens today. "Mastry," his stunning retrospective which travelled from Chicago’s MCA to the Metropolitan Museum in New York then to MOCA in Los Angeles, confirmed his status as one of our most important living artists. In May, his painting “Past Times” (1997) was sold to Sean Combs, or P Diddy, for $21.1m at Sotheby’s, making Marshall the most expensive living African-American artist. Despite what he says, he is changing the narrative.

Now 62, when he was starting out figurative painting was out of fashion. No matter. The question for him was, who dictates fashion? “To me, there really [was] a necessity to see more images of black figures in paintings that find their way into museums,” he explains. “And that’s completely independent of some small segment of the art world that feels like they have exhausted all these possibilities.”

Marshall is a generous conversationalist, expansive yet precise. This scrupulousness is characteristic both of his painting — its intricate compositions and smooth, deft brushwork — and his approach to painting. As a young man, he was a voracious reader, “driven by this need to know what it was the artists I was looking at in our history books knew”. Studying their work, he experimented with — and mastered — not one but many styles of painting. Even now, his practice is unusually broad for an artist of his age and status: this summer, his public sculpture “A Monumental Journey”, honouring the African-American founders of National Bar Association, set up at a time when other legal bodies refused them membership, was unveiled in Des Moines.

“If you allow somebody else to limit your possibilities,” he says, “we’re right back at a status that allows for black people to ultimately be enslaved.” Unlike the European slavers, the Africans hadn’t spent “a whole lot of time engineering weapons of war”, he notes drily. “That put you at a disadvantage. And when it came time to compete, they were unable to compete.” Marshall made sure he could compete — and offer a new way of seeing.

He was raised in Birmingham, Alabama amid civil rights unrest, then in Los Angeles, first in Watts during the riots, then in South Central in the shadow of the Black Panther headquarters: violence and police brutality were the backdrop to daily life. But these are not themes that appear explicitly in his paintings. Instead, several new works show African-Americans doing everyday things: dressing, drinking coffee, walking the dog. Is he countering a pernicious narrative of black life that’s defined by crime and violence? “There are things that I don’t do,” he agrees. “You don’t see images of black people in trauma in my work; you don’t see images of black people who are abject in my work.

“If you look at those figures,” he continues, referring to his paintings of hair salons, families, lovers, “they seem to be self-possessed. That matters a lot to me.” In the history of painting, “white people seem to like themselves”. He laughs. “They like what they look like, they like what they do and they like seeing themselves with each other.” He stops laughing. There is no equivalent genre for black people, he says, because of the history of conquer and slavery. So beauty and pleasure come to be seen as an exclusively white entitlement. “We don’t think of black people and joy.”

Marshall’s paintings are unashamedly beautiful. They are large, drawing on the tradition of history painting and the “sense of grandeur that comes with monumental images. You have to say, ‘is that available to you, too?’”

But one of the most striking aspects of his work he did not learn from past masters: his use of black pigments to render skin. His figures are literally black. Defying painterly “taboo”, he tried to “figure out a way to make black chromatic too”. What he discovered — using carbon black, iron oxide black, ivory black — is that it contains warm and cool tones, like any other colour.

Though lauded for years (he won a MacArthur “genius” grant in 1997), Marshall’s work has found a wider audience at a time when blackness is in the spotlight, politically and culturally. He is one of a cohort of African-American artists that now occupy the top of the market, including Mark Bradford, Julie Mehretu, Glenn Ligon, Theaster Gates, Njideka Akunyili Crosby and Kehinde Wiley. I ask Marshall what he makes of the celebration of black excellence more broadly, of stars such as Donald Glover and Beyoncé. “If you focus too much attention on people who seem exceptional,” he warns, “vast numbers of people get left behind. Really, transformation takes place at the level of the ordinary.”

Does the job of painting get easier as he gets older? “No,” he replies firmly. “I think it gets harder.” This is partly owing to his success — “the more work you do, the more impossible it gets to do other work, because the space for doing things that really are worthwhile just gets smaller and smaller” — and partly to his sense of responsibility. He refuses to “pump out” paintings simply to satisfy demand. He thinks hard about the images of black life he’s putting out into the world. “I’m not just going to put anything out just because I can.”

The challenge, then, for an artist at Marshall’s level is how to keep evolving. History of Painting answers that question in a surprising way. It is made up of three broad groups of work, two of which are markedly different in style from his figurative work. One group looks abstract — although he rejects the term — defined by bright swatches of colour; the other is a series of Warhol-like compositions of the kind of flyers that advertise US supermarket products but here display auction results.

He explains that the exhibition is organised around three ideas. First, the essentials of art, as in the pattern of reds and yellows shot through with dynamic green strokes in “Untitled (Large Colours)”. Second, how we learn to evaluate art, represented by the brilliantly tricksy “Untitled (Underpainting)” which, in his more familiar figurative style, shows schoolchildren in a museum. And finally, how this determines art’s commercial value: hence the series advertising auction results.

So Marshall is commenting not only on art history but on the contemporary market: the way works accrue meaning and ultimately value. It’s a pointed statement to make at a major London gallery during Frieze Week. And it’s some of the best contemporary art on show. Marshall continues to shake things up — quietly, and from the inside.

The morning after an electrifying talk at Tate Modern and a record sale at Sotheby’s of his painting 'Past Times,' Kerry James Marshall has lunch with his wife, the actor, director and writer Cheryl Lynn Bruce, Angela Choon, Senior Partner of David Zwirner, and Luncheon’s editor Frances von Hofmannsthal over lovage pie and asparagus at the Rochelle Canteen at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London. They discuss his life’s work and his upcoming show ‘History of Painting’ at David Zwirner, London. They are sitting at a corner table looking through Kerry’s US retrospective catalogue Mastry, published in 2016.

ANGELA CHOON: So I’ve opened the book to this [work]: 'Heirlooms and Accessories,' from 2002.

CHERYL LYNN BRUCE: It’s from a famous photograph of a lynching of three men.

KERRY JAMES MARSHALL: Double lynching of two men. There would have been three, but the other guy… got saved.

CHERYL: The crowd that’s looking [at the lynching] has three women in it.

KERRY: It’s a well-known photograph [of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana, in August 1930, taken by Lawrence Beitler].

CHERYL: There’s a book – a really terrifying book – of lynching photographs. Not every victim was a black male, but most of them were.

KERRY: It’s photographs of lynchings that were made into postcards. A white man, James Allen, started collecting these postcards that were sent through the mail.

CHERYL: Those events were often publicized as events to attend.

KERRY: They were a spectacle. A form of entertainment.

CHERYL: Yes, a spectacle. James Allen was a ‘picker’, and he would go to estate sales, yard sales and buy things, furniture and whatnot. One time he bought a desk, and just stored it, but when he was ready to sell it, he had to clean it out. When he went through it, he found a postcard of the lynching of a white man – a famous lynching of a Jewish man named Leo Frank, who was accused of having killed a young girl, a child in Georgia. And he was lynched. And this picker began to search for those kinds of postcards and found a number of them, through various means – he’d have flyers up at estate sales and laundromats and antique stores. He put together a collection. In 1910, the United States Post Office finally prohibited the mailing of them, but up until 1910, they could go through the mail – and did – because they just needed a postage stamp. They were sent as mementos by people who had attended [the lynchings], and so that’s how you get that picture – because somebody did go, and took a picture.

KERRY: The underlying story is that there was never any fear of prosecution – so people were fairly comfortable having their picture taken; they weren’t worried about being sent to jail for participating in a murder because extrajudicial killings of black people was all but legal. If not legal, it was certainly sanctioned…

CHERYL: …And that’s why the picker began collecting them, too. He said, this is a part of American history that we really don’t acknowledge, but it’s blatant, and it’s there, and it’s documented, and it was sent through the mail… The title is 'Heirlooms and Accessories' – many black men were hanged for having been accused of molesting or raping, or even looking at a white woman. Some of them just for looking or speaking. And often it didn’t matter if there were any witnesses to the alleged transgression, because there was no way to defend them.

(The waiter comes with menus, and apple and ginger juice is ordered to drink.)

ANGELA: Let’s talk about what you’re doing now: your work for the exhibition in London, ‘History of Painting’ [David Zwirner, London, 3rd October–10th November 2018].

KERRY: It’s the history of painting as it relates to the period after my retrospective [‘Kerry James Marshall: Mastry’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2016–17]. Once you’ve had a kind of summing up of your career as an artist, how do you continue? There’s something that seems sort of final about retrospectives. I mean, it could signal the end of a lot of things, and if you’re at all concerned about generating more momentum, to propel you forward into other things, the situation could get really difficult. And so, in a way, the title of the show is kind of a challenge to myself, a way back into the work in the studio after all the public obligations associated with following the retrospective. You could make an argument that it is a grand, arrogant, claim to address the history of painting. On another level it’s a way of setting yourself up for failure, because the scope of the show suggests something so large – but it seems to me the only way forward is to take up a challenge that seems so outsized as to present you with the real possibility of a massive failure.

ANGELA: There are a few paintings that you have made [since] the retrospective that seem to be self-referential, or about people being aware of themselves looking at art on the walls…

KERRY: I talk a lot about art history, and most of the work I do refers to the idea of it being an artwork or being a painting. The title of the first show we did together [at David Zwirner, 2014], ‘Look See’, was about subjects in a picture that presented themselves to be looked at. That’s always a driving motivation in what I do. I don’t know how to do anything that isn’t self-referential in terms of its relationship to art in the art world and museums, and to art history. It should be clear that very little of the work I do is really about me – it’s about me making pictures; it’s about why you would continue to make pictures; and what the pictures do; and the subjects of the pictures, and whether the subjects are aware of themselves being images represented, to be looked at. So with ‘History of Painting’, I want to at least take a stab at examining not only the origins of painting as a practice, but also the endpoint of what paintings end up being after their original use has been exhausted. Paintings become commodities that simply get traded on the open market, and for a lot of artists that outcome is troubling because we still, I think, hold on to a romantic idea that there’s something kind of sacred about the practice, something deeply personal – that there’s a value in artworks that is not only intrinsic, but that they maintain in perpetuity. And that artworks are things that cannot, in fact, should not, be commodified.

On some level I want to acknowledge a fallacy regarding artistic exceptionalism – that artworks somehow are an exception to every other rule that governs the way cultures and societies operate. I don’t really believe that making artworks is particularly exceptional in its own right. We really are, however, trying to produce extraordinary things. So much of human history has been invested in the making of things like that – so if we acknowledge that, where does the value we assign to things that are made now derive its substance? Where does the legitimising authority come from? Especially governing the practice of making paintings – and whether painting is still a viable, or a retrogressive activity. Painting, since at least the late 1960s and early 1970s, has been highly contested, we always have to make work that’s self-consciously aware of these critiques, as well as of the enjoyment these works generate in people who still go to museums and galleries.

I’m trying to look at the fundamentals of the practice. If you look at some of those Palaeolithic cave images where people made handprints by simply spitting colour around the hand, creating a silhouette – that’s painting in its most fundamental and rudimentary form. So I [intend] to start with works that operate on that rudimentary level. Some of the works that I’m planning for the show will have their origin in things I did when I was a child. You know, the way you really start to become excited about the possibilities of making images. I want to start there, and move through the way in which those things become more sophisticated as they become associated with, and related to, philosophical, critical and historical ideas.

So: how do you move through from these basic, rudimentary beginnings, all the way up to what we think of as some of the most sophisticated ways of thinking about what a painting is, philosophically? How do you go through that and end up at a place where the object has become a commodity? ANGELA: Do you want to talk a little bit about this piece, 'Untitled (Sotheby’s Sale)' [2005]?

KERRY: That image is a prototype of the paintings I’ve done that are based on how easily paintings circulate through the auction market.

ANGELA: We are sitting here the day after the historic Sotheby’s New York auction [where Kerry’s painting 'Past Times,' 1997, sold for a record $21.1 million].

KERRY: Right.

ANGELA: The source for Sotheby’s Sale was a super-market flyer, the kind you would have posted under your door talking about the sale items for that week.

KERRY: In a way, the work I’m doing now is the fulfilment of a series of propositions I laid out in 2005 when I [exhibited my] first sale-circular auction-house paintings. The show was supposed to be a retrospective. But I didn’t want to do a show that was a survey or retrospective, because I didn’t think the body of work I’d done at the time was deep enough.

ANGELA: Where was the show?

KERRY: It was at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, [which is] where the ‘Mastry’ show began ten years later. So it was another ten years after that first retrospective was proposed that I thought I was ready to make a show that could function as a retrospective. But in that [earlier] show, all I did was to lay out a series of propositions about things that I might be able to do in the future. I set up a series of prototypes that I was going to return to later and flesh out as fully developed ideas and paintings. That first group was actually fairly simple. I was beginning by taking liberties with the original sale-circulars and treating them like you would if you were doing a painting. One of the things that makes a painting different from advertising is that paintings do more than advertising is allowed to do. A painting doesn’t have to really be effective – it doesn’t have to sell its subject in the same way. A painting can try to do three or four things at once, where advertising only has to do one thing well.

ANGELA: So, you’re working on one painting on Christie’s, one on Sotheby’s, one on Phillips?

KERRY: …And one on Swann. These three [Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips] are the dominant auction houses today. Swann happens to be one of the only auction houses in the States that has an auction sale focused exclusively on African American art. You rarely see the work of African Americans showing up in most of the other mainstream auctions. So, initially, when I started that project, one of the things I wanted to do was to highlight the absence of work by African American artists in auctions of that level.

ANGELA: Except for last night.

KERRY: Well, except for last night. Of course, things change. But there’s still the reality that black artists are not active in the market at the same level as other artists because there’s no history of there being a deep market interest in the work of African American artists – and not only in the market, but also institutionally. But that’s not what I’m focusing on now with this group of work; it’s sort of moved beyond that to the more general way in which the artwork as a commodity circulates through these auction houses.

(Pause. The waiter arrives to take the food order, lovage pie, bream and seasonal asparagus and salad.)

KERRY: One of the other things we can talk about is the survey show, ‘Mastry’, and the implications of that title – why I chose it, and the relationship between that title and the new ‘History of Painting’ show. Those two things have a lot in common. When we’re introduced to the idea of art, one of the foundation concepts you encounter is that of the ‘Old Masters’. But what does that term really mean? It has to do with the way in which the art world as an institutional structure was organised from the 13th, 14th, 15th century on, where artists became artists through a process of apprenticeship with a master artist who [was] already a member of the guild, already a professional. You had to earn your right to participate in the trade by going through a period of apprenticeship, and there was a particular process of gaining proficiency in the craft. You started out learning how to grind colour, prepare surfaces, transfer drawings that the master made. When you started drawing, you didn’t draw from life, you drew from casts and copied familiar patterns. At the end of the apprenticeship, you produced a ‘master piece’.

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“I don’t need to tell you, sir, how great this is,” said Sotheby’s auctioneer Oliver Barker last Wednesday evening, leaning over his rostrum and trying to coax another eight-figure bid out of the New York dealer David Zwirner for Kerry James Marshall’s 1997 masterwork, “Past Times.”

Moments later, Mr. Barker knocked the lot down to one of three telephone bidders for $21.1 million with fees. A wryly updated “fête champêtre,” showing black suburbanites relaxing in a Chicago park, had just set an auction high for any work by a living African-American artist. The painting was bought by the Grammy Award-winning rapper and music producer, Sean Combs, better known by his former stage names Puff Daddy and P. Diddy.

For many, this sale was by far the most significant moment in the latest biannual series of auctions of Impressionist, modern and contemporary art in New York. But what did it signify?

“That and other results signaled that finally African-American artists are regarded as having the same historical value and price points as their peers,” said Todd Levin, a private dealer and adviser based in New York, who last year curated the exhibition “Power,” devoted to African-American female artists, at Sprüth Magers in Los Angeles. “It also signaled an intensification of activity among African-American collectors,” Mr. Levin added.

As Mr. Levin suggested, there were plenty of other results last week that suggested a surge in demand for African-American art. Sotheby’s Wednesday evening contemporary sale began with five works by leading African-American artists sold to raise money for a new building at the Studio Museum in Harlem.

“Speak, Birdman,” a freshly completed mixed-media abstract by Mark Bradford, was pushed by as many as a dozen bidders to $6.8 million, more than double the presale estimate. Last week, the Broad museum in Los Angeles announced that it had been the purchaser of Mr. Bradford’s 12-foot-wide 2007 abstract, “Helter Skelter I,” which sold in March at Phillipsfor $12 million — the previous auction high for a living African-American artist. In the same announcement, the Broad said it had also bought a new painting by Mr. Marshall.

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Hip-hop mogul P. Diddy has been revealed as the buyer of Chicago artist Kerry James Marshall’s “Past Times,” the work that sold at auction this week for $21 million, a price believed to be near the maximum paid for a living artist.

Marshall’s New York dealer, Jack Shainman, told the New York Times that P. Diddy, whose real name is Sean Combs, is the work’s buyer.

“I know that this work has found a home in a collection with purpose and an eye toward preserving legacy — that of Sean Combs, and that means a lot,” Shainman said in the Times report.

Celebrity art collectors, and rapper art collectors in particular, are nothing new. P. Diddy went public in a significant way with his predilections in 2011 when he splashed for a pair of works at Art Basel in Miami Beach, where he has become something of a fixture. Jay-Zis rumored to be the rap music world’s biggest collector of works, with a hoard estimated in value at something around a half-billion dollars. Producer Swizz Beatz acquired an Ansel Adams photograph when still a teenager, and has a substantial collection. The megasale to P. Diddy, however, lays down a significant marker. Given the new attention being paid to African-American artists in the market, other eye-opening auction prices could follow.

Like Jay-Z, who enlisted art adviser Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn in the late oughts, P. Diddy hired art adviser Maria Brito when he began collecting, to help him fine-tune his eye and expand his collection.

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“I wanted to break the notion that blackness was a reductive condition, that it couldn’t be complex and chromatic,” says the 62-year-old artist Kerry James Marshall of his work Invisible Man (1986), now on display at the Rennie Collection in Vancouver. “This colour here,” he says, pointing to the edge of the work, “is actually a very deep green”.

The enigmatic figure in Invisible Man, mostly made out by the whites of his eyes and his toothy grin, seems either to emerge from or disappear into the background, and is at once skeletal and defiant, frightening and mocking. The work was inspired, Marshall says, by a 1961 horror film called Sardonicus, directed by William Castle, in which a man’s face becomes frozen in a contorted grimace when he robs his father’s grave to get a winning lottery ticket. The painting speaks to Marshall’s familiar themes of absence and presence, visibility and invisibility. “It’s our Mona Lisa,” says Bob Rennie, the Canadian real estate magnate and collector who bought the work for $53,775 at an auction in Los Angeles in 2006, from the estate of the African-American actor Paul Winfield.

It is one 33 objects in the show Kerry James Marshall: Collected Works (2 June-3 November), including sculptures, drawings and paintings spanning 32 years of the artist’s career, from La Venus Negra (1992) to the Garden Party (2004-13), all owned by Rennie, the biggest single collector of Marshall’s work. The retrospective opens just a couple of weeks after Marshall set the auction record for the highest price paid for a work by a living African American artist, when the rapper and producer Sean Combs bought his Past Times (1997) for $21.1m at Sotheby’s in New York.

“The import of that is missed on a lot of people,” Marshall says, of Combs’s acquisition. “This is probably the first instance in the history of the art world, where a Black person took part in a capital competition and won.” Marshall says the community of African American collectors is growing. “It’s becoming the case that people have more disposable resources that they can apply to buying things like art work,” he says, adding: “But if you think about the history of art—where were Black people when [capitalism and markets were forming] 500, 600 years ago? Black people in the Western hemisphere—from 1865 until now, that’s less than 200 years out from being considered chattel property, being bought and sold themselves.”

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At Sotheby’s auction on Wednesday night, a bold contemporary work that takes its cue from the European masters shook up the art market’s traditional hierarchy of “blue-chip” names.

Titled “Past Times,” by the Chicago-based painter Kerry James Marshall, the monumental canvas sold for $21.1 million with fees. The price was four times the previous auction high for Mr. Marshall, a leading African-American artist, who is 62 and has been painting for 40 years.

Estimated to sell for at least $8 million, “Past Times,” from 1997, drew four bidders and was bought by a client on the phone. The price eclipsed the $12 million reached in March for a work by another black artist, Mark Bradford. His 2007 “Helter Skelter,” which sold at Phillips in London, was widely reported at the time to be the top price at auction for any work by a living African-American artist.

“The rise of African-American artists is part of a broader tendency to re-evaluate neglected artists that’s been going on for a few years,” said Candace Worth, an art adviser based in New York. “Art history isn’t just about the big Ab-Ex guys any more,” she added, referring to postwar painters such as Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning and Richter, who have long dominated the auction scene. “We’re opening a conversation, and the market is playing catch-up.”

Ms. Worth pointed to the influence of exhibitions including “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” at Tate Modern last year and “Outliers and American Vanguard Art,” which closed Sunday at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

“Past Times,” measuring 157 inches wide, showed black Americans relaxing in a Chicago park, enjoying golf, croquet, water skiing and other leisure pursuits traditionally associated with affluent white suburbanites. The urban pastoral subject matter, with picnickers listening to the Temptations and Snoop Dogg in the foreground and boaters in the background, wittily updates sweeping historical works including Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” (in the collection of Mr. Marshall’s local museum, the Art Institute of Chicago) and Edouard Manet’s “Déjeuner Sur l’Herbe.”

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Photo by Broomberg & Chanarin

For too long, the contributions of black people in American society have been ignored, marginalized and denied. Kerry James Marshall confirms and confronts those depictions and omissions with artistic flair, portraying everyday events in black lives. As the rest of the world learned through the stunning retro­spective exhibition "Mastry," Kerry's narrative paintings are direct, bold and in-your-face views of moments in our lives, and they cannot be ignored. Black is his dominant color, and his persistent, consistent and masterful use of it, in all its palettes, defines, engages and draws countless viewers to each creation. He forces people to assess the American experi­ence through the black experience. In so doing, he has established himself not only among the giants of the black art milieu, but as one of the most influential American artists anywhere.

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For much of his adult life, the artist Kerry James Marshall has been on a mission to redress a big omission: "When you go to an art museum," Marshall says, "the thing you're least likely to encounter is a picture of a black person. When it comes to ideas about art and about beauty, the black figure is absent."

Marshall has spent 35 years working to rectify that absence, creating powerful paintings of black figures in everyday life and, often, in settings referencing earlier work by artists from the Renaissance to Edward Hopper and Frank Stella. Marshall, 61, has been rewarded for that effort with residencies, fellowships and other accolades, including a MacArthur grant in 1997 and the acquisition of his work by the likes of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Art Institute of Chicago.

The Chicago-based artist’s first major U.S. retrospective, "Kerry James Marshall: Mastry," opens Sunday at the Museum of Contemporary Art in L.A., one of three co-organizers of the show. The exhibition ran last year at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and this winter in New York at the Met Breuer. The New York Times called the show "smashing" and its subject "one of the great history painters of our time." The New York Review of Books and Artforum magazine put large images from the show on their January covers.

"I’ve been acutely aware that museums are behind their academic colleagues in terms of thinking of representation and people of color," MOCA chief curator Helen Molesworth says. "I find Kerry's paintings ravishing–they are drop dead, great paintings–and they have an extra level of reward for people who hold in their heads a history of Western painting."

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It is as plain as the nose on one’s face—and, for many, equally impossible to see—that the history of Euro-American painting has been created by and for white people. Kerry James Marshall has recounted his childhood realization of this distorted condition while wandering in museums, and as an adult he made it his stated artistic mission to create representations of the black figure that would be ratified in the halls of our institutions. With the large survey exhibition “Mastry”—which traveled this fall from Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art to the Met Breuer in New York, where it is currently on view—he has clearly succeeded.

As a young artist, Marshall (more or less) eschewed abstraction in favor of an honest, highly personal representation of his surroundings and experience, and he has developed with increasing confidence, ambition, and subtlety into one of the most consequential painters among us. His work is noteworthy not only for the complexity and originality with which it braids together topical, art-historical, and personal concerns but also—perhaps more so—for the bright but surprisingly gentle light it sheds on the horribly mutilated condition of our collective psyche when it comes to matters of “race.”

Beginning in the late 1970s and throughout much of the ’80s, the dramatic ambition of many emerging painters in both Europe and the US captivated much of Western art discourse, and Marshall was clearly paying attention. In 1980, he made a tiny (8 x 6 1/2") painting in egg tempera on paper, A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self, a “self-portrait” depicting a ghoulishly smiling black man with a missing tooth, wearing a wide-brimmed hat. His teeth, eyes, and shirt stand out in white against the heavily worked black surfaces. Henceforth, all of the people who populate Marshall’s work would be black (literally). This little jewel claimed a territory in which abstract formal values, intensity of facture, and personal symbolism collide, while different notions of blackness, as subject, condition, and material reality, are conflated. Over the course of the next decade, Marshall, with increasing confidence, deployed similar images embedded in a field of personally and culturally symbolic icons that gradually matured into a more narrative form of inquiry.

Exemplary of this more ambitious and historically knowing approach, When Frustration Threatens Desire, 1990, depicts a magician, sharply dressed and nearly life-size, levitating a woman who hovers at his waist in a lacy dress as transparent as mist. The figures inhabit a shallow space before a diaphanous curtain that is covered with magical symbols and numerological diagrams, plus a newspaper advertisement for the psychic Sister Debra. The floor is littered with cards and dice, and a black cat and a snake attend the wizard. The scene feels at once dated and timeless. The painting can be considered simultaneously as a nostalgic memory of earlier forms of entertainment, a sympathetic evocation of folksy spiritual belief, and a knowing allegory about the “magical” abilities of artists. The magician could almost be reanimating a female corpse. The approach to representation is dramatically more sophisticated than in the artist’s previous work, the “illusion” in the painting seeming to arise from the material of the surface rather than from rendering in the usual sense. This is an altogether weird and beautiful work.

Underscoring his attention to the structural underpinnings of advanced painting aesthetics, Marshall around 1992 began presenting his large paintings on unstretched canvas, mounted on the wall with grommets. This treatment and an increase in size pushes the paintings’ scale to that of theatrical backdrops or billboards. Measuring roughly eight and a half by ten feet, De Style, 1993, was the largest work Marshall had made up to that point. It has the ambition and atmosphere of an important history painting, while depicting a mundane scene in a neighborhood barbershop. The barber (who has an aura surrounding his head and seems to be blessing the man whose hair he is cutting) and four customers (three stare dead-eyed out of the painting; the other’s head is cropped by the canvas’s left edge) occupy a space loaded with topical detail and made much more complex by the mirror that traverses the back wall. The hairdos of the three visible clients are marvels of culture-specific morphology, while the barber’s hand gesture echoes many representations of “the Savior” in earlier European painting. The painting’s title is an obvious play on words, condensing the aesthetics of early modernism and contemporary urban fashion; indeed, the artist’s feeling for the abstraction in day-to-day subject matter fills the painting with formal echoes and reverberations, increasing the sense of historical portent embedded in the mnemonics of individual, localized experience.

Marshall’s “Garden Project” series, five enormous canvases produced in 1994 and 1995, is one of the great painting cycles of our period. The subject of these works is a quintet of public-housing projects in Chicago and Los Angeles (each bearing the word Gardens in its name), and it provides a complex armature for the artist to develop an astonishing array of pictorial and painterly strategies while exploring the nature of work and pleasure, social and historical connectedness, and the inertial collapse of progressive social schemes. (Two of the largest projects—Chicago’s Rockwell and Stateway Gardens—were demolished about a decade after Marshall painted them.) The canvases look exactly like contemporary painting while not really looking like anything else, in part due to the artist’s ruthless yet good-natured pillaging of atmospherics from sources such as Rococo fantasias, gritty process-based abstraction, and carnival posters. The paintings somewhat resemble WPA murals that have been vandalized by smart art students and angry sign painters.

Notwithstanding the depressing nature of their overt themes, these paintings evince an atmosphere of sweetness and optimism: Gardens are tended, flowers bloom, and young love flourishes across the works’ scruffy surfaces. Before seeing the group installed together, as it is in “Mastry,” one might have thought it impossible for contemporary painting to simultaneously occupy a position of beauty, difficulty, didacticism, and formalism with such power. There really are no other American painters who have taken on such a project; in this, Marshall is closer to German artists like Anselm Kiefer and Jörg Immendorff, who in different ways have attempted to collapse the gap separating advanced painting ideas from cultural history.

In the late ’90s, Marshall’s paintings became both less complicated and more complex, as the artist pursued ever larger, monumental paintings depicting fairly undistorted domestic interiors, landscapes, and street scenes with interventions and interruptions of both an iconographic and a “purely painterly” nature. The enormous Souvenir I, 1997, depicts a woman in her tidy, generically appealing living room, staring out at the world as she arranges flowers on a coffee table, but her arms have sprouted golden wings, and the room, its walls and its atmosphere, is filled with memorial images of martyrs of the civil rights movement, encircled (as is the painting itself) in gold trim. The effect is a collision of homemade needlepoint and church decoration.

Over the years, Marshall has worked primarily in acrylic paint, and starting around 2003 he developed a new physical support for his paintings: sheets of Plexiglas or PVC, mounted and framed with clean white-plastic molding. Superficially, the new support looks like stretched canvas, but it involves such material specificity that on consideration it becomes an update of the tradition of panel painting in Northern Europe—an association consistent with Marshall’s historical obsessions. A series of portraits begun in 2007, several of artists, would seem to bear this out. Three paintings from 2009 and 2010—two called Untitled (Painter) and one Untitled—depict artists in their studios before large, unfinished paint-by-numbers self-portraits. Two of these artists are female, adorned with elaborate hairstyles and colorful (in both senses of the word) Afro-Caribbean studio garb, and they look out at us with self-assurance. Formally, these paintings are less adventurous than much of Marshall’s other work, but the declarative conundrum of the subject matter forces a disturbance in the subjectivity of the beholder: The entire notion of a paint-by-numbers self-portrait is paradoxical, if not absurd. What the artist is positing here is unclear, but one thinks of parallel tracks of history not (yet) realized where our “great artists” are black women and their contribution is a precise and literal mapping of the self in pictorial terms. There is also a level of futility to it all, and Marshall may be poking serious fun at the entire concept of “the master”; despite all the regal attitude, one is left with an artwork that “anyone could make,” yet this also bespeaks a certain hope for the democratization of contemporary art practices, which are too often draped in obscurity.

Meditation on artists and their surroundings resulted in one of Marshall’s most ambitious recent paintings (which is saying something), Untitled (Studio), 2014. Here a woman artist, this time wearing a very practical dress, adjusts the pose of the woman she is painting, whose unfinished portrait is visible on an easel at the left edge of the visual field. In the background, a nude (male) model stares out at us while another man, partially visible behind the red backdrop the artist has set up for the portrait, changes clothes. The room is filled with the accoutrements of a painting studio; the atmosphere and the makeup of the group seem to indicate that the vignette is taking place in an art school or some other environment where studio space is shared. The scene is played fairly straight from a representational point of view, although there is a primary-yellow dog under the table (a yellow Lab?) whose flank, like the jar of yellow paint on the tabletop above him, is enclosed in a thick black outline. As in other of Marshall’s paintings, passages of clear representation can collapse or disperse into unfettered nonreferential mark-making.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of this work is its narrative blankness; there really isn’t much going on. The painting demonstrates a truth about artistic practice without serving up allegorical or metaphorical red meat, and in this it provides a more enveloping viewing experience. This is characteristic of the artist’s general approach: Extremely dense fields of subjects, many fraught with significant cultural baggage, are allowed simply to present themselves, opening windows onto the experiential richness of personal and social realities that may not even be vaguely familiar to many seeing his work.

In the end, the most profound philosophical tool Marshall has employed in his work is his literalization of blackness: His painted protagonists and surrogates are no shade or hue of brown—they are black. We throw this term around in daily conversation as a shorthand description of entire cultures and clans. In an apparently different world of discourse, the color black itself has a resonant history within “modern art,” and Marshall’s work conflates these precincts into one pictorial experience. It is unusual to see contemporary paintings of such historical sweep, even more unusual to see them claiming a place for the representation of “black” experience on a level playing field with the ubiquitous presence of “white” experience (assumed for generations to be the default mode of the “ordinary”), and formally both surprising and refreshing to see paintings so thoroughly colonized by black forms. To see Marshall as standing in dialogue with Rodchenko or Reinhardt (though his black-on-black figurative paintings must on some level nod to their seminal monochromatic black abstractions) as well as with Eldzier Cortor and Robert Colescott (where certain similarities are obvious) is perhaps a stretch, but there is something in all this to think about. Two of the most recent works in the exhibition—Untitled (Blot), 2014, and Untitled (Blot), 2015—are “representations” of ink blots, as in the proverbial Rorschach tests, and function ambiguously as both abstraction and not. Marshall will need to pursue this line of inquiry further to make his intentions clear, but the works certainly speak to an interest in the history of modernist abstraction as well as in the psychological dynamic of projected meaning through associative relationships. I am unaware of any attempts yet by art historians to add a layer of racial interpretation to Robert Ryman’s insistent “whiteness,” but perhaps there is work to be done here as our collective understanding of recent and near-future developments deepens and diversifies. The protocols under which Marshall’s work explores “blackness” and Ryman’s explores “whiteness” have been seen in our culture to be utterly separate, but the clean border between these discourses may no longer be sustainable. Marshall’s entire project is a wake-up call both for painting and for the culture at large, reminding us of painting’s potential for cultural centrality while it facilitates the radical reshuffling of the conventions of our conceptual order.


For more than 40 years, the Chicago-based artist has made it his mission to paint black figures into the canon.

WE COULD BEGIN IN Birmingham, Ala., where the artist Kerry James Marshall was born in 1955, his father a postal worker whose hobby was buying broken watches, fancy ones—Baume & Mercier, Piaget, Patek Philippe—that he'd pick up in pawn shops for a song, figure out how to fix with the help of books he'd find used, and resell. From that story, we could derive the practical idea that Marshall, a companion on his father's expeditions from a very early age, saw that something rarefied and complex, in which one had zero training, could be approached, deconstructed and—with education and application—mastered. Or we could begin by talking about Marshall's older brother, Wayne—one year and nine days older, who, straight out of high school, went to work for the post office like his father and worked there until he retired—Wayne who was always first at everything, whom Marshall was always chasing, from whom he was inseparable except at school where their ages kept them in different grades, Marshall trying to catch up but always falling short, one year and nine days short. From that story, we could understand that Marshall is a man who, from the beginning, has been hustling to get to where he wants to go. Or we could begin in Watts, in 1963, when Marshall was 7, when his family moved there in time for the riots, 12 blocks from the Black Panther headquarters, a neighborhood where he learned things you’re not supposed to know about when you’re a kid. We could talk about how their mailman, a really nice guy, got killed on Marshall's best friend's front porch, in a robbery gone wrong, two doors down. How, on another day, coming home from school, cutting through the alley he always cut through, he found three grown women rolling around in the grass of a front yard, stab wounds all over them, stabbed by a young man who'd been discharged from the Army with problems, a man who'd just stabbed his mother, his aunt and his grandmother 70 times. And how, later, when Marshall was voted homecoming king of Jefferson High and was on his way there in his suit for the first homecoming parade in a decade—Jefferson having gotten kicked out of the conference because there'd always been problems—he arrived to find everybody heading the other way: Three people had just been shot on the field, friends of his. That was the kind of world Marshall grew up in, a world where he knew founding members of the Crips, and where a lot of the people he knew are now dead of unnatural causes and have been for a long time. From those stories, we'd be amazed to learn—as he told me in August when I visited him on the South Side of Chicago where he’s been making one masterpiece after another for three decades—that "it didn’t stop me from developing the sense that, still, everything is possible. I was never in despair."

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People say we're in the middle of a second civil rights movement, and we are. The only surprise is that the first one ever ended. The artist Kerry James Marshallwas there for it. He was just a kid then, born in Birmingham, Ala., in 1955. But kids take in a lot.

He was in Birmingham in 1963, when white supremacists dynamited a Baptist church and killed four young girls. He was 9 and living in Los Angeles in 1965 when Watts went up in flames. He remembers all that, just as he also remembers growing up in those years in a loving family: mother, father, sister, brother. Home.

Artists take in a lot, too. Mr. Marshall has absorbed enough personal history, American history, African-American history and art history to become one of the great history painters of our time. That's the painter you'll see in "Kerry James Marshall: Mastry," the smashing 35-year career retrospective that opens on Tuesday at the Met Breuer.

The first thing you may notice about him as an artist is that he's an ace storyteller, so good that you realize how rare that is. Sometimes he spells out narrative scenes, even somewhat fantastical ones, straightforwardly as in the sublime 1997 painting "Souvenir I," in which a middle-aged matron arranges her living room as a shrine to 1960s civil rights martyrs. What's fantastical is that the woman has glitter-encrusted wings, like an angel.

Just as often, stories are merely implied, and they can be perplexing. One of the earliest of the show's 72 paintings, "A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self," dates from 1980, two years after Mr. Marshall graduated from what was then called the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. It's a small image–he would later typically work at mural scale–of a bust-length, black-skinned male figure whose contours are barely readable against a slightly lighter black background. His only clear features are the whites of his eyes, and his broad, gap-toothed smile.

You may think, with a twinge of unease, of cartoons, or of old racist stereotypes, or of race as performance: blackamoors, Sambos, Madea. What Mr. Marshall was thinking of was Ralph Ellison's 1952 novel "Invisible Man," whose African-American hero knows that his color makes him unseeable as a person in white America: He’s a black; that’s it. Mr. Marshall complicates this idea by taking it in two directions: His "self-portrait" is simultaneously recessive and unmissable, with his eyes and his assertive, mock-cheerful, near-skeletal smile that shine like pin spots in the dark.

Black skin is a constant in Mr. Marshall's art. More than three decades ago, he resolved to devote himself to creating a new, disruptive art history, one that would insert–big-time–the absent black figure into the tradition of Western art, which was a tradition he loved and identified with.

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Kerry James Marshall, whose highly anticipated retrospective, "Mastry," opens Oct. 25 at the Met Breuer, is steeped in classical training more thoroughly than almost any painter of his generation. He's spent hundreds of hours in figure-drawing classes and anatomical studies, honing techniques developed over centuries by idols like Veronese and Rembrandt, to "get up alongside them on the wall," as he says.

But the other day in his studio in the Bronzeville district on this city's South Side, he took me upstairs to show off some painting implements certainly unavailable in Renaissance Venice or Baroque Amsterdam. Opening a plastic bin, he produced a handful of plastic noggins severed from bobblehead dolls—mostly of professional basketball players like James Harden and Sheryl Swoopes, along with the odd Michael Jackson or Muhammad Ali.

"These have become really invaluable to me," said Mr. Marshall, who turns 61 next month but glows with childlike intensity when he talks about how he does what he does. "Working from live models is too much trouble; it takes too much time. These things are actually incredibly accurate." Turning a head appreciatively between his fingers, he added, "I can look at them from any angle, and they give me a basis of facial structure and head shape."

The heads are a perfect illustration of the dual mission Mr. Marshall has been pursuing with a kind of holy fervor for almost 40 years now: building a sturdy bridge for figurative painting from the 15th century to ours, over treacherous spans of recent history that declared both figuration and painting to be finished—and at the same time trying to rewrite history itself.

The second part is, for Mr. Marshall, the most crucial and the task the most herculean. Too few black painters like himself have gained entry to the canon of Western art, leading to a stunning dearth of black faces and bodies on museum walls, an absence only recently being rectified in a serious way. Mr. Marshall has been trying to rectify it since the first time he picked up brush.

It's no accident that all of the plastic heads packed into the drawers in his studio depict black people: He has always painted only black figures, at leisure, in love, in extremis and in practically all the forms the genre offers (portraiture, history painting, allegory, fête champêtre, even seascape). "If I didn’t do it, how else were they going to be seen?" he said. "That really was the simple way I thought about it. I had to do it."

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The artist will be the subject of major traveling retrospective this year

In a talk he gave at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago five years ago, Kerry James Marshall displayed a photograph of his studio—a place, he told his audience, his wife calls "the playhouse." It’s "where I like to go," he said, "and I like to go there every day, because there is nothing more satisfying, really, than solving the problem of: how do you get more work that has the black figure in it into museums around the world?"

Most artists want to make history. Marshall wants to change it. For the past quarter century, primarily with his paintings but also, as a recent exhibition title put it, "other stuff," like photographs, videos, sculptures, and installations, he has been getting black figures onto museum walls. In his paintings, the figures are an extreme, coal black.

"For me," he said in his MCA Chicago lecture, "the thing that has the greatest transformative capacity in the art world today, in terms of what people expect to see when they go to the art museum, is a painting that has a black figure in it, because 95 percent of all the other paintings you see are going to have white figures in them. The whole history of representation is built on the representation of white folks. Now, all of that stuff is good, so you have to figure out how to get good like that, and then get in there on the terms that are relevant for now." Marshall has done this "from the ground up," as Metropolitan Museum curator Ian Alteveer put it, working through historical styles and genres, including Rococo love scenes, large-scale history paintings, and Impressionist plein air fetes.

Along with two other curators—Helen Molesworth and Dieter Roelstraete—Alteveer is currently at work on the largest museum retrospective to date of Marshall’s paintings. It opens at the MCA Chicago in April then moves on to the Met in New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art in L.A. The exhibition is called "Mastry," a play on the "Rythm Mastr" series of comic strips Marshall has been working on for over a decade, and on his attainments as a painter. "If you spend enough time in Kerry’s studio you see how obsessed he is with mastering technique," Roelstraete told me. "He can really nerd out for hours on end about a particular shape or brush or thickness of paper. He is a technician of the highest order."

For the show's curation, Marshall, who is generally more involved in the planning of his exhibitions, was asked to take a backseat. Molesworth, who is chief curator at MOCA and has become known for her work reassessing contemporary art’s canon, first contacted him about the idea of a painting survey around six years ago, on behalf of the MCA Chicago. He told her that he wanted to wait until he was 60. A few years later, Molesworth called back. If the exhibition was to happen in Marshall's 60th year, she told him, they’d have to start planning it now. As Marshall described that call to me when I visited him in his Chicago studio, "She said, "Kerry, are you ready to submit?'"

Marshall turned 60 last October, a month before our meeting. He wears his years lightly, in the manner of someone who has remained intellectually curious. He taught for over a decade at the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois and has a relaxed, mildly professorial manner. In an afternoon's conversation he referenced Andre Malraux, Roland Barthes, Benjamin Buchloh, and Cornel West. He chuckles a lot, sometimes out of a sense of wonder, sometimes irony.

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'When you find yourself, your culture and history is of having been subjugated, enslaved and colonised, you got to fix that'

The artist Kerry James Marshall became fascinated by art history at a young age, during art lessons at school in the South Central area of Los Angeles—this was the early 1960s, just before the racially fuelled, six-day-long Watt Riots broke out in 1965.

An early hero of his was an artist called Charles White who drew, painted and made vast murals of black people. White was a giant to younger black artists but it troubled Marshall when he studied art history books and White's name never appeared.

"When I looked at his work it seemed as good as something anyone else ever made, and better than a lot of things other people made, but how come he's invisible to art history? I became really obsessed with trying to understand why some artists were in art history and other artists were not," he says.

Now 59, Marshall's a serious speaker, informed and open about his work. A painter admired by peers such as Luc Tuymans, he paints consciously, deliberately. "It’s not about sensibility, it’s about choice," he says, "and that choice is always intellectual."

In Marshall's series of new paintings, he places the black artist, and subject, back in art history. A desire to be noticed rests within his work, and motivation. Noticed as an artist, and for the figures in his paintings to be noticed, for an imagined and alternative art history, in which black subjects and artists are included, and celebrated.

The paintings are a joy to look at, colourful, and sexy with nudes or clothed figures in everyday settings: the garden, a diner, lounged on a sofa with the television’s remote control. As domestic as this sounds, the images refer to major figures in art history: Manet's Olympia watches television, there’s a girl with a pearl earring like Vermeer's, and a complicated scene of a woman painter and model refers to Velazquez's painting Las Meninas. The works explore the entire history of painting, always with a black subject at the centre, but the layers of meaning go beyond art history. Despite their joyful surface, Marshall's work has a serious point to make.

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Just how good is Kerry James Marshall’s show at David Zwirner in London’s Mayfair district? So good that the second I left today I began plotting the next time that I could sneak out of the Frieze Art Fair this week to give it another view. Plenty of shows open here in the coming days, and there are plenty more that I have yet to see, but so far Marshall's seems like the most exciting one in town. People are talking about it.

Titled "Look See," this is his first solo appearance in London since 2005, and his first show with Zwirner. He has delivered a knockout. Fifty-nine on Friday, he has hung 14 new paintings, most of solitary people, who are posing for a screen, or for themselves, or even for you. The mood is intimate, erotic, and occasionally voyeuristic. They may make you uncomfortable—like you are peering in on a private moment—but you will not want to look away.

These are formidable, alluring objects, painted on thick PVC panels. Their surfaces are flat, but the brushstrokes, patterning, and color they contain are luscious. The subject of Untitled (Sofa Girl) (all works 2014), for instance, reclines alone on Daniel Buren-striped fabric, cloaked in a deep-blue-purple-black darkness, remote in hand, watching a television set that is just out of view, but which casts a slight glow over room. She has short hair, a facial expression that is a rare mixture of exhausted, amazed, and dazed—the face of insomnia-induced TV binges (a rare sight in art, but one you have felt)—and an adorable, very sleepy cat. It is an incredible painting, complex but immediate.

So too is the one of a topless woman holding her breasts as she goofs off for the mirror in front of her, pink-gridded wallpaper setting the scene behind; and the attractive young couple in a restaurant holding hands, enjoying electric blue cocktails, staring straight out of the painting even as the man playfully brandishes an engagement-ring case behind her, hamming it up for the viewer; and the woman in a white bra top, slim sea-foam blue bikini, and pink flip-flops who reclines on a beach towel but looks away, annoyed, as though she has been cat-called or ogled.

The works ask questions, with a quiet but unveiled directness, about who is allowed to view another person, and about who is allowed—or simply is good enough—to be viewed, praised, and adored (two concern a beauty contest winner), and how race and class shape those discussion. (As usual with Marshall, all of his figures are black, and he paints their skin in dark, dark tones.)

To put my enthusiasm another way: Marshall may very well end up being remembered as our Hopper. That, at least, is my hope. Like the latter master, he conjures a wide and nuanced range of emotions from what at first appear to be relatively straightforward domestic scenes. Once you start looking, his warm, sincere devotion to detail makes you feel at home there, like you are visiting places where you would like to spend some time. And so, even as you are spying in on rooms you should not be, catching people at their most private moments, you get the feeling that you are also, at the same time, peering in on yourself.

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