Kerry James Marshall

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TIME 100 | Artists: Kerry James Marshall

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 Kerry James Marshall, the mission is clear: Bring portraits of black life into very white art museums

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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Kerry James Marshall Is Shifting the Color of Art History

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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Kerry James Marshall's Paintings Show What It Means to Be Black in America

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 Marshall was 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, Boldly Repainting Art History

CHICAGO — 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 Painter of Modern Life: Kerry James Marshall Aims to Get More Images of Black Figures Into Museums

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 "Rhythm 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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Kerry James Marshall, interview: Putting black artists into the textbooks

'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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Kerry James Marshall Delivers a Stunner at Zwirner in London

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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Luc Tuymans and Kerry James Marshall

Arguably–and often labeled–the greatest painter of his generation, Luc Tuymans signals in every canvas the necessary limits of the medium, even the coda to its drawn-out death: his reliance on fleeting photographic and filmic imagery, his refusal to spend more than one day on a canvas, and perhaps most of all, his indifference to craft bring the Belgian artist into head-on confrontation with painting, and endow his subjects–from the untouchable (the Holocaust) to the pedestrian (flowers, pigeons)–with an unmistakable air of violence inflicted. By foregrounding the impossibility of adequate representation, the disconnection and fragmentation of memory and experience, doubting the relevance of contemporary painting while looking back at the traumatic perfection of the work of the Flemish primitives, Tuymans indexes a simultaneously rich and clouded present for the medium.

Working thousands of miles away, in Chicago, Kerry James Marshall infuses high art-historical narratives with the bald realities of everyday existence in grittier locales in Chicago and Los Angeles. His rendition of a "black aesthetic" (to borrow from the title of his 2003-4 retrospective at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art) freely disintegrates the very notion of such a thing, involving instead a myriad of styles and subjects, from personal narrative to cultural history, intertwining the legacies of Western painting and the civil rights movement.

Despite their very different cultural backgrounds, Tuymans and Marshall find common ground in their views of making and viewing art: its capacity to convey meaning, its frozen moment captured, its physicality, its value and effect. When it comes to the possibility of an insurgency to make a dent in the status quo, however, their outlooks really begin to resonate. Tuymans and Marshall are currently collaborating on an animation project to be produced by the Antwerp-based nonprofit organization objectif_exhibitions. BOMB asked the two artists to continue their ongoing conversation on tape, by phone.

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