Kerry James Marshall has been engaged in an ongoing dialogue with six centuries of representational painting, at the center of which is the critical recognition of the conditions of invisibility long ascribed to Black figures in the Western pictorial tradition.

These two new paintings introduce a planned series of works by the artist that reference John James Audubon’s nineteenth-century magnum opus, The Birds of America, and expand the creation of what Marshall calls a “counter-archive” to bring the Black figure back into the narrative of the Western canon.

A detail from a painting by Kerry James Marshall, titled Black and Part-Black (Crow & Goldfinch), Birds in America, dated 2020



Black and part Black Birds in America: (Crow, Goldfinch), 2020




A painting by Kerry James Marshall titled Black and Part-Black, Birds in America, dated 2020.

Kerry James Marshall

Black and part Black Birds in America: (Crow, Goldfinch), 2020
Acrylic on PVC panel in artist’s frame

27 7/8 x 24 3/4 inches
71 x 63 cm

 

SOLD

A detail from a painting by Kerry James Marshall, titled Black and Part-Black (Crow & Goldfinch), Birds in America, dated 2020

In all of his works, Marshall uses only chromatic black—that is, paint appearing to be pure black in color but actually containing various pigments—to depict Black figures, evident here in the centrally placed black bird that looms over the composition as an assertion of Black presence in America, both integral to and separated from the scene below. Elsewhere, there is a smaller bird that is “part black,” integrated within his surroundings, a figure that addresses in part the absurd reality of how racial identity has historically been determined in America.

 An installation view featuring a work by Kerry James Marshall, dated 2016

Installation view, Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, MCA Chicago, 2016. Photo by Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

Installation view, Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, MCA Chicago, 2016. Photo by Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

“None of us works in isolation. Nothing we do is disconnected from the social, political, economic, and cultural histories that trail behind us. The value of what we produce is determined by comparison with and in contrast to what our fellow citizens find engaging.”

—Kerry James Marshall

A cover of The Original Water-Color Paintings by John James Audubon for The Birds of America, 1974


Cover of The Original Water-Color Paintings by John James Audubon for The Birds of America


Cover of The Original Water-Color Paintings by John James Audubon for The Birds of America

In its initial form, The Birds of America consisted of 435 life-size watercolors, mostly made by Audubon, of North American birds. Now considered foundational within the fields of naturalism and ecology, the volume combines Audubon’s artistic acumen with his love of nature and interest in typology. It has been reprinted and circulated widely since the nineteenth century. 

A plate from The Birds of America by John James Audubon, dated 1827–1838

John James Audubon, Virginian Partridge, from The Birds of America, 1827–1838.

John James Audubon, Virginian Partridge, from The Birds of America, 1827–1838.

There are conflicting narratives around Audubon’s biography. He was born Jean Rabin in Haiti in 1785 to a French plantation owner and, as one narrative insists, to a white mother, or, as other biographers have conjectured, to a chambermaid of mixed racial descent. Either way, Audubon emigrated to the United States at age eighteen and reinvented himself with a new name, obscuring both his foreign and, potentially, his biracial heritage.

A lithograph of a portrait of John James Audubon, dated 1860


Jules Lion, Portrait of John James Audubon. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC


Jules Lion, Portrait of John James Audubon. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC

In the early nineteenth century, decades prior to the Civil War, slavery remained legal and race was viewed as a pseudo-science, not far off from the ongoing effort to classify the animal kingdom. From a letter in 1815, former president Thomas Jefferson specified the percentage of blood that constituted a legal definition of Black or white, enslaved or free: a person with one quarter or more Black lineage should, according to Jefferson, be considered Black.

 

Such attempts at racial classification persisted through the 1920s to justify legal segregation, with the so-called one drop rule, which asserted that a person who had just one Black ancestor was considered Black. 

A photograph of Kerry James Marshall's studio, dated 2020

Kerry James Marshall’s studio, 2020

Kerry James Marshall’s studio, 2020

Audubon made his reputation as an artist in his assimilated persona: he befriended the presidents James Harrison and Andrew Jackson in order to advance his ornithological efforts, and his work later inspired Theodore Roosevelt’s conservation initiatives. However, it was David Driskell’s landmark 1976 traveling exhibition, Two Centuries of Black Art in America, that proposed he claim a place within the canon of Black art.

A detail of a painting by Kerry James Marshall titled Black and part Black Birds in America: (Grackle, Cardinal & Rose-breasted Grosbeak), dated 2020.



Black and part Black Birds in America: (Grackle, Cardinal & Rose-breasted Grosbeak), 2020




A painting by Kerry James Marshall titled Black and part Black Birds in America: (Grackle, Cardinal & Rose-breasted Grosbeak), dated 2020.

Kerry James Marshall

Black and part Black Birds in America: (Grackle, Cardinal & Rose-breasted Grosbeak), 2020
Acrylic on PVC panel in artist‘s frame

35 1/2 x 31 1/2 inches
90.2 x 80 cm

 

SOLD

In Black and part Black Birds in America, Marshall deftly positions Audubon’s construction of his own identity and his life’s work as an analogy for the ambiguities and nuances of American racial politics both in Jefferson’s day and since. The work’s title pointedly draws an equivalency between the rubric used to classify humans and that used to classify animals, while also playing on the double meaning of the word “black” in the racial and chromatic senses. 

Kerry James Marshall’s studio, featuring birdhouse models referenced for Black and part Black: Birds in America, 2020

Kerry James Marshall’s studio, featuring birdhouse models referenced for Black and part Black: Birds in America, 2020

“For people of color, securing a place in the modern story of art is fraught with confusion and contradictions about what and who they should be—black artists, or artists who happen to be black. A modernist has always looked like a white man, in one way or another. Universality has, unquestionably, been his gift to bestow on others.”

—Kerry James Marshall

 A photograph of Kerry James Marshall, dated 2016

Kerry James Marshall, 2016. Photo by Lyndon French

Kerry James Marshall, 2016. Photo by Lyndon French

Learn more about this new series from Kerry James Marshall in
The New York Times

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