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Kerry James Marshall: Between Art and Rebellion

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Almost 80 years after Jacob Lawrence stunned the white art world with his 60-panel Great Migration series, American art museums remain largely devoid of images of black people.

“When you go to an art museum, 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,” Kerry James Marshall, the African American painter, said in a recent interview.

Marshall’s paintings, sculptures, illustrations, videos, and photography have become well-known throughout the world. He has been critically acclaimed through his 40-year career. But Marshall’s largest museum retrospective didn’t happen until about a year ago at the Met Breuer, in New York. It was the first comprehensive curation of a vast body of work that blends folk art and modern pictorial traditions mining black culture and stereotypes. His paintings are thought-provoking compositions, often in mixed media, defiant in their imagery of black figures in various daily activities. Marshall would be the first to admit that his career has been a sustained personal revolt against the white art establishment.

Kerry James Marshall moved to Los Angeles with his family during the Great Migration, in the 1960s. He was five years old. The family’s first home was in the Nickerson Gardens Housing Projects, which later became the inspiration for Watts 1963, one his best-known paintings.

“You can’t be born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1955 and grow up in South Central [Los Angeles] near the Black Panthers headquarters, and not feel like you’ve got some kind of social responsibility. You can’t move to Watts in 1963 and not speak about it,” he said in an interview last year.

In 1965, Marshall was 10 years old when he witnessed the Watts Riots from his bedroom window, an event that would have a lasting impact on the young boy. In the third grade, he learned how to paint flowers and began visiting his local library to check out art books. During sixth grade, he went on a class field trip to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It was here that he discovered contemporary art.

“I had never been to a museum; I hadn’t known there was such a place… Once I learned how to get there on my own, I haunted the place,” Marshall recalled.

When Marshall was 13 years old, he attended a drawing class by painter George De Groat at the Otis Art Institute, learning various drawing techniques and taking an interest in the work of painter Charles White. 

“That was for me a life-altering experience,” Marshall said. “I saw for the first time what an artist’s studio was. You could see work just starting and work that was almost completed. I clearly understood that making artwork wasn’t magic. It doesn’t just happen. You have to work at it.”

When I did that painting was the moment in which I reset my priorities

After graduating from high school in 1973, Marshall worked as a dishwasher in a local hospital kitchen to save money to enroll at Los Angeles City College. At first, he had his mind set on being an illustrator for children’s books, but after transferring to Otis College, he set out on a different path in art.

Marshall studied collages with artist Betye Saar, graduating from Otis in 1978, and began producing his first professional paintings.

In 1980, Marshall read Robert Vickery and Diane Cochrane’s New Techniques in Egg Tempera and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, two books that he credits for the inspiration for one of his most important works, A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self. This painting showed a dark figure in a black suit and black hat, against a black background. The subject’s eyes, teeth, and shirt are brightly white. The whole effect is both haunting and alluring. 

“When I did that painting was the moment in which I reset my priorities,” Marshall said years later.

His career hit an upswing soon after, landing a residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1985. However, it wasn’t until 1993 that he achieved popular acclaim with De Style. Considered a seminal work, De Style depicts a scene inside a barbershop, with half a dozen figures arranged in the style of group portraits, not unlike works by old European masters.

“It’s important for a black artist to create black figure paintings in the grand tradition,” Marshall has said. “Artworks you encounter in museums by black people are often modest in scale. They don’t immediately call attention to themselves. I started out using history painting as a model because I wanted to claim the right to operate at that level.” De Style was bought by LACMA, Marshall’s first museum sale.

I’ve got a lot of work to do, you know? There’s a lot to do!

In the 1990s, Marshall moved to Chicago to teach at the School of Art and Design. He began work on the Garden Project series, large-scale depictions of life in black housing projects in Chicago and the Watts’ Nickerson Gardens of his Californian youth. In 1997, these works were included in the Whitney Museum and the Documenta X exhibition in Germany. That same year, Marshall was awarded a $500,000 fellowship by the MacArthur Foundation. He would also hold his first major solo museum show at the Renaissance Society, in Chicago, further traveling to New York, San Francisco, Idaho, Boston, and Los Angeles.

From this time period, Marshall produced works that captivated fans and new students. Then in 2012, came a companion piece of sorts to De Style– School of Beauty, School of Culture, a celebratory scene from a beauty salon with black women getting their hair done and there are wall posters inscribed with the words “Dark” and “Lovely.”

Now 61, Kerry James Marshall has been exploring his themes with greater enthusiasm, saying recently, “Well, it has everything to do with whether you’re working, because the process itself is a means of exploring. I’m interested in that. I’ve got a lot of work to do, you know? There’s a lot to do!”

Zane Castillo

Zane Castillo is a writer and poet living in New York. He is passionate about hip-hop and is a lifelong cinephile. He is also an amateur photographer who enjoys taking pictures around the city.
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