Marshall, Kerry James

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Kerry James Marshall



The art of Kerry James Marshall uses urban life in America, and images of African Americans, as its source of inspiration. As a teenager in the late 1960s, Marshall committed himself to a career as an artist, and resolved to portray only African-American faces in his work as his one-person protest against their invisibility in fine art over the centuries. His paintings, sculptures, and mixed-media works have been shown at major American museums and even found an appreciative audience abroad. Writing in London's Sunday Telegraph, Andrew Graham-Dixon called him "one of the leading American artists of his generation," and described his paintings as "quietly militant without ever descending to stridency—amounting to a series of glancingly ironic commentaries, both on the nature of black urban experience in modern America, and on the difficulty of representing it."

Marshall was born in 1955 in Birmingham, Alabama, at a time when that area was becoming one of the battlegrounds in the U.S. civil rights movement. Of his parents, he once told a journalist from England, David Whetstone, that his "father was just an average guy who was in the services during the Korean War and spent the rest of his life as a civil servant, although he collected watches," he said in a Newcastle Journal interview. "French and Swiss watches were his one pleasure. My mother always wanted to be a singer and songwriter." Marshall's interest in art began in kindergarten, with a scrapbook of images his teacher reserved as a treat for the day's best-behaved student. "One day I was good so I got to sit down and look at this art and it was so magical," he recalled about encountering the postcard-sized reproductions of famous works of art in an interview with Alison Hughes for School Arts. "I knew right then what I wanted to do."

Police Gunfire at Middle School

The civil rights movement escalated in Marshall's hometown, with increasing bombings that earned the city the nickname "Bombingham," including one that killed four young girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church. Marshall's father decided to move his family to Los Angeles, where they settled in a predominantly black, working-class part of the city called Watts. Again, Marshall found himself a youngster living in a place inadvertently becoming part of African-American history, for Watts erupted into full-scale riots for a five-day period in 1965. This was the first in a series of uprisings in urban black neighborhoods in America during the civil rights era, and the first in which significant fatalities occurred. Within a year, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense had formed in Watts, and its headquarters was just a few blocks away from the Marshall home. Once, there was a shoot-out on the athletic field of his middle school between the Panthers and the Los Angeles Police Department.

Marshall proved a talented student in art, and the first museum that he ever visited was the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. There, he was dismayed to see that there were no African Americans listed among the artists or portrayed on the walls; only tribal art from Africa seemed to have passed muster for legitimacy. Over the next few years, he pored through art-history books to find images of blacks in art from the past two millennia. He found the occasional African king in paintings that depicted the birth of Christ, and Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens sometimes included an occasional black face in his allegorical battlefield paintings of the early 1600s. At the age of 14, Marshall came to the conclusion that blacks had been underrepresented in art through the ages, and from that point on he would restrict himself to painting African Americans.

After high school, Marshall studied at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, and earned his B.F.A. in 1978. It took several years for his work to begin to receive recognition, and in the meantime he supported himself by teaching art at a community college and working at a company that specialized in shipping art. A turning point came in 1985, when he was invited to become an artist in residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem. The highly coveted fellowship was designed to nurture African-American artists and included studio space and a $10,000 stipend for the year. "It is every artist's dream to find a way to work without worrying about paying rent and buying groceries," he told Shawn G. Kennedy in the New York Times. "The great thing about this program at the studio is that I now have time not only to work at my art, but also time to pay attention to other things. Art is not created in a vacuum. You have to read, listen to music, see the work of other artists and travel in order to feed the art."

Depicted Chicago Housing Projects

In 1987, Marshall settled in Chicago, and continued to teach, eventually becoming professor of studio art at the University of Illinois School of Art and Design in 1993. He had a New York City dealer, Jack Shainman, representing him, and his work began to receive wider recognition. One series from the early 1990s, "Lost Boys," depicted the youngest victims of urban violence in America. The portraits of black teens were done with Marshall's "normally precise, even pernickety sense of draughtsmanship," wrote Andrew Graham-Dixon in London's Sunday Telegraph, but "disrupted by screeds and swirls of paint evoking the surfaces of graffitied walls. The names of the sitters are suggestive—the likes of 'AKA Black Sonny' or 'AKA Lil Bit'—characters who once, presumably, enjoyed their brief moment of notoriety before dying, younger than they should have done, in some urban badland."

Marshall began to use Chicago's vast high-rise public-housing projects as a source of inspiration as well. He painted these in a technique called grisaille, with grayish monochrome hues, and called the series "The Garden Project." The individual works sometimes bore titles with the word "garden," in an ironic nod to the names given to such housing projects, which were anything but green or tranquil. The title of another, "Many Mansions," was taken from the biblical passage, "in my mother's house there are many mansions," and showed a trio of neatly dressed men gardening a plot of land in the foreground of a high-rise housing project. "We think of projects as places of despair," he told Hughes in the School Arts interview. "All we hear about is the incredible poverty, abuse, violence, and misery that exists there, but there is also a great deal of hopefulness, joy, pleasure, and fun."

The civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s also stirred Marshall's creative urges. A solo show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1999 was anchored by a major piece, "Souvenirs," which was his artistic version of the banners that commemorated the struggle and were often displayed in African-American homes. He included portraits of the slain figures in the movement—Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, John F. Kennedy, and Robert F. Kennedy—but also depicted the tidy middle-class living rooms of the black middle class where such items were commonly hung in the 1960s. "Part of what the work mourns," Marshall explained to San Francisco Chronicle writer Jesse Hamlin, "is the loss of that sense of real possibility, where you could see things changing."

At a Glance …

Born on October 17, 1955, in Birmingham, AL; son of a civil servant; married to Cheryl Lynn Bruce (an actress). Education: Otis Art Institute, BFA, 1978.

Career: Taught art at a Los Angeles-area community college, early 1980s, and worked for an art shipper; Studio Museum in Harlem, artist in residence, 1985–86; University of Illinois School of Art and Design, professor of studio art, 1993–.

Awards: MacArthur Foundation Fellow, 1997.

Addresses: Home—Chicago, IL; Office—c/o Jack Shainman Gallery, 513 W. 20th St., New York, NY 10011.

Novel Comic-Book Format

Marshall had restricted himself to painting early in his career, but began exploring other mediums in the late 1990s, including sculpture, photography, and video. He also began an acclaimed series of comic-strip paintings which he called "Rythm Mastr." It featured a black superhero who serves as guardian angel of sorts for a youngster in a rough urban neighborhood. The eponymous superhero shows the boy how African tribal sculptures can come to life through the drumming that is an integral part of many indigenous African religions, and also instructs him in the seven powers that come from the Yoruba culture's pantheon of gods. "Part of the reason I started was because I saw that black kids are interested in comics and super heroes just like everybody else," the artist explained in an interview that appeared on the PBS Web site Art:21. "But the market has somehow never been able to sustain a set of black super heroes in a way that could capture the imagination not just of the black populations, but of the general population as a whole."

Marshall returned to the Studio Museum in Harlem for a 2004 retrospective of his work titled "One True Thing: Meditations on Black Aesthetics." It included examples of the Garden Project series, along with several new works. One of these was "7 a.m. Sunday Morning," a landscape depicting an urban boulevard dominated by a massive liquor store on a street that was once the heart of Chicago's black commercial district. "The radiant, crystalline glare that washes out the right side of the picture may be a symbolic reflection of the luminous achievements of modernity—achievements that elude the few isolated people standing outside the liquor store, presumably waiting for it to open," wrote New York Times journalist Ken Johnson in his review of the exhibition. "In works like these, Mr. Marshall blends poetry and protest into a kind of ambitiously complex public address for which it would be hard to find parallels elsewhere in contemporary art."

Marshall has been awarded MacArthur Foundation fellowship, more commonly known as the genius grant, which comes with a stipend of $500,000 given to Americans from various fields "who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction," according to the Foundation's Web site. Perhaps a more personal reward came in 1993, however, when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art bought one of his paintings, De Style, an acrylic and collage on canvas that showed a scene from a black barbershop.

Marshall is married to actress Cheryl Lee Bruce, who appeared in the acclaimed 1991 film by Julie Dash, Daughters of the Dust. The images he first viewed as a kindergartner in his teacher's art scrapbook still resonated deeply with him, and continued to serve as a template for his own work. "I was simply amazed by all the things I saw in that book," he recalled in the interview that appeared on the Art:21 Web site. "Partly amazed that they could have been made by somebody, but partly amazed simply because they were there. You know, you see a picture of a giraffe next to a picture of a locomotive—that's an amazing juxtaposition of things. And so what I try to do with my work is create that same sense of amazement, that same sense of wonder, that same sense of authority, that same kind of presence—so that things seem at once familiar and indecipherable at the same time."

Selected exhibitions

Solo exhibitions

Southwest College Art Gallery, Los Angeles, 1981.
James Turcotte Gallery, Los Angeles, 1983.
Pepperdine University Art Gallery, Malibu, CA, 1984.
Studio Museum in Harlem, New York City, 1986.
Terra Incognita, Chicago Cultural Center, 1992.
Jack Shainman Gallery, New York City, 1993.
Telling Stories, Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art, Ohio, 1994.
Mementos: New Work, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1999.
Cheekwood Museum of Art, Nashville, TN, 2000.
Greg Kucera Gallery, Seattle, WA, 2002.
Color Blind, Koplin Del Rio Gallery, Los Angeles, CA, 2004.
One True Thing: Meditations on Black Aesthetics, Studio Museum of Harlem, New York City, 2004.

Group exhibitions

Newcomers 1979, Municipal Art Gallery, Los Angeles, 1979.
Seventeen Self-Portraits by L.A. Artists, Occidental College, Los Angeles, 1984.
Conversations, Museum of Modern Art, New York City, 1993.
Art at the Edge—Social Turf, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA, 1995.
Art in Chicago, 1945–1995, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 1996.
Documenta X, Kassel, Germany, 1997.
Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City, 1997.
Re-Righting History: Counternarratives by Contemporary African American Artists, Katonah Museum of Art, Katonah, NY, 1999. Age of Influence: Reflections in the Mirror of American Culture, Museum of Contemporary. Art, Chicago, 2000.
I'm Not Here: Constructing Identity at the Turn of the Century, Susquehanna Art Museum, Harrisburg, PA, 2001. New Visions of the American Heartland, Weisman Art Museum, Minneapolis, MN, 2002.
Venice Biennale, Italian Pavilion, Venice, Italy, 2003.
The Undiscovered Country, UCLA Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, CA, 2004.



Journal (Newcastle, England), February 28, 2006, p. 42.

New York Times, June 18, 1986, p. C12; December 17, 2004, p. E2.

Observer (London, England), January 1, 2006, p. 12.

San Francisco Chronicle, January 31, 1999, p. 27.

School Arts, December 2005, p. 29.

Sunday Telegraph (London, England), September 3, 2006, p. 26.


"Fellows Program Overview," MacArthur Foundation, (January 26, 2007).

"Kerry James Marshall," PBS, Art:21, (January 18, 2007).

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Marshall, Kerry James

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