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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

Kerry James Marshall photographed in his Chicago studio on December 28, 2015. ©KATHERINE MCMAHON

Kerry James Marshall photographed in his Chicago studio on December 28, 2015.


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.

The studio is a long, narrow, two-story structure with cinder-block walls on Chicago’s South Side; Marshall has lived in this part of the city for over 20 years, and the neighborhood’s everyday realities figure in his art. The painting happens downstairs. Upstairs is a desk and a drafting table where he works on his “Rhythm Mastr” comics. There are books on shelves, in file containers along the stairway, piled in laundry baskets—and they reflect the range of his interests: Painting in the Twentieth Century, Rebels against Slavery, The End of Blackness, Invisible Man, Theories of Modern Art, African Art, Against Race, A Rumor of Revolt, A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America, The Salt Eaters, Of Grammatology, Black Empire, A Commentary on Heidegger’s ‘Being and Time’, The Future of the Race. There are monographs on Luc Tuymans, Bridget Riley, Roy Lichtenstein, Louise Nevelson; there are issues of October, Foreign Affairs, Bookforum.

Everywhere are the tools of his multifaceted trade. Stuffed into an alcove above the entrance are the plastic flowers on which he modeled the flowers in his romance-themed “Vignette” paintings. Arrayed on a ledge above the staircase are the objects he uses to meticulously design the cityscapes that appear in “Rhythm Mastr”: an electronic card game, fragments of sports trophies, a candlestick, children’s building blocks. There is a forest of brushes. An army of baby bottles serve as paint vessels. There is the sewing machine used to make outfits on which to base those in “Rhythm Mastr” and in Marshall’s recent paintings.

Marshall used to have friends and his wife model for him—not as portrait subjects, just for form. In recent years he’s eschewed models for mannequins and digitally formed sculpture heads. For him, “every single picture is a challenge to make because I try to make every one of them matter. And every one of them is hard to do. And I’m not sure about any of them completely until I resolve the deficiencies I see cropping up in them.”


Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (Blot), 2015.


It can take Marshall anywhere from a few weeks to a decade to complete a painting. Consider the history of Garden Party (2003–13), a large painting evocative of Impressionist images of boating parties but set in Marshall’s urban backyard. He initially completed the canvas in 2003. That year, it was in a solo exhibition that started at the MCA Chicago and traveled to museums in Baltimore, New York, and Birmingham, Alabama. Afterward, Garden Party returned to his studio, where he continued to work on it, moving, adding, and removing figures. In 2007, it was shown in the Documenta quinquennial, in Kassel, Germany, before coming back once again to Marshall’s studio for a further reshuffling of its cast of characters. In 2013, Vancouver collector Bob Rennie, who had waited ten years to buy the painting, finally got to take it home.

In his studio, Marshall showed me a painting of a man lying on his back on a bed, his feet propped up against the wall. The painting was meant to be part of an exhibition that opened in October 2014 at David Zwirner gallery in London, but Marshall had decided it wasn’t complete. He told me that just in the past week he’d figured out how to resolve it.

At times Marshall seems slightly beleaguered. On the one hand, there is his need to be left alone to work, which for him is to be in constant conversation with the history of art. On the other, there’s the imperative to participate, to be involved. One of the words most often applied to Marshall by those who know him is “generous.” He’s generous with interviews, generous with his time. He “is not one of those artists who keeps his thoughts to himself,” the artist Rashid Johnson told me.

Marshall gives lectures. He writes about other artists’ work. He has a lot to talk about because, unlike the vast majority of artists, he has a master plan. “There needs, at some point,” he said in his MCA talk, “to be a critical mass of images in the museum that have [black figures in them], so that when you go there…[i]t’s not something that is the exception to the rule, it’s part of what you always expect to see. That’s success to me.”

In 2010, when he was preparing to write an essay about the painter Chris Ofili—it’s included in the catalogue for Marshall’s upcoming retrospective—Marshall stopped by the Art Institute of Chicago a few miles down Michigan Avenue from his studio to, as he put it in a lecture at Williams College in 2011, do “reconnaissance.” “I counted all the representations of white people in paintings and all the representations of black people. At that time, I counted 300 and some odd white and 2 black. That ratio, that discrepancy, is problematic for me and other black folks like me. The Art Institute and other museums have gone through phases of audience development: how to bring more minorities in, to help the demographics. What they find is, when you put up shows that have to do with black folks, they come in. When you don’t, they don’t. And why should they?”

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