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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.

©KATHERINE MCMAHON

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.

©KERRY JAMES MARSHALL/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY, NEW YORK

©KERRY JAMES MARSHALL/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY, NEW YORK

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.©KERRY JAMES MARSHALL/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY, NEW YORK

Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (Blot), 2015.

©KERRY JAMES MARSHALL/COURTESY THE ARTIST, JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY, NEW YORK, AND DAVID ZWIRNER, NEW YORK AND LONDON

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?”

Kerry James Marshall, 7am Sunday Morning, 2000–3. ©KERRY JAMES MARSHALL/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY, NEW YORK

Kerry James Marshall, 7am Sunday Morning, 2000–3.

©KERRY JAMES MARSHALL/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY, NEW YORK

Marshall first visited an art museum in 1965. He was ten, and on a school field trip to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which had recently opened on Wilshire Boulevard. Two years earlier, his family had moved to Los Angeles from Birmingham, Alabama, first to the Nickerson Gardens housing project in Watts, then to a house in South Central. In Birmingham, he’d witnessed civil rights upheaval. In a few months, he would witness the Watts riots. At LACMA, he noticed that the few works the museum had by African American artists were far smaller than most of the works by white artists.

He was already thinking about becoming an artist himself. In Birmingham, his kindergarten teacher had inspired him with the pictures in her scrapbook—greeting cards, magazine clippings—and now, in L.A., his third-grade teacher was showing him how to paint flowers, and he’d been watching Jon Gnagy’s Learn to Draw on TV and checking out library books on Rembrandt and on Chinese brush painting. LACMA’s two huge paintings of saints by the Italian Renaissance artist Paolo Veronese wowed him. Looming above him in their frames, they reminded him of the heroes in the Marvel comic books he collected and made drawings from. In a downstairs gallery, where the museum kept its African art, he encountered a Senufo figure made of burlap, with sticks for arms and feathers sprouting from the top of its head. “For a long time,” Marshall told an audience at the University of Chicago’s Renaissance Society a few days before I visited his studio, “what I’ve been trying to do is marry this kind of history painting that is done by Veronese and the kind of power and mystery that resides in the Senufo figure.”

In his studio, Marshall showed me a drawing he’d just started, the latest installment of his “Rhythm Mastr” comic strip. The strip follows several different narratives, some involving superheroes—one of them the spitting image of that Senufo figure in LACMA—who are African tribal figures come to life. He started the series in the late ’90s, with an eye to creating viable black characters on the level of Captain America and Thor, and has been adding to it ever since. The panel he was working on when I visited will be included in his paintings retrospective, along with two others. In it, a female newscaster cocks her head, listening to her earpiece. “She’s getting a report,” Marshall told me. Her speech bubble will read, “Shots fired. At least one dead.” The second panel, he said, will shift to a reporter on the scene. In the third, that reporter will talk to an eyewitness who says, “I saw the whole thing and it ain’t nothing like they said.”

These scenes have “something to do with the general climate now,” Marshall said. “There is always this urgency, this breaking news—boom, something happened. But when they report it, they don’t know anything.” Accelerated news cycles aside, though, little has changed since Marshall’s childhood. When the Watts riots broke out, Marshall told me, “the rumor that spread through the neighborhood was that a man’s mother had been beaten up by the police. That was the spark that started the whole thing, and it turned out not to be true.”

Kerry James Marshall, The Lost Boys, 1993.©KERRY JAMES MARSHALL/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY, NEW YORK

Kerry James Marshall, The Lost Boys, 1993.

©KERRY JAMES MARSHALL/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY, NEW YORK

The first painting Marshall ever did of a black figure is small enough to be reproduced at its actual size in the retrospective’s catalogue. Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self is just 8 by 6½ inches, and is widely considered a watershed in his oeuvre. He completed it in 1980, two years after graduating from L.A.’s Otis Art Institute. At Otis, he had studied painting with the African American muralist Charles White, starting when Marshall sneaked into one of White’s classes even before he’d enrolled. White became a mentor, but on the whole, Otis in the late ’70s wasn’t particularly encouraging to figurative painters. Art’s tides had shifted in the direction of Conceptual art and abstraction; as far as Marshall was concerned, black people hadn’t been represented in art history in the first place, so why should he feel inspired by a “crisis of representation”? Marshall continues to feel strongly about remaining a figurative, as opposed to an abstract, painter. His new essay in the upcoming retrospective’s catalogue concludes, “It is my conviction that the most instrumental, insurgent painting for this moment must be of figures, and those figures must be black, unapologetically so.”

Portrait of the Artist was a reaction to reading Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man. Driven by the idea of a black man’s invisibility, Marshall painted a male figure that blends into a black ground and is detectable only by the whites of his eyes and his grin, a reference to an old racist visual cliché. The work was the beginning of Marshall’s engagement with the black figure, and with the Western art-historical canon, as well: he painted the piece in egg tempera, the medium most associated with the early Renaissance.

Marshall discovered what he has called the “strategy” of scale 13 years later. By then, he was living in Chicago. He’d left L.A. in 1984 for a residency at New York’s Studio Museum in Harlem. In New York, he had met the actress and playwright Cheryl Lynn Bruce, to whom he has been married for over 25 years, and the two moved to Chicago to be near her family. They initially lived apart, Marshall moving into a 6-by-9-foot room at the YMCA, where he painted standing on the bed. He took odd jobs, mostly art handling. He went down to South Carolina for a few months to serve as art director on Julie Dash’s film Daughters of the Dust, about a Saint Helena Island family at the turn of the century. Back in Chicago, he and Lynn Bruce got an apartment together and, armed with money from an NEA fellowship, Marshall was able to paint full time. He got a proper studio, 350 square feet, and could finally make big paintings.

He didn’t just want to make big paintings, he wanted to make history paintings. 1993’s De Style, clocking in at ten feet in length, shows five men in a South Side barbershop, two of them sporting improbably voluminous Afros. Marshall showed it at L.A.’s Koplin Gallery, and LACMA snapped it up. Marshall would later say of the painting that it “performed all of the ways that I knew the work needed to perform in order to make it eligible for that museum purchase.” With any other artist, one might chalk that up to 20/20 hindsight, or even a kind of cynicism; with Marshall, it was the confidence that has continued to fuel his progress.

The Lost Boys, completed the same year and at the same size, is, in Marshall’s words, a memorial to lost innocence that alludes ironically to the story of Peter Pan: Two boys are next to a tree with the word “life” written on its trunk. One stands, the other sits atop a toy car, the kind of dollar-per-ride contraption found outside grocery stores. In the foreground is a doll atop a scattering of calla lilies. Marshall made the painting after reading a story in the Los Angeles Times about a boy killed by police in his home because he was holding a toy gun that the officers mistook for a real one. In the upcoming retrospective, it is bound to evoke the 2014 police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland.

Kerry James Marshall, Better Homes Better Gardens, 1994. ©KERRY JAMES MARSHALL/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY, NEW YORK

Kerry James Marshall, Better Homes Better Gardens, 1994.

©KERRY JAMES MARSHALL/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY, NEW YORK

De Style and The Lost Boys may have been breakthroughs, but it was Marshall’s next series, “The Garden Project,” that launched his career. Monumental works on unstretched canvas that incorporate collage elements, “The Garden Project” paintings depict figures against the backdrop of public housing developments, among them Stateway Gardens in Chicago and Marshall’s own onetime home of Nickerson Gardens. When the Marshalls moved there in the early ’60s, Nickerson Gardens was new. Marshall has described it as a “golden age” for housing projects; you could borrow toys from the community center. By the ’90s, although they were still places were families lived and loved, projects across the country had fallen into crime-ridden disrepair. In a few years, many would be demolished. Marshall’s series picked up on a basic irony: these dilapidated places were called “gardens.” “The Garden Project” debuted in 1995 at Jack Shainman Gallery, and in 1997, works from it were picked for both the Whitney Biennial and Documenta; that same year, Marshall received a MacArthur “genius” grant.

In 1998, New York Times critic Holland Cotter wrote what has turned out to be a prescient take on Marshall’s work. Reviewing his solo exhibition “Mementos” at the Brooklyn Museum, Cotter noted that in his series of paintings of boy and girl scouts Marshall’s “complex historical perspective is distilled. In these portraits, time-honored American values—community, leadership, duty—that were also the bedrock of the early civil rights movement, are reconfirmed and radically recast. The scout figures wear familiar uniforms, but with a difference: as militant citizens claiming a place in the mainstream but sustaining a revolution within. It’s a difficult position to negotiate, but a powerful one, and it seems to form the foundation for much of this challenging artist’s work.”

Marshall went on to sustain a kind of revolution within painting. Subsequent series have included imaginary portraits of rebellious slaves like Nat Turner; nearly abstract paintings that respond to Barnett Newman’s “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue” but change it to “Red Black and Green,” the colors of the Pan-African flag; and the Fragonardesque “Vignettes,” about which Marshall told me, “I’m not trying to subvert” that way of painting, but instead “adapting [it] to include things that it hasn’t previously found necessary to include.”

In the mid-2000s, he painted a series of painters painting, a genre that dates back to the Old Masters. One of them, a woman holding a palette, stares out from the cover of the retrospective’s catalogue as though daring you to open it. Here, Marshall’s black figures are, as he put it, at “the site at which image production takes place on the grand scale, which is rarely the way we think about or see black figures operating.”

Marshall’s paintings—even ones like The Lost Boys or his “Souvenir” series, which mourns members of the civil rights movement—are never preachy or didactic. If you take his body of work in its entirety, he told me, “I think I’m trying to be a whole black person who makes art, which means that I can have—within me as an individual—all these different dimensions of my perceptions of the world and history. All that stuff is in me as a whole person, which means all of those things are available to me to put out there in one way or another. The work deals with a really broad range of concerns, from the personal to the political to the vulgar to the comic. That, to me, is what constitutes a total art practice.”

Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (Studio), 2014. ©KERRY JAMES MARSHALL/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY, NEW YORK

Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (Studio), 2014.

©KERRY JAMES MARSHALL/COURTESY THE ARTIST, JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY, NEW YORK, AND DAVID ZWIRNER, NEW YORK AND LONDON

In September 2014, Molesworth, Alteveer, and Roelstraete, the painting retrospective’s curators, arrived in Chicago to look at a group of works about to leave Marshall’s studio for the October Zwirner show in London. One of the largest depicted a scene in a painter’s studio. In it, a woman, who may be either the artist or an assistant, adjusts the head of another, seated woman, the model. The painting in progress is in the foreground, next to a table—a mini still life—crowded with brushes, palettes, paper swatches, a skull, a book, a knife, a vase of daisies. In the background, a naked man stands in the shadows in front of some stretched canvases propped against a wall. Another man, his head and shoulders visible above the model’s red backdrop, pulls a yellow shirt on, or perhaps off. Behind him, out a window, is the view of Marshall’s South Side neighborhood.

Alteveer quickly caught the references to Velázquez, Vermeer, and Courbet. For him, Untitled (Studio), 2014, was “a picture about painting.” The model’s salmon-colored trousers brought to mind a piece of fabric held aloft by the bullfighter in Manet’s Mademoiselle V… in the Costume of an Espada (1862), in the Met’s collection. Alteveer had been looking to acquire a Marshall painting for the Met. He had been hoping for a work from the ’90s, but very few “Garden Project” works—or paintings related to them—are available. (Competition among private collectors and institutions alike for Marshall’s paintings has become fierce, even as their prices run into the high six figures. Rennie, the Vancouver collector, who is chair of the Tate’s North American Acquisitions Committee, told me the committee is now putting away $250,000 a year to go toward the purchase of their first Marshall painting.) When Alteveer saw Untitled (Studio), he knew immediately that this was the one.

The Zwirner show represented a subtle change in direction for Marshall. In addition to Untitled (Studio) were paintings of a couple amorously entangled on a blanket on the grass; a young woman, alone, dressing or undressing while holding her breasts and laughing into her bedroom mirror; two figures relaxing on a porch (Marshall’s, as it happens); a woman holding up a bath towel, a Vermeeresque pearl earring in one ear; a woman on a couch, eyes glued to the TV; a smiling couple seated in the booth of a club, the man displaying to the viewer, behind his girlfriend’s back, the ring with which he intends to propose. Marshall said he attempted “to give the subjects in the pictures their own independent psychology, so they are not standing in for a symbol of anything. They are not dignified. They are not heroic.”

A handful of large paintings, representations of Rorscharch test–like inkblots that look at first blush like pure abstraction, were an even more dramatic shift for the three curators to reckon with. “I’m doing blots in part to confuse the idea of abstraction,” Marshall told me. “A blot is not an abstraction, really, because we know what it is. It’s a blot. And a blot is a particular kind of figure.” Marshall placed one at the entrance to the Zwirner show, which he called “Look See.” “I wanted to disrupt expectations immediately,” he explained. “I thought that was a dramatic way of introducing looking and seeing.”

People who know Marshall’s work well were surprised by the blots, which also appeared in the 2015 Venice Biennale, although the cannier ones among them also recognized an artist who was complicating his own story. Molesworth is content to not completely get the blots yet. “That, to me, is the sign of a great artist,” she said. “A great artist makes a picture at 60 that someone who has been following his work for 18 years doesn’t understand.”

Since the late ’90s, Molesworth has been making a case for Marshall’s work as a form of institutional critique, a way of taking on the encyclopedic museum through the door of the medium on which it is most dependent: painting. It therefore seems apt that the retrospective’s New York run in the fall will take place at the Met (the museum that represents the very “spine of the Western art history,” as Roelstraete put it) as the first monographic show of a living artist the museum will mount in the Met Breuer, the former Whitney Museum building.

Marshall has been working with Alteveer on an exhibition, curated by the artist from the Met’s vast collection, that will run in conjunction with his show when it appears at the Met. At the time of this writing, among the objects Marshall plans to include are a Roy DeCarava photograph from 1950 of a smartly dressed black woman, a Horace Pippin self-portrait from 1944, a boli figure, a Dan mask, a work by Harlem Renaissance painter Aaron Douglas, and one of Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s ukiyo-e woodblock prints (precursors to modern-day comic books) of a blood-spattered warrior chief. There will be a Senufo figure almost identical to the one Marshall saw as a child at LACMA; it will share space with Old Master paintings not unlike LACMA’s Veroneses.

Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (Policeman), 2015.©KERRY JAMES MARSHALL/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY, NEW YORK

Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (Policeman), 2015.

©KERRY JAMES MARSHALL/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY, NEW YORK

As I was on my way to Marshall’s studio in late November, my taxi passed a smattering of protesters. Just days earlier, they’d clogged downtown, demanding reform and resignations among Chicago’s leadership in response to the release of a dash-cam video showing black teenager Laquan McDonald being shot 16 times by a white police officer. While the protesters were still thick on the streets, Marshall had sent two just-completed paintings out the door to Art Basel Miami Beach. The first was a white-on-white blot headed for the booth of David Zwirner. The other, destined for Jack Shainman’s booth, was of a black Chicago policeman leaning against his squad car, gazing past the viewer into the distance, an impassive expression on his face.

The Chicago-based art historian Darby English, who is a consultant to the Museum of Modern Art, was in Marshall’s studio on the morning he finished the latter painting, and helped him load it onto the truck. English felt adamantly that it should live in public, and set to work ensuring that MoMA would have a reserve on the piece when it reached the fair. In the following days, MoMA finalized its acquisition of Untitled (Policeman), 2015. English told me his impressions of the work. “The commonly accepted idea of the officer as a white man who antagonizes black men is complicated, is frustrated—that’s one of the things that good art is supposed to do,” he said. He sees “tremendous moral conflict” in the painting: “these guys have to be black men and police officers right now.” At the same time, English continued, “in the process of doing something about this incredibly urgent and tragic issue, he still let himself be a painter. He had an observation to make, but he made it like a painter.”

Sarah Douglas is editor-in-chief at ARTnews.

Click the images below to tour Kerry James Marshall’s Chicago studio.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of ARTnews on page 106 under the title “The Painter of Modern Life.”

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