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.”
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.
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.”