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Kerry James Marshall changing the narrative of art history

Kerry James Marshall, School of Beauty, School of Culture, 2012. | Collection of the Birmingham Museum of Art/ COURTESY MCA

When Kerry James Marshall visited art museums as a youngster, the Chicago-based, African-American painter saw few if any images of or by people who looked like him. He would later call it “Absence with a Capital A.”

“The whole history of old mastery – there aren’t any black old masters,” he said in a recent interview, “because we were not really part of that tradition that produced the kind of narrative that art history is built on.”

‘Kerry James Marshall: Mastry’

When: April 23-Sept. 25

Where: Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 220 E. Chicago

Tickets: Free with regular museum admission

Info: mcachicago.org

So, Marshall set out to create a kind of new mastery, which would not only demonstrate a virtuosic understanding of the elements of painting but would also put the black experience front and center.

More than 35 years later, the now internationally renowned artist’s career accomplishments are being celebrated in a retrospective that runs April 23-Sept. 25 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

Kerry James Marshall. | Photo: Cameron Wittig, courtesy Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.
Kerry James Marshall. | Photo: Cameron Wittig, courtesy Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

The exhibition contains nearly 70 paintings, along with a selection of drawings and other works in related media. It is subtitled “Mastry,” borrowing a vernacular spelling from the artist’s comic-inspired series, “Rythm Mastr.”

“We’ve seen his work over the years episodically – a small show here, a big group exhibition there,” said MCA director Madeleine Grynsztejn, “and this is a moment where we need to see this extraordinary body of work in one place and have the privilege and exciting opportunity to assess in visual terms some of the most urgent issues of our time.”

After its debut in Chicago, the show will travel to two of the most prestigious art institutions in the United States, each serving as co-organizers – the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

Kerry James Marshall, Better Homes, Better Gardens, 1994. Denver Art Museum Collection. | © Kerry James Marshall. Photo courtesy of the Denver Art Museum.
Kerry James Marshall, Better Homes, Better Gardens, 1994. Denver Art Museum Collection. | © Kerry James Marshall. Photo courtesy of the Denver Art Museum.

“There was a war to get this show,” Grynsztejn said. “I had no problem placing the exhibition both on the West and East Coast.”

Helen Molesworth, MOCA, Los Angeles’ chief curator, and she approached the artist several years ago about doing such a survey exhibition. But he asked them to wait until his 60th birthday, which he marked last year, allowing him to complete several new bodies of work.

Born in Birmingham, Ala., in 1955, Marshall spent much of his childhood in Los Angeles, and it was there that he had his first significant contact with art. He attended a transformative summer drawing class after seventh grade at the Otis Institute of Art and encountered the work of noted African-American artist Charles White.

He went on to pursue his undergraduate artistic studies at Otis, and after graduating in 1978, it didn’t take him long to determine his creative mission. He wanted to portray the black figure, and he wanted to do it in way that spoke to the present but also addressed and challenged art history on its terms.

“I decided,” Marshall said, “you could only become free by entering into a relationship with art history by bringing an idealized form of your own image into that space and projecting that into the visual record with the same kind of power, with the same kind of force and same kind of inventiveness that drove that history of representation from a European perspective.”

Kerry James Marshall, Many Mansions, 1994. The Art Institute of Chicago, Max V. Kohnstamm Fund. Photo © The Art Institute of Chicago.
Kerry James Marshall, Many Mansions, 1994. The Art Institute of Chicago, Max V. Kohnstamm Fund. Photo © The Art Institute of Chicago.

And that is exactly what Marshall has done, rethinking and sometimes upending old-master genres, most notably history painting. He has employed its monumental scale and grandeur but has showcased not celebrated historical events but everyday scenes, such as the neighborhood barber shop shown in “De Style” (1993), Marshall’s first painting to enter a major American art museum collection.

“If you give simple things that same kind of treatment,” he said, “then perhaps that adds a kind of importance to the ordinary that tends to not be given to it.”

Marshall’s works often depict identifiable places around Bronzeville, the South Chicago neighborhood where he has maintained a studio for 16 years, as well as those from his childhood in Los Angeles. “You have to be able to demonstrate,” he said, “that you can make interesting artworks from anywhere and that the neighborhood that you live in or that you grew up in can be a proper structure for picture-making.”

Notable examples include his Garden Project paintings, large-scale, unstretched canvases that show housing projects in the two cities. The series was first displayed in 1997 at two major international art exhibitions — the Whitney Biennial in New York and Documenta in Kassel, Germany.

“They don’t just have to be dim, abject pictures,” Marshall said of these pieces. “They can be more complicated than that, because that’s what those places are themselves. However violent some of these neighborhoods are, there are a lot of pleasures to be had in these neighborhoods, too.”

The artist’s complex style draws on old-master techniques, and he even sometimes appropriates elements from famed works of the past. But at the same time, he tends to flatten perspectives, often adding painterly touches like drips and smears and incorporating collage, silkscreen and glitter.

While his works confront racial stereotypes and topical issues that tie in closely with movements today like Black Lives Matter and Oscars So White, they also transcend their time by embracing larger humanistic concerns, such as love and joy.

Kerry James Marshall, Bang, 1994. The Progressive Corporation. | Photo courtesy of the Progressive Corporation / MCA Chicago
Kerry James Marshall, Bang, 1994. The Progressive Corporation. | Photo courtesy of the Progressive Corporation / MCA Chicago

Marshall wanted to find a way to break down barriers and get his works on the walls of the very museums that had largely ignored African-American art previously, and this retrospective is a huge acknowledgement that he has succeeded. “This is the culmination of a life goal,” he said.

Besides presenting this exhibition, the Metropolitan Museum has also purchased one of the works that will be in the show, and it has asked him for reproduction rights to include it in a book of highlights from its collection.

“Just the presence of that work there, it means a lot,” Marshall said. “It means that I must have found some way to solve this problem of absence.”

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.