A FEW MONTHS AGO, Kerry James Marshall gave First Lady Michelle Obama a tour of “Mastry,” his career-spanning exhibition at MCA Chicago. Now both Marshall and Obama are among “The Greats,” seven people who are redefining our culture, according to the New York Times.
Marshall is certainly making his mark on American culture and the global art world. Transforming the perception of figuration with the goal of pushing the Western art historical canon in a more diverse and representational direction, Marshall’s paintings of black figures rendered with black paint are imaginative and masterful and loaded with political and cultural cues.
Each of the greats on the annual list—singer/songwriter Lady Gaga, fashion designer Junya Wantanabe, chef/restauranteur Massimo Bottura, author Zadie Smith, and photographer William Eggleston, along with Obama and Marshall—as described by the Times T magazine, “not only embodies our definition of great, but our understanding of its power.”
Published online today (which is also Marshall’s 61st birthday), and in print next Sunday, Oct. 23, the special edition of T magazine has seven different covers, each featuring one of the greats. Marshall’s cover is a painting, a self portrait by the artist.
Marshall is the subject of a major retrospective that originated at MCA Chicago in the Spring and opens Oct. 25 at The Met Breuer in New York. Critically lauded, the exhibition features more than 70 paintings spanning more than three decades—images of the black experience and inventive portraits of pivotable figures such as Harriet Tubman and Nat Turner. His paintings are in the collections of major museums. At auction, Marshall’s work has sold for more than $2 million (including fees).
For its profile, “Kerry James Marshall is Shifting the Color of Art History,” the magazine visited Marshall at his Chicago studio where he lives and works, and explored his neighborhood, where crime is not uncommon.
The community plays a role in Marshall’s work as a subject and he says he remains, has fought to stay, because it has been his home since 1992. “Somebody’s got to say, ‘We’re not going to be afraid to live in our neighborhood with our own people,’” Marshall tells contributor Wyatt Mason. If he and other successful, longtime residents flee, they are essentially handing the neighborhood over to negative elements, and letting it “go the way of the gangbangers,” he says. Plus, Marshall believes that having a painter living nearby might broaden the perspective of local youth.
He remains positive about his ability to influence his community and the canon. “When you talk about the absence of black figure representation in the history of art,” Marshall says in the article, “you can talk about it as an exclusion, in which case there’s a kind of indictment of history for failing to be responsible for something it should have been. I don’t have that kind of mission. I don’t have that indictment. My interest in being a part of it, is being an expansion of it, not a critique of it.”
“When you talk about the absence of black figure representation in the history of art, you can talk about it as an exclusion, in which case there’s a kind of indictment of history for failing to be responsible for something it should have been. I don’t have that kind of mission. …My interest in being a part of it, is being an expansion of it, not a critique of it.”
— Kerry James Marshall, T Magazine
T also produced a video for the special issue, Marshall in conversation with fellow Chicago artist Theaster Gates. Marshall discusses why he makes art, African mythology, ideals of beauty, and the freedom that comes with mastery.
At the start of the conversation, Gates asks what Marshall wants to talk about and he initially says “nothing.” Although Marshall speaks often and at length about his work and has an encyclopedic command of art history, in all seriousness he emphasizes that everything he has to say is on the canvas.
“You hope for the most part that you put everything that needs to be said in the work,” Marshall says in the video above, “and that you want people to instead of relying on what you said it was about, look at the thing, figure out what it is, and then draw conclusions from it.” CT
“Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” a comprehensive, cloth-covered catalog was published to accompany the exhibition and includes essays by the curators and writings by Marshall on a range of topics, from his Rythm Mastr comic series to artists Mickalene Thomas and Horace Pippin. An extensive interview with Marshall by curator appears in the exhibition catalog “Painting and Other Stuff.” “Kerry James Marshall: Look See” coincided with the artists’s first exhibition with David Zwirner gallery in London in 2014.
KERRY JAMES MARSHALL, “Slow Dance,” 1992–93 (mixed media and acrylic on unstretched canvas). | Lent by The David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago; Purchase, Smart Family Fund Foundation for Contemporary Art, and Paul and Miriam Kirkley Fund for Acquisitions. Photo © 2015, courtesy of The David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago.
KERRY JAMES MARSHALL, “School of Beauty, School of Culture,” 2012 (acrylic on canvas). | Collection of the Birmingham Museum of Art; Museum purchase with funds provided by Elizabeth (Bibby) Smith, the Collectors Circle for Contemporary Art, Jane Comer, the Sankofa Society, and general acquisition funds. Photo courtesy MCA Chicago