A NEW PORTRAIT of Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr., was painted by Kerry James Marshall, the critically acclaimed Chicago painter. A prolific author and Harvard University professor, Gates is a widely regarded authority on African American history and literature whose influence extends far beyond academia. Most recently, he served as executive producer of the HBO documentary “Black Art: In the Absence of Light,” which features some of the most prominent African American artists working today, including Marshall.

Traditional portraits of high profile figures in government and academia typically situate their subjects in meaningful spaces surrounded by fixtures and objects representing their achievements and priorities. Marshall, who is known for using Black paint to render Black figures, made a traditional portrait of Gates, 70.

The contemporary artist depicts the public intellectual seated in a windowed room with an Emmy award and a small stack of books on the table beside him. For his skin, Marshall takes a realistic approach, employing brown paint tones that approximate Gates’s complexion.

 


The Conservation Center custom frames Kerry James Marshall’s portrait of Henry Louis Gates Jr. Located in Chicago, the center specializes in fine art conservation and restoration. | Video by The Conservation Center

 

The Conservation Center in Chicago framed the painting for Marshall and made a video about it that was released in late March. The video has no narration. For more than four minutes, elevator-style music plays while a custom wood frame is meticulously constructed for the portrait. The frame is hand-painted black. Backing is cut, hanging wire is attached, and finally a label is affixed completing the project.

Marshall painted the portrait in 2020. It is unclear whether the painting was a private commission for Gates’s personal collection or an official portrait to be unveiled for public display, perhaps at Harvard. Culture Type reached out to the Conservation Center, to Gates, and to Marshall’s gallery representatives to learn more about the painting.

An email to the Conservation Center went unanswered. A publicist responded on behalf of Gates by email and said he was unavailable and she was unable to answer any basic questions about the portrait. Marshall replied directly via email. “At some point, this fall there will be a formal announcement,” the artist said. “Until then, there will be no information made available.”

“At some point, this fall there will be a formal announcement [about the portrait]. Until then, there will be no information made available.”
— Kerry James Marshall

MARSHALL IS WIDELY CONSIDERED one of the greats among living artists. “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” the artist’s 30-year survey, traveled to major museums in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles to rave reviews. At auction, Marshall holds the record for the most expensive work sold by a living African American artist ($21.1 million).

Marshall doesn’t ordinarily paint traditional portraits. His artistic practice focuses on the Black subject. He makes powerful portraits and sweeping narrative scenes that challenge Western art history. His goal is to integrate the canon with complex images of the African American experience and see large-scale paintings of Black people on the walls of art museums.

“…It really doesn’t matter what we think of Valezquez, Matisse or Lucien Freud. What does matter is that if no one is out there working to produce paintings with a racially different set of figures in them that are as interesting, as challenging, and as good as those historical masterworks, non-white people will always be in trouble. That is why I keep making pictures that aim to make their way into museums,” Marshall said in a conversation with curator Dieter Roelstraete published in “Kerry James Marshall: Painting and Other Stuff.”

In terms of art, Marshall’s vision is in alignment with what Gates sees as his own mission when it comes to history. “God put me on earth for many reasons, and one is to integrate the history of the human community by establishing the role that black people played,” Gates told the Christian Science Monitor in 2017.

 


Kerry James Marshall in his Chicago studio, Still from “Black Art: In the Absence of Light,” 2020 | Courtesy HBO

 

At Harvard, Gates is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, which includes the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, Transition magazine, and the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art. In 1981, Gates was among the inaugural recipients of the MacArthur “genius” grants. (Marshall received one in 1997.)

Gates is the author of “Colored People: A Memoir” (1995) about his family and the Black world where he grew up in Piedmont, W.V., a small segregated mill town. Gates has said the personal story remains his favorite book.

He co-edited with David Bindman, “The Image of the Black in Western Art,” a series of 11 lavishly illustrated volumes (2010-17). The series revisited a research project originated by John and Dominique de Menil in 1960. His six-part PBS documentary series “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross” (2013) won an Emmy award. The latest film from Gates is the two-part PBS series “The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song” (2021).

Gates co-created TheRoot.com with Donald E. Graham in 2008. More recently, he made a cameo appearance in the form of a hologram on HBO’s “Watchmen,” starring Regina King. In a more longstanding role, Gates has hosted the PBS series “Finding Your Roots” since 2012. Sitting with celebrities and public figures, he reveals and discusses their family histories through genealogy. Guests on the show have included artists Kara Walker and Kehinde Wiley.

The fact that an artist of Marshall’s calibre painted a portrait of Gates, reflects the scholar’s illustrious career and influence on American culture and the discipline of African American studies. In the painting, Gates gazes confidently and directly at the viewer. He is sitting in a bright blue modern chair, wearing a navy pin-striped suit with a red tie. The room is filled with natural light and, in the background, a canopy of black, leafless tree limbs is framed by a white wall of paned windows.

Stacked on a round, marble-topped table, several books appear in the painting, including “Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow,” which features an image by Walker on the cover (“Confederate Prisoners Being Conducted from Jonesborough to Atlanta, From the Portfolio Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War, Annotated,” 2005). Authored by Gates, the 2019 book accompanies his PBS series “Reconstruction.”

Atop the books, a wood sculpture draped with beads is the same object featured on the cover of the paperback edition of “The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism” (1988), a seminal text by Gates about African American oral and literary traditions. The volume roots contemporary Black literature in Afro-American folklore and the traditions of African languages. In the book, Gates calls the sculptural figure “Esu-Elegbara” and describes it as “a divine trickster figure of Yoruba mythology.”

The two books—”The Signifying Monkey” and “Stony the Road”—represent the arc of Gates’s career, bookending his earlier years in academia and his most recent work.

 


Henry Louis Gates Jr., conducts a 2014 interview for “Finding Your Roots” on PBS. | Photo by Stephanie Berger

 

MARSHALL HAS PAINTED many individual portraits, including imaginative pictures of Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, boy scouts and girl scouts, African American artists in their studios, and a self-portrait when The New York Times “T” magazine declared him one of The Greats in 2016. Last year, he took on a rare assignment, agreeing to make a cover portrait for the September fall fashion issue of American Vogue. He created a fictional figure and outfitted her in a fashion-forward evening gown by Virgil Abloh’s Off White label.

An early portrait helped define Marshall’s direction. “A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self” (1980) is a self-portrait in which both the background and the artist’s face are rendered in black paint.

The painting was Marshall’s first exploration of the tensions between visibility and invisibility. Two years earlier, when he read the novel “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, the concept crystalized for him. The painting also signaled his embrace of figuration and commitment to painting Black figures with black paint and considering Blackness in cultural, social, and aesthetic terms.

In November 2019, Gates was in Chicago to receive the Chicago Tribune Literary Award and participated in a public conversation during the Chicago Humanities Festival. Bruce Dold, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Tribune, began the discussion by asking about Marshall, who Gates said he had known for four decades. They had dinner while he was in town, Gates said.

“Kerry James Marshall, of course, is a genius. One of the truly great artists practicing in the world today. Not just in America and not just [among] African American artists,” Gates said.

“I’ve admired him very much and I know his wife Cheryl (Lynn Bruce). I met [her] in 1979, here at the Goodman Theatre when she was acting in Wole Soyinka’s ‘Death and the King’s Horseman.’ Soyinka was my professor. I did my graduate work at the University of Cambridge, after I was an undergraduate at Yale, and Soyinka wrote ‘Death and the King’s Horseman’ when I was his student.”

“Kerry James Marshall, of course, is a genius. One of the truly great artists practicing in the world today. Not just in America and not just [among] African American artists.” — Henry Louis Gates Jr.

In January, Gates received another accolade, the Don M. Randel Award for Humanistic Studies from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

“I accept this award as well on behalf of my students and the African American people as a whole, who have endured centuries of slavery and segregation, in part, by holding onto a dream of a non-racial republic of letters, synonymous with full and equal access to education,” Gates said in a statement.

“I have devoted my professional life to studying and advancing our ancestors’ struggles against anti-Black racism, both inside and outside of the classroom. In this time of turbulence and pain, division and despair, let us draw strength from the many sacrifices made by those of all ethnicities, religions, genders, and sexual preferences who have gone before us determined to hold fast to the ideals on which our republic and this Academy were founded.”

The award has been given out only seven times since it was established in 1975. The academy anticipates presenting the award to Gates at an in-person ceremony this fall in Cambridge, Mass. CT

 

FIND MORE The Conservation Center has also repaired a ceramic work by Clementine Hunter, preserved worn volumes of bound Ebony magazines for Theaster Gates, and addressed age-related discoloration on a work by Charles White. Additional Kerry James Marshall projects can be found here and here

 

BOOKSHELF
“Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” accompanied Kerry James Marshall’s 35-year traveling retrospective. Henry Louis Gates has authored numerous books, including and “The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism,” “Colored People: A Memoir,” “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross,” “Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow,” and “The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song.” Gates also co-edited the 11-volume series “The Image of the Black in Western Art.” (Find more about the series here.) Also consider “The Obama Portraits,” which explores in-depth the making of the portraits of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama by artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, respectively.

 

SUPPORT CULTURE TYPE
Do you enjoy and value Culture Type? Please consider supporting its ongoing production by making a donation. Culture Type is an independent art history project that requires countless hours and expense to research, report, write, and produce. To help sustain it, make a one-time donation or sign up for a recurring monthly contribution. It only takes a minute. Many Thanks for Your Support.