It’s a sunny weekday afternoon in April, and Kerry James Marshall is showing me around his lived-in studio on a quaint residential stretch of Chicago’s South Side, taking a break from fine-tuning a handful of canvases. The artist — who is renowned for his painted musings on art-historical oversights and for taking on the African American experience as both subject and cause — is an affable presence in person. He is sweet, confident, convivial, and eager to discuss the ways in which he’s approaching an ambitious new body of work.
The studio is located in a contemporary carriage house of sorts. A lofted office area is stocked with art tomes, sketching supplies, and comic books in progress (he has published several), as well as the artist’s enormous stash of Barbie-style dolls. The dolls are off-brand, for the most part, procured from local secondhand shops; the more expressive, more flexible models were special-ordered from Hong Kong. Each figure sports an intricate original hairstyle and clothing handmade by Marshall and his assistant. He uses them primarily to study the folds in the clothing and the contours of the hair as he paints. He sometimes detaches a head, affixing it to a mini-stake and paints from that alone. It’s easier than relying on models, he says, though he senses the irony in using these 12-inch dolls as the basis for his figures, many of which defy the ridiculously lithe and buxom form. “I don’t want my paintings to look like these people. I would be in trouble if they looked like these people,” he insists. “I just use them for reference — for angle and for light.” When it comes to everything else, he adds, “I am always working against type.”
Downstairs, the somewhat narrow main space is lined with Marshall’s new paintings. A massive canvas depicting the goings-on within a green-and-pink-hued African American hair salon is pinned to the center of one wall. In typical Marshall fashion it’s a genre scene of epic proportions, with chic black women and children posing, preening, and interacting among their own cultural signifiers (a poster advertising Chris Ofili at Tate Modern, an LP of “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”). There is also a strange anamorphic rendering of Princess Aurora from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty hovering near the floor.
A large, black canvas is mounted on an adjacent wall. It is almost a monochrome, save for several subtle variations in the color, a streak of red, and the remnants of flags belonging to the United States, the city of Chicago, and the Black Nationalist movement. The first two are depicted patchily, with bits and pieces of fabric and poles visible behind wide swaths of inky pigment; the third and most obscure of the bunch — a Black Panther touchstone — is ghostlike, masked almost entirely by a thin layer of black paint. On the opposite side of the room, in front of nearly half a dozen more works in progress, two smaller paintings hang on a rack. One of them depicts an eager club goer awaiting company; the other shows a sturdy nude clutching a human-scale red, black, and green star, the symbol for Marcus Garvey’s reverse diaspora serving Black Star Line. She is seen from behind but glares directly at the viewer over her left shoulder.
Visually, each work is very different. But an obvious sense of cohesiveness is not necessarily what Marshall is after. These paintings, which are destined for a major solo exhibition at the Vienna Secession (on view September 21 through November 25), are bound conceptually: They all fit neatly into a framework that Marshall has made by tweaking the title of one of Barnett Newman’s most famous series of color field paintings. In Marshall’s studio, Newman’s “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue?” (1965–70) has become “Who’s Afraid of Red, Black and Green?” — the colors of the Black Nationalist flag. Each painting in the series is a different riff or interpretation thereof, asking if a launchpad of pure color can lend itself to a deeper commentary about race, America, and fear. Marshall wants it all — the abstract and the figurative, the political and the sublime. This newest body of work is his latest attempt to get it. It’s a lofty ambition, to be sure, but Marshall wears it well. He has long held an interest in that which didn’t quite make it into the art history books — black figure painting, for instance, and overtly political abstraction. His desire to revisit, reassess, and recast art-historical memes and styles — sometimes successful ones, sometimes less so — is a guiding principle in his exquisitely executed, highly varied, and deeply engaging work.
“If you look historically at the way painting has moved from representation to abstraction, the implications of that, in some ways, erased what people can identify as political and social content in a work,” Marshall says. He wants to know “whether that kind of painting can remain satisfying as a strategy for making new work” while being reinvigorated with the sort of outwardly social and political content that artists like Newman shunned.
As for the content, Marshall is looking into toward another perceived “end point” in painting: the black arts movement of the 1970s. At that time, African-American artists working in a figurative, politically charged way were largely marginalized in the contemporary art world. This ultimately led to what is now referred to as “post-black” art, which reflected the idea that “one of the quickest ways you can erase what they saw as limitations of ethnicity and race was to do abstract work,” Marshall says. “And by doing so, you would find your way into the mainstream of the art world.”
“I am trying to demonstrate that there is a great deal of potential left in the black aesthetic and within the specificity of the Black Nationalist position as represented by the colors red, black, and green,” Marshall continues. “That you can transcend what is perceived to be the limitation of a race-conscious kind of work. It is a limitation only if you accept someone else’s foreclosure from the outside. If you go into it yourself, you can exercise a good deal. And you are limited only by your own ability to imagine possibilities.”
Born in 1955 in Birmingham, Alabama, then the epicenter of the civil rights movement, and raised in South Central Los Angeles not far from the local Black Panthers’ home base, Marshall has long spoken about what he has called “a social responsibility” to tackle black America in his work. But Marshall pairs this sensibility with a deep engagement with the art of the Western tradition, both its pitfalls and its triumphs. When an elementary school teacher’s scrapbook opened his eyes to image making, Marshall started to pore over books on art history and technique at the local library.
He practiced at home as well. He and his older brother would draw together, sparring with their sketches as if playing an analog version of a video war game. “We would draw opposite sides,” Marshall says. “I would draw an airplane that dropped a bomb on his men. Then he would draw a tank to shoot down my airplane,” all from a “first-person shooter” perspective.
By the time Marshall was in junior high he had fixated on comic books, Marvel editions in particular. He and his friends would get together to copy images of their favorite Avengers and X-Men. Marshall’s renderings were always a little different. “I was also looking at Leonardo’s anatomical drawings in the library and trying to figure out how the anatomy of these superheroes worked,” he says. “So my drawings never looked as good as other people’s drawings. They would do it perfectly — every shape and curve. I was doing planes and structures. My drawings always had a whole lot of lines and a whole lot of erasures. My stuff was labored because I was trying to understand more than just how to copy what I was looking at.”
Such diligence served Marshall well when he moved from comic books to Old Master paintings. Sketching on layer after layer of tracing paper, Marshall taught himself how to break down a Titian or a Michelangelo into its most basic parts—a skill that was no longer taught by the time he enrolled in Los Angeles’s Otis Art Institute in the 1970s, when conceptualism prevailed.
Marshall’s early work was vastly different from the large-scale portraits and genre scenes for which he is now best known. As a young artist in Los Angeles he made abstract collages for the most part. But after some constructive criticism from the Los Angeles Times (a reviewer, he says, noted that his collages “ ‘fade into masses of other things that are just like them,’ — which was true!”), he decided he needed to find a way to tackle the figure, a way that was new and relevant to him.
“I tried to make a figure that took advantage of all the things I had learned from analyzing classical Renaissance painting, a figure that took advantage of all of that but didn’t look like that,” he says. The breakthrough, he adds, was his “Portrait of the Artist as His Former Self,” from 1980, a black-on-black barely-there silhouette that stands in stark contrast to the whites of the subject’s teeth, collar, and eyes. The composition, the angle of the sitter, and the perspective were structured to mirror those of Leonardo; the color, the figure, and the aesthetic were all Marshall’s own.
Marshall pushed the aesthetic further as his career progressed, using his singular figures to express something more universal. His “Lost Boys,” from 1993–95, is a series of stark portraits of African American youths pictured at the ages of their various incarcerations. The Peter Pan analogy is apt, given the sort of suspended adolescence that tends to arise as a result of a young arrest. “The Garden Project,” 1994–95, was inspired by the many Chicago and Los Angeles housing projects with the word gardens in their titles. The canvases are contemporary history paintings, if you will, scaled on a par with those of Jacques-Louis David and Théodore Géricault. They depict housing project residents trying to cultivate environments that will live up to the false promise of their names.
Marshall showed throughout L.A. in the 1980s and was an artist in residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1986. He relocated to Chicago shortly thereafter. Since the mid-1980s he has been represented by the Koplin Del Rio Gallery, where his work will be included in a 30th-anniversary exhibition opening in October. The Culver City gallery says that his smaller works are typically priced at $20,000 to $50,000, with larger ones selling in the $400,000-to- $500,000 range. On the East Coast, he had his first solo show at the Jack Shainman Gallery in 1993 and has been represented by the New York dealer ever since.
Marshall has long been admired in and beyond the art world for the ways in which he manages to both celebrate and scrutinize the African-American experience, and his Vienna-bound new work continues in this vein. “There is a longing to love oneself that informs everything black people do in the United States,” he says. “There are not any black people who do not feel some dimension of that in their lives. If they say they don’t, they’re lying.”
The new work taps into this too, which brings us back to that mysteriously anamorphic Princess Aurora hovering ominously in the beauty salon scene, titled “School of Beauty, School of Culture.” Marshall’s composition makes reference to the optical trickery of the skull inserted in Hans Holbein’s “The Ambassadors,” 1533. But there is, of course, a reason that Holbein’s skull has been replaced with Disney’s most Aryan princess.
Vanitas, he says, is the idea “that everything — youth, beauty — all ends in death. For black folk, we are haunted by the specter of the Sleeping Beauty and what Sleeping Beauty represents: the dominant standard of what real beauty is. No matter what they do to themselves in that salon, they are haunted by the specter of real beauty, which undermines the legitimacy of the beauty they aspire to.”
“It’s reality and it’s representation,” he adds. “It’s the art world and the real world. It’s all of those things at once. That is another part of my strategy, to have all things happening at one time. Everything at once.”
This article originally appeared in the July/August issue of Art+Auction magazine.