“One of the reasons I paint black people,” artist Kerry James Marshall told National Public Radio, “is because I am a black person… There are fewer representations of black figures in the historical record.” Born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1955, Marshall witnessed both the transformative power of the Civil Rights Movement and the violent destruction of white backlash — an experience that had a transformative effect on his art. Marshall’s figures, painted exclusively with carbon black, mars black, and ivory black rather than mixtures of pigments that would more accurately resemble the diversity of skin tones, are unapologetically black. In addition, Marshall often places his subjects within works that explicitly reference past artworks, demanding that his viewers confront the overrepresentation of whiteness and marginalization of blackness in art history. His work, therefore, recontextualizes blackness within canonical artwork both to critique the continued exclusion of black people from institutional recognition and elevate the power and beauty of those formerly marginalized subjects.
Marshall painted his first figurative work, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self”, in 1980, when he had just graduated from the Otis Art Institute. According to art historian Dieter Roelstraete, the painting, for Marshall, “is the single most important picture of his life”. The small painting, at just 8 by 6.5 inches, depicts a cartoon-like, hatted black man with a sardonic grin. The title is a nod to James Joyce celebrated novel, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”, but the work itself is actually a response to Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel, “Invisible Man”; Marshall painted the figure in a stark black shade and, causing him to nearly blend into the equally opaque background. In fact, the black man against this black background is only detectable because of his unnaturally white eyes and teeth. For Marshall, the painting served as a monumental moment in his artistic development; it marks the beginning of his dialogue about the absence of black figures and the Western canon of art history.
Soon, Marshall would discover what he has referred to as the “strategy” of scale. In his 1993 painting “De Style”, for example, Marshall presents five men in a Southside barbershop that resembles one near his own home on Forty-Sixth Street in South Central Los Angeles. At ten feet in length, the work immediately strikes us as representative of the traditional mode of history painting, conferring a grand stature on his subjects. In Marshall’s contemporary history paintings, the heroes are the people he grew up alongside in barbershops, living rooms, parks, coffee shops, and art studios. His “The Garden Project” series of 1995 consisted of monumental paintings on unstretched canvas, depicting figures against various backdrops from his own environment: Los Angeles’ and Chicago’s public housing projects. Projects, like Nickerson Gardens, where Marshall and his family lived in Watts, were a product of the postwar building boom. By the 1990s, Nickerson Gardens had become, like most public housing projects in the country, devastated by crime. In Watts 1963 (1995), an autobiographical work from the series, Nickerson Gardens is portrayed as idyllic, adorned with flowers. Its inhabitants, however, children who might refer to Marshall and his sister at the time, look at us with anxious fear. At once utopian and dystopian, the painting underscores the tragic irony of naming these destitute spaces “gardens.”
Marshall continued to sustain a revolution in the traditional narrative of painting, using works from the Western canon to critique the historical account of visual art that has overlooked African Americans. Marshall’s 2012 exhibit’s subject matter and title, “Who’s Afraid of Red, Black, and Green”, explicitly acknowledges Barnett Newman’s series of canonical Abstract Expressionist paintings, “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue” (1966-1970) but changes the colors to represent the three colors of the Pan-African liberation movement’s flag. “Draw Me” (1955), part of the 16-part series, borrows from stereotypical mid-century art school advertisements, but inserts the profile of an African American female, surrounded by preliminary illustrations of female silhouettes. Marshall depicts the female figure i with an uncompromising opaque ebony black skin tone. Marshall’s reinterpretation dutifully incorporates Newman’s formal properties of flatness and color planes. However, whereas Newman commented on “post-war anxieties and fear through color” with Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue, Marshall, by implementing the command, “DRAW ME,” alludes to a need for the portrayal of black subjects and critiques, more specifically, how artists have used abstraction to further marginalize blacks from visual arts.
His 2013 installation “Garden of Delights”, which consisted of a path made of plastic red, green, and black stones that lead up to a large artificial garden of clear green and black plastic sunflowers that surround a generic photograph of a house and a yard, similarly redefines celebrated works from the artistic canon. In using only red, green, and black to create the flowers and stones of his artificial garden, Marshall again references the Pan-African flag. Reinterpreting Hieronymous Bosch’s triptych, “The Garden of Earthly Delights” (1503-1515), which used strange and enigmatic imagery to present a moral warning on the fate of humanity, Marshall excludes the word “Earthly” from his title to emphasize the artificiality of his garden. Although Bosch used monstrous imagery, the figures were fantastical; for Marshall, monstrosity is anything but a fantasy.
Marshall’s most potent reversal of canonical paintings from art history was “Mastry”, a thirty-five-year retrospective whose title implies Marshall’s purpose in reimagining the works of the “Old Masters.” The exhibit, which extends from A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self to his last piece created before the exhibit premiered in 2016, shows how his works have consistently addressed absence. “Untitled (Studio)” (2014), a painting from the exhibit, at first, appears as a simple image that conveys a black painter’s workshop; this straightforward interpretation, however, becomes more complex once one discovers its various allusions. The flowers next to the model’s profile recall Edgar Degas’ “A Woman Seated beside a Vase of Flowers” (1865) and the aspiration to depict an artist’s workspace, as well as the work’s composition, explicitly references Gustave Courbet’s “The Artist’s Studio, a Real Allegory Summing Up Seven Years of My Artistic and Moral Life” (1854-1855). Marshall updates, rather than commemorates, these works for the sake of reinterpretation; whereas these canonical paintings only featured white subjects, Marshall’s painting proposes an interpretation of them with figures that are exclusively and intensely black.
His “Portrait of Nat Turner with the Head of His Master” (2011), another work included in Mastry, sympathetically portrays the leader of a violent slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831. The rebellion, led by Turner and fellow rebels, resulted in the deaths of around sixty people, including his owner, whose severed head appears on a bed in the background. Although Turner was sentenced to death, Marshall casts him in the same contrapposto pose that Donatello used in his sculpture, “David” (c. 1440s), which portrays the biblical hero after he had slain the giant Goliath. The composition and subject matter of this portrait, moreover, draws on Caravaggio’s “David with the Head of Goliath” (c. 1610), which “valorizes the act of beheading as an act of biblical heroism.” Using these references to David, Marshall subverts the convenient and conventional historical narrative that has explained Turner’s rebellion and reclaims Nat Turner as a civil rights hero.
“Marshall,” wrote Chicago Tribune columnist Lori Waxman, “might be the most ambitious painter alive today.” Whereas most artists seek to create history, Marshall has made it his mission to unravel, critique, and recreate it. Hanging alongside paintings by the Old Masters in the collections of museums like the Smithsonian, the National Gallery of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Marshall’s paintings, with blacker-than-black subjects, surprise us, forcing us to realize and confront our history of racial marginalization and continued prejudice. Marshall’s exploration and affirmation of black identity remains both vital and urgent. Through his bold goal to place representations of African Americans on the walls of museums, where they had rarely appeared, he has successfully painted black figures into a canon from which they had previously been excluded. However, while works by non-white artists are gaining more visibility than ever before in museums, there are generations of work to be done.
The forces of racist oppression motivating both Marshall and the Civil Rights Movement that inspired him — police brutality, disenfranchisement, and insidious quotidian discrimination — remain pervasive and toxic to our society. As Marshall has confronted us with the critical importance of artistic inclusion, we must confront ourselves with the limits of inclusion, and with the limits of artistic expression alone, as a response to racism and to all forces degrading our collective humanity.
Rebecca Finley | firstname.lastname@example.org .