Rhapsody in Black: The Paintings of Kerry James Marshall

Kendall Karmanian

Kerry James Marshall paints modern life with traditional techniques, embracing a hue the Old Masters avoided. Julian Sancton meets the artist at his Chicago studio on the eve of a major retrospective.

Two large, unfinished canvases dominate the ground floor of Kerry James Marshall's cluttered studio on Chicago's South Side. The one he’s just beginning is something he hopes will appeal to the Tate Modern in London, which has expressed interest in acquiring a painting of his. It depicts London Bridge under a clear, blue sky. This sounds straightforward enough, until he reminds you that London Bridge was transplanted in the ’70s to Lake Havasu City, Arizona. The canvas is still unpopulated, barely sketched out, and already it demonstrates Marshall’s ability to find the extraordinary in the ordinary (and vice versa).

The second painting is more obviously a Marshall work. It shows an African American figure reclining on a bed, head off the edge, legs up the wall. The pose recalls the great supine subjects of the Western canon—Manet’s Olympia without the whiff of sexual exploitation, Jacques-Louis David’s Death of Marat without the death. With its bright, Fauvist palette, the painting reveals Marshall’s technical mastery and deep understanding of art history. Where it departs from convention is in its treatment of the figure’s skin, rendered, as with almost all of his human figures, in shades of black.

In academic painting, black is practically taboo. From the Old Masters to the Impressionists, artists have tended to represent the absence of light by mixing several hues that function as black. For Marshall, however, black is the starting point, the base upon which he builds. This approach is as much a political statement as a technical challenge. “I’ve already decided the thing that I’m rendering is black,” he says on the second floor of his studio, strewn with magazines, comics, precarious piles of art books, and a Spider-Man figurine. “Then you have to figure out how to pull volume and definition out of the black. This is what I do that’s different.”

We spoke a few days before the opening of “Mastry,” Marshall’s largest museum retrospective, at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). The show, which travels to New York’s Met Breuer in October and then to Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art, contains most of his best-known works, including his colorful Garden Project series, portraying life in inner-city projects as a peaceful, Rockwellian idyll. Marshall’s often wall-sized works are epics of the everyday, in which the beauty parlors, barbershops, front yards, and bedrooms of African American communities are given the same importance as the battlefields, palaces, and agoras that hang at the Louvre.

His canvases can take months to complete, and he won’t be rushed simply because major collectors and institutions are knocking on his door. Marshall’s longtime New York gallerist, Jack Shainman—whose roster includes some of the most respected African American artists working today, among them Hank Willis Thomas, Nick Cave, and Carrie Mae Weems— says representing Marshall is “a luxury problem, because you have all these people and museums waiting, and it’s hard to juggle the whole thing if you only get one or two paintings a year and a show every once in a while.”

Born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1955, Marshall moved with his family to the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1963, at the beginning of one of the most volatile decades in recent American history. (Though the family had moved to South Central by the time the ’65 Watts riots erupted, the conflagration spread to his neighborhood.) Marshall didn’t visit an art museum until fifth grade, on a field trip to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). He was awed by the Old Master works on display. “They still have these two Veroneses, the Allegory of Navigation,” he says. “They were giant and they were muscular. They looked like superheroes.” This had a profound effect on a kid whose exposure to art had consisted largely of Marvel comics.

He learned to paint—as great artists do—by copying his idols, notably the African American Social Realist painter Charles White. By the time he entered L.A.’s prestigious Otis Art Institute, however, the classical techniques he thirsted to learn were no longer emphasized. “What passed as teaching,” he says, “was simple conversation.” Concept was the order of the day, and Marshall developed his early on. It hit him after he read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. As a fan of comics and horror movies, he says, “I knew about the H. G. Wells novel; that’s why I even looked at the Ralph Ellison book. A black writer writing about Invisible Man too? What is this going to be like?”

He was struck by the difference between Wells’s and Ellison’s notions of invisibility: “It was immediately clear that Ellison’s was a more complicated and powerful way of thinking about the idea. It wasn’t transparency as a kind of illusion. It was psychological.” And it directly inspired Marshall’s first masterpiece, 1980’s Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self, a black figure barely discernible against the dark background save for the whites of his eyes, the white collar of his shirt, and his macabre toothy grin. A simultaneous presence and absence.

“I knew he was going to be a great artist,” says Marti Koplin, the L.A.–based gallerist who sold that piece as well as the first painting of his to be purchased by a museum, 1993’s De Style, now at LACMA. “There was a spirit to the work,” she says. “A narrative that grips you.”

For all its implications about the way race is (or isn’t) represented in art, Marshall’s work is also about what he calls “the pleasure of making something from nothing.” Above all, Marshall is an insatiable bricoleur, adept at everything from fender repair to sewing and carpentry.

“If there’s a painting that he’s finished that’s going to an art fair,” Shainman tells me, “I say, ‘I’m going to send people to build a crate.’ And he says, ‘I’ll just build it myself.’”

Marshall’s handiness is what qualified him in 1990 to be hired as the production designer for Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, the first film by an African American woman to get a theatrical release. (The film’s lavish, gothic look seems to have inspired Beyoncé’s chart-topping visual album Lemonade this year.)

He caught his big break a year later when he received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts that allowed him to buy a dilapidated Victorian house in the struggling Chicago neighborhood of Bronzeville. He repaired it himself, down to the plumbing.

In a city that makes weekly headlines for its gun violence, Bronzeville is far from the worst area, but it’s no hotbed of economic activity either. Driving around in his minivan, Marshall points out the shuttered storefronts and overgrown lots that have remained vacant for decades. “You have to acknowledge that has some effect on the way [children] imagine their ability to shape the world they live in,” he says. Despite winning prize after prize (including a MacArthur “genius” grant) and seeing his work reach more than $2 million at auction, Marshall has no intention of moving. “I can afford to go anywhere, but I made a decision to build right here again,” he says. “I’m showing that there’s somebody willing to make something here.”

After picking up the last two pieces for his retrospective from the printer’s (light boxes of his long-standing comic-strip project Rythm Mastr), we head downtown to the MCA. In the parking lot, Marshall receives a message from the show’s curator, Dieter Roelstraete. The news has just broken: Harriet Tubman will grace the $20 bill.

Marshall turns off the engine and sits back in the driver’s seat. “I’m trying to think of who else would be more appropriate,” he says. There is a painting of Tubman in his exhibition. She is portrayed not as a heroic figure entrenched in the battle for emancipation but in a tender pose with her husband, John. The work is actually a mise en abyme, a painting of a painting being hung on a museum wall by white-gloved black hands—leading us to wonder why so many portraits of black figures in museums are connected to a history of oppression. The same question can now be asked of our currency.

“In order to be equal, you have to have equal capacity to produce the world, to shape the world, to define the terms under which the world is experienced,” Marshall says. “And that’s different from trying to become free from the domination of an authority that has the capacity to impose its will on you.”

I ask Marshall if he’s trying to change the world. “I’m trying to change the art museum, so that when young black kids come to the museum, they’re no longer shocked to see a black person in a place like this. Then they start to imagine they can be in here too. That’s pretty much all I can do.”

With that, Marshall walks into the museum, carrying the cardboard box that contains the finishing touch to a world of his own creation.

Image Credits: Kerry James Marshall/Courtesy The Progressive Corporation