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Kerry James Marshall


Kerry James Marshall (born October 17, 1955) is an American artist born in Birmingham, Alabama. He grew up in South Central Los Angeles and now lives in Chicago, Illinois, where he previously taught at the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is a 1978 graduate of Otis College of Art and Design.

Artist Info

Biography from Wikipedia

Vignette #2, 2008. Acrylic on Plexiglas displayed at Chicago Art Institute.

Kerry James Marshall (born October 17, 1955) is an American artist born in Birmingham, Alabama. He grew up in South Central Los Angeles[1] and now lives in Chicago, Illinois, where he previously taught at the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is a 1978 graduate of Otis College of Art and Design.


Although he currently lives and works in Chicago, Illinois, his time spent in Watts, Los Angeles, California, where the Black Power and Civil Rights movements had a significant impact on his paintings.[2] Strongly influenced by his experiences as a young man, he developed a signature style during his early years as an artist that involved the use of extremely dark, essentially black figures. These images represent his perspective of African Americans with separate and distinct inner and outer appearances. At the same time, they confront racial stereotypes within contemporary American society.[3] This common theme appeared continuously in his work throughout the subsequent decades, especially in the 1980s and 1990s.

While earning his BFA from Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, he worked not have a representational image or a specific story to tell,” over abstraction[4] Thus, Marshall still retains the political content so important to the Civil Rights Movement while painting a narrative through mural-sized pieces.


Marshall is known for large-scale paintings, sculptures, and other objects that take African-American life and history as their subject matter. His work often deals with the effects of the Civil Rights movement on domestic life, in addition to working with elements of popular culture. In a 1998 interview with Bomb Magazine, Marshall observed,

Black people occupy a space, even mundane spaces, in the most fascinating ways. Style is such an integral part of what black people do that just walking is not a simple thing. You've got to walk with style. You've got to talk with a certain rhythm; you've got to do things with some flair. And so in the paintings I try to enact that same tendency toward the theatrical that seems to be so integral a part of the black cultural body.[5]

One work, Rythm Mastr, is a superhero comic book based on African mythology and art set in an urban environment. Some of his other notable works include The Garden Project, which critiques the glorified names of housing projects that conceal desperate poverty[6] and the Lost Boys series, which examines young black men "lost in the ghetto, lost in public housing, lost in joblessness, and lost in literacy."[7]

Marshall's first major solo exhibition, which traveled throughout the country, was organized at the Renaissance Society of the University of Chicago in 1998. His work has been exhibited in many American and international exhibitions, including the Venice Biennale (2003) and the Documenta (1997 and 2007).

In April 2016, Marshall's retrospective Mastry debuted at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago as the largest retrospective to date of Marshall's art, which spanned the artist's 35-year career and included nearly 80 original pieces.[8] In October 2016, the retrospective traveled to the Met Breuer in New York City.

Marshall based several of his pieces in the early 1990s on actual events in American history. One such painting, Voyager,[9] painted in 1992, has special pertinence in a discussion of race issues in the United States because Marshall based it on a “luxury schooner…secretly outfitted to carry African slaves”.[3] Symbols of this representation abound, from the two black figures in the boat and the flowers draped around the woman’s neck to the contrast between the light and airy clouds and the darkness of the upper background. A skull lies in the water, just beneath the ship, hinting at the doomed future of the Africans, and the unknown woman has an expression of uneasiness. He thus brings to the forefront the irony of a ship with a beautiful, high class appearance and a dark secret purpose, forcing people to think about something they would rather forget.

Marshall explored the concept of black beauty in contrast to Western ideals with his painting La Venus Negra.[3] The figure, this time a nude woman, literally blends into her dark surroundings, her sensuous shape barely discernible. Yet once the viewer looks closely, her curvaceous figure evokes a womanly power only enhanced by the deep black of her skin. As Marshall admits, he himself "had not considered that a black woman could be considered a goddess of love and beauty," but with this painting he proves its possibility.[3] He challenges the classic perception of a goddess as a white woman with long flowing hair, speaking again to the issue of African American identity in the Western world. This concept has more meaning when looking at the African pattern on the top quarter of the background. With this addition, he references the movement begun during the Harlem Renaissance to incorporate traditional African aesthetics into African American art.[10] In an attempt to reconcile the African art and Western ideals, Marshall places both in his painting. Thus he highlights the search for a black identity that involves all aspects of their ancestral history and their current situation. Although African Americans may feel connected to two differing cultures, Marshall’s painting of a classically Western figure represented with a new black aesthetic brings the two together, showing that they can live in harmony.

Some of his works, such as La Venus Negra and Voyager combine African aesthetics with Western traditions, showing the struggle of African Americans to find their place in American society. Other projects of Marshall’s, namely Garden Project and Souvenir, demonstrate the issues of race in America from the 1960s and 1970s and onward. Marshall’s work is dynamic and consistently relevant, especially to the problem of finding an identity.

Through his series The Garden Project, Marshall reveals the inherent contradictions and profound juxtapositions between the idealized promises of Public Housing Projects and the often harsh, despairing reality of those living in them. But Marshall goes beyond merely exposing the discrepancy between this ideal and its corresponding reality, as his work alludes to the sense of community and hope that African American’s were able to create within the grinding conditions of low-income housing. Inspired by his former home, Nickerson Gardens, Marshall’s series “The Garden Project” makes an ironic play on the connotations inherent in the word "garden." The five paintings in the series depict different public housing projects – Rockwell Gardens, Wentworth Gardens, Stateway Gardens, etc. – exploring how the almost eden-like imagery used in the names is absurd in regards to these failed projects. Executed on unstretched canvas, these massive paintings appear mural-like. Their collaged elements and, at times, rough surface treatment signify the decrepitude of public housing projects and the difficulty of life within them.

Marshall’s Many Mansions, from 1994, exposes the contradiction between the name "Stateway Gardens", and the reality of life there. There is a deceitful cheerfulness permeating the piece, as the landscape is illustrated in full bloom. The exaggeratedly black figures are planting blossoming flowers, the trees are pristinely cut, and everything appears bountiful. But Marshall’s black figures, as Michael Kimmelman notes in his New York Times piece, are "stiff and stylized: almost stereotypes".[11] They epitomize the impoverished black man living in public housing and unlike the landscape that surrounds them, they are not cheerful. One stares condemningly at the viewer, while the other two avert their gaze, all devoid of happiness. The buildings they live in appear as cardboard backdrops, calling attention to the falsity of the situation. Truth is not found in the beautiful utopianism of the scenery or flowers, but rather in the artificiality of the buildings and the stereotypical, damning images of the men who live in them.

The Garden Project is an insightful series of paintings, both in its shrill outcry against the false promises and despairing reality of low-income public housing and in its capacity to show the incredible ability of African Americans to find happiness and build community despite these conditions.

Of his Souvenir series, Souvenir III, finished in 1998, centers on the angel that arbitrates the present with the past. She is an angel of annunciation and the caretaker of the living room’s arrangements.[12][13] However, in creating a new rhetoric of black people in America, he highlights their differences from conventional white power structures. There is a subtlety to the characters that compels the viewer to look deeper: these figures are directly in opposition to the abstraction black artists felt they had to incorporate in order to become mainstream artists. Marshall calls this incorporation of a strong aesthetic and political commentary a "visual authority" that commands the attention of society[7]

Within Souvenir III, the names of prominent black historical figures and the years of their deaths are featured at the top of the mural-sized painting.[12] Thus, the theme of timelessness emerges: the viewer is in the present ruminating on the legacies of figures who are both civil rights champions and African American artists. The paintings reinforce these symbols of remembrance with the phrases "We Mourn Our Loss" and "In Memory Of".

Souvenir IV (1998), likewise set in a middle-class living room based on Marshall’s family’s living quarters, is realism with a touch of the intangible. Through the painting the viewer is traveling to the Civil Rights era and the painting itself is a postcard that also marks the journey. The entire scene echoes Egyptian rituals of supplying the dead in the afterlife with furnishings and food.[13] Souvenir III and IV are done in the grisaille style, an "old-master narrative painting" technique, while Souvenir I and II (1997) are done in color.[13] As one examines the backgrounds of the Souvenir series, the viewer realizes the lushness of the settings even within the monochromatic natures of III and IV. A Marshall hallmark is the stamping repeated through a painting, seen here as angel wings surrounding the black leaders, and floral backgrounds, seen here as glittered ornamentation.[7]

The Souvenir series chronicles the loss dealt to American society from the deaths of leaders in politics, literature, arts, and music.[13]

Personal life[edit]

Marshall was the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" in 1997.[14] He was featured in Season 1 of the PBS art documentary series Art:21 - Art In the Twenty First Century and appears in the segment titled "Identity”.[15]

He is married to the actress Cheryl Lynn Bruce.[16]

Selected Collections[edit]


  1. ^ Worley, Sam (March 29, 2016). "This Modern Master Spent His Life Bringing Black Faces to Classic Art". Chicago magazine. Retrieved May 21, 2016. 
  2. ^ Osborne, Catherine (July 1998). "Kerry James Marshall.". Parachute: Contemporary Art Magazine. 
  3. ^ a b c d Sultan, Terrie. “This is the Way We Live.” Kerry James Marshall. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2000. ISBN 0810935279
  4. ^ Sangster, Gary and Terrie Sultan. Kerry James Marshall: Telling Stories, Selected Paintings. Cleveland: Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art, 1994. ISBN 0614035481.
  5. ^ Reid, Calvin. "Kerry James Marshall", BOMB Magazine Winter 1998. Retrieved June 6, 2012.
  6. ^ "Kerry James Marshall Biography". Chicago, 2001. ArtMakers. The History Makers. November 16, 2009.
  7. ^ a b c Rowell, Charles H., and Kerry James Marshall. "An Interview with Kerry James Marshall", Callaloo 21.1 (1998): 263-72.
  8. ^ "Kerry James Marshall: Mastry | The Metropolitan Museum of Art". Retrieved 2017-03-11. 
  9. ^ "Voyager"
  10. ^ Crouther, Betty J. "The Black Artist and His Image in America 65 Years Ago. (Essay)". Southeastern College Art Conference Review 15.2 (2007): 163+.
  11. ^ Kimmelman, Art in Review
  12. ^ a b Kerry James Marshall, Staff of the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, Richard Powell, Cheryl Harris, Susanne Ghez. Kerry James Marshall: Mementos. Chicago: The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, 2000.
  13. ^ a b c d "Souvenir IV". Loss & Desire: Kerry James Marshall. Ed. Art:21. November 17, 2009.
  14. ^ "Kerry James Marshall". MacArthur Foundation. Retrieved May 21, 2016. 
  15. ^ "Watch — Art21". Art21. Retrieved 2017-08-05. 
  16. ^ Harrison, Lauren R. (February 5, 2010). "Getting to know Cheryl Lynn Bruce". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved May 21, 2016. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

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