Artists of Black History Month: Kerry James Marshall
In 2018, American painter Kerry James Marshall rewrote art history by reportedly becoming the highest-paid Black American artist. His Past Times painting from 1997 was purchased by rapper Sean Combs or P Diddy for a record-setting USD 21 million at Sotheby’s New York. The event was historic and a long-overdue milestone in Black American art history: The New York Times described Past Times as a “monumental painting by Kerry James Marshall with a narrative centered on Black experiences.”
Who is Kerry James Marshall, and why is his work so significant? Read on.
Kerry James Marshall was born in 1955 in Birmingham, Alabama. He later moved to Los Angeles, California. He is the second of three sons to a postal worker father and a homemaker mother. As a young boy, Marshall watched his father buy and fix broken watches from pawn shops. Marshall’s home in Los Angeles was close to the Black Panther Party’s headquarters, which instilled social responsibility in him at an early age.
In his childhood and adolescence, Marshall was exposed to communal riots and violence relating to the Civil Rights movement. He witnessed the 16th St. Baptist Church bombing (1963) in Birmingham followed by the Watt Riots (1965) in Los Angeles. He was also actively involved in the Black Panther movement during his college days. The episodes of civil unrest triggered him to render powerful, stirring images with thought-provoking themes.
Marshall started to draw under the guidance of Social Realist painter Charles White while in high school. At the start of his career, he created small abstract paintings and collages, some of which were displayed in 1985 at the Koplin Gallery in Los Angeles. In 1999, he created his own comic book series, Rythm Mastr, as an ode to superheroes. He also worked as a production designer on Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust in 1991 alongside his partner Cheryl Lynn Bruce.
Marshall is best known for his paintings of Black figures on large-scale canvases. His subjects have dense, ultra-dark skin. Marshall sets his subjects amid domestic settings mainly representing working-class Black Americans. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man deeply influenced the artist. Ellison’s book highlighted social and intellectual issues faced by Black Americans in the early 20th century.
“Ralph Ellison’s book presented me with an idea that struck me as being really meaningful and worth exploring, the way in which a thing could be two things at once — the condition of simultaneously being present and absent in the world, but not as a phenomenal condition,” Marshall once remarked.
One of his early paintings features a Black man dressed in a black suit on black background. Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self, created by Marshall in 1980, shows a nearly invisible subject showing the whites of his eyes, his gap-toothed smile, and a bit of white undershirt.
One defining feature of Marshall’s work is that he does not use any white paint when painting the color of his character’s skin. Instead, he uses three different shades of black paint, such as mars black, carbon black, and ivory black to render his character’s skin.
Another pivotal painting by Marshall is De Style, which portrays five figures set in a barbershop. Painted in 1993, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art bought the stunning piece at $12,000 in the same year. It was Marshall’s first sale to a major museum. His works were featured in the Venice Biennale (2003 and 2015), Documenta (1997 and 2007), and Carnegie International (1999 and 2018). In 1997, he was awarded a MacArthur Grant.
“He’s an electric and dynamic thinker who’s also had an enormous influence on those of us who use abstraction and more conceptual approaches. There are two artists without whom I probably would not have become one—David Hammons and Kerry James Marshall,” said Rashid Johnson, an American artist. Marshall, now 67, currently lives and works in Chicago, Illinois.
February is Black History Month in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere. This article is part of a series featuring notable Black artists of the past and present. Check out our profile of modern painter Robert Colescott.
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