Kerry James Marshall

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Kerry James Marshall
Born (1955-10-17) October 17, 1955 (age 64)
Alma materOtis College of Art and Design
Spouse(s)Cheryl Lynn Bruce

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. An exhibition of his work, Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, was assembled by the Museum of Contemporary Art in 2016.[2]

Early Life[edit]

Kerry James Marshall grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and then later in Los Angeles, California. He is the son of a hospital kitchen worker and a homemaker. His father's hobby was buying broken watches that he'd pick up in pawn shops for a song, figure out how to fix them with the help of books he'd find used, and resell them. Marshall was able to learn to deconstruct items that we saw as rarefied and complex to make it his own. His home in Los Angeles was near the Black Panthers’ headquarters which left him with a feeling of social responsibility and influenced directly into his artwork.[3].

His time spent in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, California where the Black Power and Civil Rights movements had a significant impact on his paintings.[4] 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, specifically black men with separate and distinct inner and outer appearances. At the same time, they confront racial stereotypes within contemporary American society.[5] This common theme appeared continuously in his work throughout the subsequent decades, especially in the 1980s and 1990s and still appears in his most recent works.

He is married to the actress Cheryl Lynn Bruce.[6] They met while Bruce was working at the Studio Museum in Harlem and Marshall was beginning his art residency there. [7]


In high school Marshall began figure drawing under the mentor-ship of Charles White that continued on into Marshall's college career..[8] Marshall stated that during the years of his training, White "became as much as a friend as a mentor; I kept in touch with his family, even after his death."[9] When he went on to earn his B.F.A. from Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, he worked to "not have a representational image or a specific story to tell," over abstraction.[10] However, Marshall works to find a balance to retain political content relevant to the Civil Right Movement, the Watts Race Riots, and contemporary African-American experiences.

He received an honorary doctorate at the Otis Art Institute. He used to be an art professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago, and he was a recipient of the prestigious McArthur Foundation Fellowship. [11]

Social Views/Themes[edit]

Marshall is known for large-scale paintings, sculptures, and other objects that take African-American life and history as their subject matter. 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.[12]

Marshall believes art is that the gears of historical and institutional power in Western art resided primarily in painting. When Kerry James Marshall studied at Otis, he was fascinated by the work of Bill Traylor, the self-taught artist who was born into slavery in Alabama, which inspired him to create more artwork relating to old-timey, grinning racial trope [13].

Marshall is one of the members of the contemporary artists of color such as Howardena Pindell, Charlene Teters, and Fred Wilson who often incorporated the issue of race into their work. His work is steeped in black history and black popular culture embracing blackness as a signifier of difference to critically address the marginalization of blacks in the visual sphere, utilizing a wide range of styles.[14] His artworks are identity-based, specifically, he made black aesthetic to be visible and brought black aesthetic into the fold of the grand narrative of art. Using his own words, he uses blackness to amplify the difference as an oppositional force, both aesthetically and philosophically. One such “black” issue Marshall takes up is that of beauty. He stated that since most figures in advertising are white, he wanted to produce images of black bodies to "offset the impression that beauty is synonymous with whiteness"[9] “Black is beautiful” was one of the Black Arts movement’s slogans to counter the prevailing view that it was inherently unattractive. Marshall directly appropriates the slogan in some of his works by utilizing language.[15] Along with "Black is beautiful" , he wanted to create an epic narrative in his paintings in the "grand manner".[9] His focus was to create new works of art that were not apart of the western art-historical tradition.

Most of Marshall’s painting engages allegory and symbolism. Most of his work’s subject matter relates to the iniquities of colonial regimes.[16].Marshall is best known for his richly designed large acrylic paintings on unstretched canvas. His works combined rough-hewn realism with elements of collage, signage, with lively and highly patterned settings. His images often suggest populist banners. Viewers often will see ornate texts and figures looking directly into them. Some of his works often are under-represented black middle class and many employ pictorial strategies. His artworks are closely related to the Black Arts movement. Through exploring the theme of being black in America, Marshall’s work also explores race in context with the “Civil Rights Movement, Black Power Movement, housing projects, black beauty, and the political and social invisibility of blacks”. Marshall’s work was heavily influenced by his upbringing in Alabama in the 1950s and LA in the 1960s. His works were always based on the experience of being black in America during these time periods.

Marshall created comic strips, such as Rhythm Mastr which was a story of an African American teenager who gained superpowers through African sculptures using drum patterns. Marshall was concerned with the lack of African American heroes kids could look up to while growing up. He was one of the many African American artists who tried to incorporate themes of race and being black into his works. 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. Oftentimes Marshall’s works were perceived to be full of emotion portraying what it was like being an Urban African American, displaying middle-class African American homes and families. Other projects of Marshall's, namely The Garden Project and Souvenir, demonstrate the issues of race in America from the 1960s and 1970s and onward. The Garden Project also critiques the glorified names of housing projects that conceal desperate poverty[17] while the Lost Boys series examines young black men "lost in the ghetto, lost in public housing, lost in joblessness, and lost in literacy."[18] Marshall's work is dynamic and consistently relevant, especially to the problem of finding an identity.

Marshall reflected, “Under Charles White’s influence I always knew that I wanted to make work that was about something: history, culture, politics, social issues. … It was just a matter of mastering the skills to actually do it.”


Untitled (Supermodel) by Kerry James Marshall, 1994, Honolulu Museum of Art
Vignette #2, 2008. Acrylic on Plexiglas displayed at Chicago Art Institute.

Marshall based several of his pieces in the early 1990s on actual events in American history. One such painting, Voyager,[19] 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".[20] 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.[20] 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. Untitled (Supermodel), in the collection of the Honolulu Museum of Art, portrays a black woman trying to look like blond Caucasian models. The work also references self-portraits of the artist, who adorns himself with pale lipstick and a long blond wig.[21]

One of his most famous series of works The Lost Boys (1993-1995) displays the lives of and issues many African Americans faced. The series of portraits was of young African American boys from the shoulder up, with very dark skin tones, which contrasted with extreme whiteness of the subject's eyes which was common in Marshall’s works. The portraits also featured almost completely white imagery, with white orbs, flowers, and areas in the background to create even more contrast. The artist explained that this series of portraits was to show these young boys loss of innocence at an early age and being a victim to ghettos and public housing.[22]

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.[20] 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.[23] 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.

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. Through this series, 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".[24] 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 Souvenir series chronicles the loss dealt to American society from the deaths of leaders in politics, literature, arts, and music.[25] 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.[26][25] 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[27] 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.[26] 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.[25] 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.[25] 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.[27]

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.[28] In October 2016, the retrospective traveled to the Met Breuer in New York City.

In 2017, Marshall was commissioned by the non-profit, Murals of Acceptance to produce a public mural entitled “Rush More”. Located on the west façade of the Chicago Cultural Center, the piece was intended to be an homage to woman who have contributed to the culture of Chicago[29].

In 2018, two of Marshall's large masterpieces came to public attention in a clash between public art, and commerce. In May, Past Times (1997) was sold by the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority to Sean Combs for a $21 million funding windfall to the public agency, after hanging in McCormick Place for many years. Past Times had played an important role during its loan to the 2016 museum exhibition. In October, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced plans to upgrade the Legler Branch of the Chicago Public Library on the West Side. The upgrade would be financed by the auction of the library's Knowledge and Wonder (1995). After criticism, including from Marshall, the Mayor cancelled the auction.[30][31]

Awards and Appearances[edit]

Marshall was the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" in 1997.[32]

In 2017, he was awarded the Fifth Star Award by the City of Chicago.[33]

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".[34]

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. ^ "MCA – Exhibitions: Kerry James Marshall: Mastry". Retrieved December 13, 2017.
  3. ^ "Kerry James Marshall, Boldly Repainting Art History"
  4. ^ Osborne, Catherine (July 1998). "Kerry James Marshall". Parachute: Contemporary Art Magazine. Archived from the original on September 11, 2016.
  5. ^ Sultan, Terrie. "This is the Way We Live." Kerry James Marshall. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2000. ISBN 0810935279
  6. ^ Harrison, Lauren R. (February 5, 2010). "Getting to know Cheryl Lynn Bruce". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved May 21, 2016.
  7. ^ REPORTER, Lauren R. Harrison, TRIBUNE. "Getting to know Cheryl Lynn Bruce". Retrieved 2020-03-07.
  8. ^ Raverty, Dennis (2010). "Marshall, Kerry James | Grove Art". doi:10.1093/gao/9781884446054.article.T2088486. Retrieved 2020-02-13.
  9. ^ a b c Marshall, Kerry James, Nav Haq, Okwui Enwezor, Dieter Roelstraete, and Sofie Vermeiren. 2014. Kerry James Marshall: painting and other stuff.
  10. ^ Sangster, Gary and Terrie Sultan. Kerry James Marshall: Telling Stories, Selected Paintings. Cleveland: Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art, 1994. ISBN 0614035481.
  11. ^ Whitehead, Jessie L. (2009). "Invisibility of Blackness: Visual Responses of Kerry James Marshall". Art Education. 62 (2): 33–39. doi:10.1080/00043125.2009.11519010. JSTOR 27696328.
  12. ^ Reid, Calvin. "Kerry James Marshall", BOMB Magazine Winter 1998. Retrieved June 6, 2012.
  13. ^ "Kerry James Marshall, Boldly Repainting Art History"
  14. ^ Kerry james marshall. (2017, Summer). Tate etc., 20. Retrieved from
  15. ^ "Kerry James Marshall"
  16. ^ "Kerry James Marshall: Mastry', the met Breuer, new york"
  17. ^ "Kerry James Marshall Biography". Chicago, 2001. ArtMakers. The History Makers. November 16, 2009.
  18. ^ Rowell, Charles H., and Kerry James Marshall. "An Interview with Kerry James Marshall" Archived 2016-05-08 at the Wayback Machine, Callaloo 21.1 (1998): 263–72.
  19. ^ "Voyager". Archived from the original on 2009-10-15. Retrieved 2009-12-10.
  20. ^ a b c Sultan, Terrie. "This is the Way We Live." Kerry James Marshall. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2000. ISBN 0810935279
  21. ^ Knight, Christopher, "Kerry James Marshall's Paintings Insist on Black Self-representation", Los Angeles Times, March 20, 2017
  22. ^ Whitehead, "Invisibility of Blackness: Visual Responses of Kerry James Marshall", Art Education, Vol. 62, No. 2 (March 2009), pp. 33–39.
  23. ^ Crouther, Betty J. "The Black Artist and His Image in America 65 Years Ago. (Essay)". Southeastern College Art Conference Review 15.2 (2007): 163+.
  24. ^ Kimmelman, Art in Review
  25. ^ a b c d "Souvenir IV". Loss & Desire: Kerry James Marshall. Ed. Art:21. November 17, 2009.
  26. ^ 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.
  27. ^ a b Rowell, Charles H., and Kerry James Marshall. "An Interview with Kerry James Marshall" Archived 2016-05-08 at the Wayback Machine, Callaloo 21.1 (1998): 263–72.
  28. ^ "Kerry James Marshall: Mastry | The Metropolitan Museum of Art". Retrieved March 11, 2017.
  29. ^ Johnson, Steve. "Giant mural by Kerry James Marshall honors Chicago women of culture". Retrieved April 18, 2019.
  30. ^ Johnson, Steve. "Chicago reverses course on planned auction of Kerry James Marshall painting". Retrieved November 7, 2018.
  31. ^ Deb, Sopan (November 5, 2018). "Chicago Pulls Kerry James Marshall Painting From Auction Following Criticism". The New York Times. Retrieved November 7, 2018.
  32. ^ "Kerry James Marshall". MacArthur Foundation. Retrieved May 21, 2016.
  33. ^ "Kerry James Marshall Mural at the Chicago Cultural Center". Retrieved December 12, 2017.
  34. ^ "Watch — Art21". Art21. Retrieved August 5, 2017.
  35. ^ "Collection Search Results: Kerry James Marshall". National Gallery of Art. Retrieved 18 December 2019.

Further reading[edit]

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