In many ways, Chicago-based artist Kerry James Marshall ('78 Fine Arts) has depicted the African American experience on canvas much as playwright August Wilson chronicled it for the theater. And beginning this spring, Marshall’s work will be seen in its first retrospective exhibition, “KJM: Mastry,” which will open at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago (April 23 – Sept. 25, 2016), move on to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (Oct. 25, 2016 – Jan. 29, 2017), and finally be on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles (March 21 – July 2, 2017).
Considered one of America’s greatest living painters, Marshall (who lives in Bronzeville with his wife, actress Cheryl Lynn Bruce) has worked at capturing the African-American experience for more than three decades, creating large-scale interiors, landscapes, and portraits that suggest narratives of African-American history from slave ships to contemporary culture. In the process, he has drawn on his deep knowledge of art history – from the Renaissance to 20th-century abstraction, making such additional sources as the comic book and the muralist tradition part of the mix. The result is a wide range of intimate scenes of black middle-class life, painted in vibrant color and with detailed patterning.
“KJM: Mastry,” co-organized by the three museums, is co-curated by Dieter Roelstraete, a member of the curatorial team of Documenta 14 and former Manilow senior curator at the MCA Chicago; Helen Molesworth, chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and Ian Alteveer, assistant curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The exhibition, which will include about 70 works, will focus on Marshall’s paintings – from his seminal statement in “Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self” (1980), to his most recent explorations of African-American history. Organized in broadly chronological order, the exhibition will consider the dominant themes in his work: History painting, landscape, portraiture, the nude, religion, and abstraction. A selection of drawings, and works of related media such as photography, video, and sculpture, also will be on view.
Marshall was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1955, before the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and moved to Los Angeles with his family in 1963, two years before the Watts riots in 1965.
The exhibition begins with the artist’s earliest drawings, made in Los Angeles while studying at Otis College of Art and Design under the legendary social realist painter Charles White. There, he learned the language of portraiture, a pictorial tradition that White believed could uplift race through aspirational images. However, in the wake of the Watts riots, and the general breakdown of urban life in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Marshall focused on “an examination of the historical absence, or ‘invisibility’ of the black figure in the tradition of painting.”
To accompany his exhibition at the MCA, Marshall also has been commissioned to create a special wall project for the second-floor atrium of the museum. Vividly colored and printed on vinyl, this 38-foot mural, titled “Happy Revolution Day,” features characters from Marshall’s comic book-inspired Rythm Mastr project.
A comprehensive monograph on Marshall’s oeuvre accompanies this major traveling retrospective, published by Skira Rizzoli and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.