No one’s going to let you into the art world. This is a reality that Kerry James Marshall ('78 Fine Arts), one of America’s most esteemed painters, whose numerous accolades will be burnished this year with a major retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago (MCA Chicago) that later travels to the new Met Breuer in New York and MOCA in Los Angeles, knows well. “You can wait for somebody to let you get in the door,” he says, “or you can assume your place among equals and put yourself in the world too, and put yourself in the stories that you want to see told.”
Marshall’s large-scale, colorful paintings of dignified, hyper-black figures depicted in commonplace settings—a barber shop, a backyard party, or the housing projects in Chicago’s South Side, where he has lived and worked in the Bronzeville neighborhood since 1987—place ordinary figures in the world, too. And that generosity extends to Marshall’s persona in the real world. “He’s the kind of person that will engage with someone no matter who you are in the world,” says the artist and art historian Raél Salley of his close friend Marshall. “And that kind of openness requires a certain disposition—a certain kind of orientation to the universe—that this is a friendly universe.”
Yet to characterize Marshall as a poster child for African-American art is a disservice to the project of someone who has plumbed the depths of blackness and beauty, a long-neglected artistic subject, using the tools of Old Master painting, for nearly 40 years. “You don’t have much of a history of black people trying to represent themselves as an ideal, or representing themselves with a kind of ordinary grace,” he says, “where a person isn’t standing in for some sort of political symbol, but is simply elegant because they’re there. And still it’s a beautiful picture and that’s all it is.”
Marshall’s paintings of superblack figures, which hang alongside Old Masters in museum collections across the U.S., do just that. They command their environments with a calm gravitas, but also an iconoclastic quality: audiences may not be used to feeling a sense of awe in front of pictures of people with this skin tone, this blacker-than-black countenance. “He’s making us face our racial prejudice,” says artist Hank Willis Thomas, who claims Marshall as a major influence on his practice, “and daring us to look at these black figures and see them as not beautiful, not having originality and complexity. He’s calling our bluff.”
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Image: Kerry James Marshall’s Bronzeville studio. Photo by Peter Hoffman for Artsy.
Kerry James Marshall's ('78 Fine Arts) first retrospective exhibition, “KJM: Mastry,” which has opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago (Current – Sept. 25, 2016), will 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). Coverage of the exhibition has also been included in Interview Magazine, Architectural Digest, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Magazine, and more.