Kerry James Marshall: A Master’s Work on View by Sierra Dixon

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Kerry James Marshall: “Untitled” (Studio) 2014

Kerry James Marshall (b. 1955) has a story to tell, and he has chosen oil and canvas, acrylic and print as his media to tell it. A living artist born in Birmingham, Alabama, Marshall has earned a reputation for blending distinctly African American figures and experiences with Western iconography, pop culture and European art symbols. He was the 1997 recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship “genius grant”, has taught at the University of Illinois’ Chicago School of Art and Design, Los Angeles City College, and Los Angeles Southwest College.

Such an example is the mural-sized Untitled (2009), depicting a female painter holding a massive paintbrush and easel. Her seated pose and monumental scale are much like a Renaissance sitter (recall the seated subjects of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel paintings), and amongst the vibrant colors surrounding her, the painter’s skin is a velvety bluish black. Viewing this more than life-sized painting up close was truly an experience.

Mr. Marshall’s thirty-five career was recently the subject of his largest museum retrospective to date, at the Met Breuer in New York City. Kerry James Marshall: Mastry is an apt title for an inspirational and thought-provoking artist. His work includes portraiture, landscapes, genre painting, with subject matter to readdress the stereotypes of African Americans in the United States.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of his Former Self (1980) is a striking depiction of a man, grinning from ear-to-ear with a floppy hat adorning his head. One can’t tell where the background ends and his skin begins. The man could not only illustrate the artist, but also serve as a reflection of African Americans over time – as servants, vaudevillians, minstrel performers, and the like- and the precursor to all that we are now- directors, writers, photographers, educators, doctors, and more. A provoking similarity might be found in Portrait of the Artist & a Vacuum (1981); using the “self-portrait” of 1980 as a focal point, this work employs a known symbol of domestication (via the vacuum) in the immediate foreground. The seemingly staid arrangement of the acrylic painting is energized by the rich use of yellow and burnt orange.

Black Artist (Studio View) (2002) continues Marshall’s theme of contemplation, in which the artist (seated and reclined), looks upon his workspace in surveyance. The cool, calming blue hue that canvasses the inkjet print echoes that emotion.

Marshall’s Met Breuer retrospective included many impassioned genre paintings, including Bang (1994), showing children pledging allegiance to a country that many not consider them as one with everyone else; and Past Times (1997), illustrating vignettes of African Americans playing golf, picnicking, playing croquette, and yachting while waterskiing. This riveting exhibition is a must see for those interested in the exhibit’s next run, and if you’re inclined, also features an exhibition catalog for further study. Kerry James Marshall: Mastry just finished showcasing at the Met Breuer (945 Madison Avenue, New York), where it was on view from October 25, 2016 – January 29, 2017.


Sierra Dixon has written for Connecticut History Review and YourPublicMedia (now WNPR), writing on art, photography, dance, film, and entertainment. She holds a B.A. in Art History from the University of Hartford, and currently works as a Research and Collections Associate at the Connecticut Historical Society.