For more than thirty years, Kerry James Marshall has been creating art to inspire important conversations about African American history and identity. His paintings follow the grand traditions of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, but with new narratives in which black people are the central figures. While Marshall initially began his career as an abstract artist, his dramatic shift to figurative painting occurred in the 1980s when he realized that African American artists and subjects were being excluded from major art museums and galleries. Marshall decided he would use the techniques of the Old Masters so revered in those institutions to create a new dialogue, in which black perspectives are given greater visibility within the art history canon.
Working primarily with acrylic paint and collage on canvas, Marshall produces powerful images that reference a rich combination of African American history, religion, music and popular culture. The artist has become best known for his large scale portraits, which feature black figures painted against black backgrounds, exploring the concepts of aesthetics, stereotypes and racial identity within an art-historical context.
“The mode of black figure representation is a clear departure from most popular treatments of the black body,” Marshall recently wrote about his work. “I am trying to establish a phenomenal presence that is unequivocally black and beautiful. It is my conviction that the most instrumental, insurgent paintings for this moment must be of figures, and those figures must be black, unapologetically so.” Marshall cites the artist Charles Wilbert White, the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, and Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man as major influences on his work.
Kerry James Marshall was born in Alabama in 1955 and grew up in Watts, Los Angeles. He studied at the Otis College of Art and Design, where he earned a B.F.A. in 1978, and currently lives and works in Chicago. Marshall’s work is the subject of a major retrospective titled Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, which is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago through September 25, 2016. It will then travel to The Metropolitan Museum of Art (October 25, 2016-January 29, 2017) and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (March 12-July 2, 2017).