An Artist’s History: Kerry James Marshall
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KERRY JAMES MARSHALL: This is a three-step process.
JEFFREY BROWN: Just days before the opening of a major exhibition of his work, the artist Kerry James Marshall was still polishing part of a sculpture with the appropriate word “perseverance.”
CHERYL LYNN BRUCE: It’s shining like new money.
JEFFREY BROWN: With his wife, Cheryl Lynn Bruce, working at his side, Marshall had stayed up all night in his Southside Chicago studio. Then it was time for the movers to do their work. Days later at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Marshall was still making adjustments as his exhibition of sculpture, large paintings, photographs, and video was installed.
The “perseverance” block became part of a piece called “Ladder of Success.” Marshall calls the exhibition “One True Thing: Meditations on Black Esthetics.” It’s a continuation of his long exploration of African Americans in history, art, and everyday life.
JEFFREY BROWN: So it’s important to you to include what’s happening around you in your neighborhood, in your work?
KERRY JAMES MARSHALL: Yeah, I always do. I mean, it’s what I know best. It’s what I see every day.
JEFFREY BROWN: At 48, Kerry James Marshall is an artist who thinks big and asks a lot of questions.
KERRY JAMES MARSHALL: Why are we making this work in the first place and what do we want to get from it, you know, and why do we expect people to look at it? Why do we expect people to say anything about it?
JEFFREY BROWN: So what’s the answer to that? Why are you making things?
KERRY JAMES MARSHALL: I make things that I think wouldn’t get made if I didn’t make them, and that I think people need to see them. I think they’re things that people need to think about.
JEFFREY BROWN: Marshall is a professor at the University of Illinois Chicago, and he won a Macarthur “Genius” award in 1997. He calls himself a “compulsive image collector,” and the evidence is everywhere in his studio. Sometimes his collectibles end up in his work, like a shelf full of books on African history in the painting “Sob, Sob.” History, in fact, is Marshall’s obsession.
KERRY JAMES MARSHALL: You have to be interested in history because the narrative of history is a competitive event. And people who don’t make it into history somehow don’t really exist. And so I’m interested in history because I think histories need to be established. By extension, in art history, black people or African Americans have not been a factor in the way that I would like to see black people a factor in the history of art.
JEFFREY BROWN: From the beginning, his art explored what he calls the “idea of blackness.” In the 1980s, a series of paintings called “invisible men” after the famous novel by Ralph Ellison. In the ’90s, “The Lost Boys,” a “Peter Pan” name for young people in Marshall’s neighborhood who were victims of gang shootings. And “The Garden Project,” a series of large paintings of life in public housing in L.A. and Chicago. Marshall grew up in public housing, first in Birmingham, Alabama, and then Los Angeles.
He portrayed himself with his two siblings in a work called “Watts, 1963.” The heroic stature and technical skill involved in these and other paintings, Marshall says, is something he learned from studying the works of past masters, like the 19th century French painters Delacroix and Ingres.
KERRY JAMES MARSHALL: A friend of mine told me once those painters were the drive-in movies of their day. Because they really were a spectacle. And trying to match that kind of authority in scale and technical virtuosity is something that’s really difficult for an artist to try and do today.
But I thought I would take aspects of that work, because I have a deep interest in African American culture, to try and find a way to represent that culture so that it sort of came up to the level of, or matched, the kind of intensity of, the kind of authority that those paintings by Delacroix and Ingres and those artists had.
JEFFREY BROWN: In the new exhibition, Marshall’s dialogue with art and history continues in a wide variety of styles. Sometimes he takes a playful approach. In “backyard party” he wants to invoke the image of impressionist paintings like Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party.”
KERRY JAMES MARSHALL: Impressionism is the most popular genre of painting in the entire world probably. So with this painting there’s the garden party– the group of women out in the backyard– and it’s clearly in an urban environment. But they’re all Asian, African American or Hispanic. These are people who enjoy impressionism, like everybody else does, but in classical impressionist paintings were not represented there.
JEFFREY BROWN: In other works, the interaction with history is much more raw. In “Heirlooms and Accessories,” Marshall has taken a famous photograph of whites cheerfully attending a lynching and isolated three women who turned to look at the camera.
KERRY JAMES MARSHALL: This piece was sort of a reminder that these people are accessories to a crime in the first place, and that the heirlooms and the things that their offspring inherited from them were inherited from them because they were engaged in this kind of violence.
JEFFREY BROWN: In a 10-by-18-foot painting called “7 A.M. Sunday morning,” Marshall paints the actual street corner that is outside his studio. But in the painting only half of the scene is real; the other half a kind of dream of what might exist on what is now a vacant lot.
KERRY JAMES MARSHALL: It suggests a possibility, something that might be imagined on that location.
JEFFREY BROWN: An optical chart painting asks, “Are you Colorblind?” And plays the French philosopher Foucault against the hip-hop brand Fubu. At the same time, Marshall’s work is always also about being an artist today, particularly a black artist.
KERRY JAMES MARSHALL: Winning in this game is establishing an idea or pattern that changes the way other people are able to do things after that or think about things after that. That’s what winning is to me. And there aren’t a lot of black people winning at that game.
JEFFREY BROWN: What’s so interesting to me is that your strategy for winning, as you put it, is an obsession with craft and with history. I wrote down a quote where you said, “My obsession with artists like Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael is I needed to know what makes their art so grand and how I could get there.”
KERRY JAMES MARSHALL: If I was going to play basketball in the NBA, I wouldn’t want to be the– what?– The ninth man on the bench. I mean, you don’t aspire to being on the bench really. I mean, you aspire to be a starter, you know, and not only a starter, but you aspire to be the greatest point guard ever that walked on a court. I mean, if people can aspire to that kind of thing in other, in all kinds of fields, what’s… why don’t people accept that as a notion in the art world?
JEFFREY BROWN: So even for people who don’t know much about art, or don’t see much art, what do you want them to see in your work?
KERRY JAMES MARSHALL: I want them to see that this is not an accident. It isn’t something that just sort of happened. This is something that somebody made happen. And then you can start thinking about why they decided to make it that way, and that’s what being engaged with artwork, for me, is about.
JEFFREY BROWN: Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary art first offered Kerry James Marshall a mid- career retrospective of his earlier work. It was Marshall who chose to create an exhibition of new work instead, looking forward, not back.
MARGARET WARNER: The Marshall exhibit moves to Miami in February. It will also visit Baltimore, New York, and Birmingham, Ala.