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Kerry James Marshall - Biography and Legacy

African-American Painter

Born: October 17, 1955 - Birmingham, Alabama

Biography of Kerry James Marshall


Kerry James Marshall was born a son of the contemporary Black American experience. He was birthed in Alabama, the second of three sons to a homemaker mother and postal worker father, who later toted the family to the Watts area of Los Angeles. Growing up in the Southern California neighborhood that was notoriously near the headquarters of the activist Black Panthers as well as the location of 1965's infamous and violent riots charged Marshall's consciousness early with a sense that his life as a black man would always be rife with the concerns of social justice.

Living in Watts, California, at the time of the 1965 Watts riots, was a powerful early experience that led Marshall to take up contemporary Black issues in his art.

His pathway would not become actively antagonistic or politically charged though. For Marshall, activism would materialize through the medium of art. From a very young age, he was attracted to the idea of becoming an artist. In elementary school, he enjoyed assisting his teachers with holiday decorations and participating in student exhibitions. He also learned a great deal from the television program John Nagy's Learn to Draw, and notes that "Nagy was interested in more than just superficial forms of representation. [...] He showed me how to build forms, not just copy forms. Watching that program was the foundation for my search for the formal foundations of making art."

Education and Early Training

Bill Traylor, <i>Man on White, Woman on Red / Man with Black Dog</i> (1939-1942). Marshall first encountered the art of former slave Bill Traylor while studying at the Otis College of Art and Design in the late 1970s.

While still in high school, at the age of fourteen, Marshall began taking summer classes at Otis College of Art and Design. Particularly influential were his painting class with Sam Clayberger, and his figure drawing class with social realist artist Charles White, who intimidated Marshall at first, but then, "became as much as a friend as a mentor."

After graduating from high school, Marshall continued his studies at Otis, earning a B.F.A. in 1978.

It was during college that he became enamored with the work of Bill Traylor, a self-taught artist born into slavery in Alabama in the mid-nineteenth century. Traylor was known for drawing depictions of his own life on cardboard pizza boxes or any other medium he could find as a homeless man in the various dumpsters of his environment. When discovered, these pieces delivered a very real testament to the Black experience that had been altogether ignored in the history books. This was an important turning point for Marshall as a young artist, as he began to see the importance of placing his own life into the collective consciousness at large, one that had been largely ignored by the domineering white populace whose artistic narratives featured themselves, and themselves only.

Marshall had also become highly disillusioned with the American political system, a structure he viewed as formed of hypocrisy and confusion. He had registered as an Independent when he reached legal voting age but hadn't realized this meant he was limited to party lines. It was a wake up call that led him to lose faith in the electoral system.

A combination of personal apathy toward the powers that be, a personal history with being young and black in the United States, and the sparks of artistic impulse would all start to foment in the young man.

This creative energy building within the young artist was further stoked, both intellectually and artistically, by his engagement with others at Otis. Says Marshall, "One of the most amazing things about being at Otis, and hanging out in Charles White's classes in particular, was in the evenings when they took their breaks, the lunch wagon would come and everybody would retire to the student lounge and have these round table discussions about philosophical and historical and political issues. I felt so out of place because I was so young. I couldn't contribute to the conversation, but I wanted to more than anything. I thought, 'If I want to be an artist too, I've got to be able to do that. I've got to know something!'"

After graduating from Otis, Marshall participated in the residency program at the Studio Museum in Harlem, on the recommendation of African-American artist Allison Saar. He says, "I had this idea that you had to go to New York at some point. [...] There were a lot of people from the Brockman Gallery scene who had left LA and gone to New York - the Brockman Gallery was one of the first black-owned galleries in LA. But coming to New York, being at the Studio Museum, was an introduction to the black New York arts scene."

This emergence into the thriving Black arts scene and the fact that systemic racism was still lying beneath the covers of consciousness in the United States would propel Marshall's desire to depict Black existence in ways that hadn't been seen prior.

He has said, that "The work of African-American artists has for a long time been seen more as a kind of social phenomena instead of aesthetic phenomena. The social implications of the work - be it identity politics and things like that - seem to be privileged in terms of the way the work is received, as opposed to any kind of aesthetic project or intervention the work might be organized around."

Everywhere he looked, his specific experience was missing from painted documentation, so he sought out ways to represent this while lending his own insight to the mix. Even though his work had been largely construed of abstracts in the past, he boldly cemented his new mission to force blackness and contemporary Black existence into the fine art lexicon, when he painted Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self in 1980. It would become an introduction to Marshall's world full of signature characters, unapologetically presented in various shades of black, inserted into narratives that expressed and reflected Black life.

"Black people occupy a space, even mundane spaces, in the most fascinating ways," he explained. "Style is such an integral part of what black people do that just walking is not a simple thing. You've got to walk with style. You've got to talk with a certain rhythm; you've got to do things with some flair. And so in the paintings I try to enact that same tendency toward the theatrical that seems to be so integral a part of the black cultural body."

Mature Period

Marshall at the Museo de la Fundación Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona, in 2014.

In 1987, Marshall moved to Chicago with his bride-to-be, playwright, director, and actress Cheryl Lynn Bruce (who had been working at the Studio Museum while Marshall did his residency). The move to Chicago was challenging at first, as he had no connections in the city other than his new in-laws. During his first two years there, he lived solo in a six-by-nine foot room at the YMCA, where he worked on small paintings, prints, and collages. Upon marrying in 1989, the couple moved to an apartment in Hyde Park, where Marshall was able to paint on a larger scale.

Marshall travelling down the Tenryu River during a 2008 visit to Japan.

After receiving an NEA grant, Marshall was able to rent a studio, the same space he uses today. In 1993, he began teaching in the school of Art and Design at the University of Illinois at Chicago, a position he retained until 2006. In 1997, he received a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation "genius grant." In 1999, he was awarded an honorary doctorate degree from Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. In 2013, he was on of seven new appointees selected for the Committee on the Arts and the Humanities by President Obama.

The Legacy of Kerry James Marshall

Kerry James Marshall, <i>Blind Ambition</i>, 1990.

Along with other Contemporary artists of color, including Howardena Pindell, Charlene Teters, and Fred Wilson, Kerry James Marshall has catapulted to the forefront issues of race and Black representation in his painting. By depicting Black bodies, he has sought to "offset the impression that beauty is synonymous with whiteness," or, that historical documentation of the American experience is exclusively delegated to whites. By bringing his identity-based work into conversation with Western art history more broadly, Marshall has challenged that historical invisibility and absence of the Black figure from fine art discourse and from the space of the museum.

Marshall's influence can be seen in the work of younger Black artists, such as Kara Walker, who, like Marshall, exaggerates the degree of blackness used to paint her figures. Marshall's mastery of representational and figurative painting serves to bestow his Black figures with a beauty and dignity they have long been denied, a project later taken up by American artist Kehinde Wiley, who similarly references the old masters in his paintings and portraits of contemporary Black individuals. Marshall has set out a challenge for current and future generations of Black artists, that is, to try "to find a place for themselves in an aesthetic regime or aesthetic system, and a history that did not include them as participants in the formulation of its authorizing idea."

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Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols

"Kerry James Marshall Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols
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First published on 04 Mar 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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