The Genius of Blackness

Kerry James Marshall: Mastry

an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, April 23–September 25, 2016; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, October 25, 2016–January 29, 2017; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, March 12–July 2, 2017
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Helen Molesworth
Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago/Skira Rizzoli, 280 pp., $65.00
Kerry James Marshall: School of Beauty, School of Culture, 107 7/8 x 157 7/8 inches, 2012
Birmingham Museum of Art/Sean Pathasema
Kerry James Marshall: School of Beauty, School of Culture, 107 7/8 x 157 7/8 inches, 2012

Two things hit the viewer pretty soon into the Met Breuer’s exhibition of Kerry James Marshall’s beautiful work: figure after figure in his canvases is black, really black, so much so that that blackness becomes his signature. But Marshall’s black people are not Kara Walker’s haunting silhouettes, questioning presences stepping through the scrim of history. The blackness he gives his subjects is luminous, vibrant, and dense.

Secondly, the viewer notes references to other painters, to the history of painting itself. The traditions of Western art are Marshall’s to draw on at will, like everything else in his clearly formidable visual memory. Not for him the struggle of many twentieth-century black American artists who believed that they had to reconcile what they considered contradictory African and European aesthetics. That cultural conflict has passed over; and if anything Marshall’s work is an expression of this artistic freedom.

Kerry James Marshall was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1955. His family moved to the Watts section of Los Angeles in 1963. In a 2012 interview with Dieter Roelstraete, included in the monograph Kerry James Marshall: Painting and Other Stuff (2014), Marshall said he was struck by the difference in the light as well as the smog. A teacher gave him drawing lessons; he also paid attention to a drawing program on television. He began to collect images that intrigued him. His obsession with the heroic figures in Marvel Comics coincided with his first visit to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where he saw in person, so to speak, some of what he had only known through books. He seems entirely self-motivated in his quest for understanding how art is made. In Marshall’s telling, finding art books was his secret life away from being a happy guy hanging out with his older brother.

While in high school, Marshall copied various artists’ work from books as a way of studying how they arrived at their individual styles, including the drawings of the black artist Charles White, who was on the faculty of the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. Marshall graduated from Otis in 1978, but had started there by seeking out White, sneaking into his life drawing class. White as a youth had inserted himself into an Art Institute of Chicago class that met outdoors. Marshall remembers that White looked at his sketchbook and then moved him to the front of his class where he could see better.

Marshall has said that he recognized that he wanted to make art that was about something: “History, culture, politics, social issues.” But he knew he did not yet have the skills. He moved into abstraction in…

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