MCA Unveils Exhibit “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry” - Making Blackness Visible

This is one of several works that Marshall created to create a place for people in African-American history. Here, Nat Turner with the head of his master. Kerry James Marshall, Portrait of Nat Turner with the Head of his Master, 2011. Private collection, courtesy of Segalot, New York. Photo: Bruce M. White, 2015 © MCA Chicago


Near the end of the walk-around tour of his body of art created over the past 35 years, Kerry James Marshall made a comment that seemed to sum up his view of what brought him to this moment, “..When you go to art school you sign on to be part of that history…”


Marshall explained that his painting (behind him) "School of Beauty, School of Culture" (2012) does show a Chicago salon. He commented that it speaks to how the Black idea of beauty is haunted by the blond icon. Photo: Peter Kachergis


Now 60 years old, Marshall does rightfully claim his part in art’s conversation about what it is to be human.  Arguably, more than any other living artist, Marshall—whose explorations in artistic mediums of photography, painting, murals, and collages is gathered in this show --says to Western Art’s body politic “We are black, and we ARE present.”


Portraits of scouts are framed as superhero comics. Kerry James Marshall, Scout (Boy), 1995. Acrylic and mixed media on canvas mounted on board; 34 ½ × 34 ½ in. (87.6 × 87.6 cm). Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, gift of the Susan and Lewis Manilow Collection of Chicago Artists, 2003.28


 In the grand scheme of things—or at least within the narrower band called the history of Western art—it hasn’t been that long since his seminal work, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self” (1980), in which Marshall made a break from the abstract painting of his art schooling to devote himself to depicting Black people in his work.  This is the first image you see in this retrospective, soon followed by one titled “Invisible Man”, referencing the impact Ralph Ellison’s novel had on Marshall’s work.


From these initial works the rooms of the show roughly group Marshall’s works by chronology.  


Marshall makes Chicago his home and many of his paintings depict the city, like this landscape view outside his studio. Kerry James Marshall, 7am Sunday Morning, 2003. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Joseph and Jory Shapiro Fund by exchange. Photo: Michal Raz-Russo, © MCA Chicago


We see Marshall’s reach to perfect the many techniques of visual expression that he has mastered.  The show’s subtitle, “..Mastry”, is both a reference to Marshall’s technical explorations (e.g. “.. I never mix black pigment with any other..Black is simple..”) and the slavery antecedent to African-American experience.


Marshall said that his favorite room in the exhibit included this and other paintings showing love and an Afro-American normative. Kerry James Marshall, Untitled, 2008. Private collection, courtesy Segalot, New York. © Kerry James Marshall. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York


The opening tour had both the advantage and disadvantage of having the real live  Kerry James Marshall as our tour guide.  “Advantage” in that he shared so many personal reflections on what each work meant to him, that we got a deep look in a short time on how his personal life’s imprimatur is seen in his work.


Even if it hadn't been announced that Harriet Tubman would now be on the $20 bill, Marshall's portrayal of Harriet Tubman that he is standing before would nonetheless have been a favorite piece. Marshall explains that he is showing her wedding portrait in hopes of making her, and similar historic figures, real. He wanted to give her back her feminity, explaining she was a woman that a man asked to marry. Photo: Peter Kachergis


The “disadvantage”, if you can call it that, was that Marshall—so likable, so personable, intelligent, approachable, and down-to-earth—was on display as well, drawing us in so far, that at times we almost forgot to look at his work.  This is one artist you would most definitely put on the short list of people with whom you wouldn’t mind being stranded on the proverbial desert island.


This painting is one that Marshall commented, "I felt that I had arrived with this work, on all levels. It's scale complexity and also that it is part of the Los Angeles Art Museum, which on school trips had set my ambition...(to be an artist). Kerry James Marshall, Untitled, 2008. Private collection, courtesy Segalot, New York. © Kerry James Marshall. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York


When our opening tour got to Marshall’s 1993 wall-sized acrylic and collage “De Style”, he explained that this is the one where he felt that he had arrived as an artist,  and especially because it was purchased by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the place that first inspired his artistic ambitions when he was encountering art for the first time on a school trip visit.   


Kerry James Marshall, School of Beauty, School of Culture, 2012. Collection of the Birmingham Museum of Art; Museum purchase with funds provided by Elizabeth (Bibby) Smith, the Collectors Circle for Contemporary Art, Jane Comer, the Sankofa Society, and general acquisition funds. Photo: Sean Pathasema


Across from it was another favorite, “School of Beauty, School of Culture” (2012), also a Chicago location, this one including the blond icon image in a Black beauty context that Marshall also lampoons in his “Self-Portrait of the Artist as a Super Model” (1994). 


Kerry explained that his work is not about depicting events impacting African-Americans, but in exploring the psychological context. Kerry James Marshall, Souvenir I, 1997. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Bernice and Kenneth Newberger Fund. © 1997 Kerry James Marshall. Photo: Joe Ziolkowski, © MCA Chicago


Another view of domesticity and love in an African-American normative. Kerry James Marshall, Slow Dance, 1992–93. Lent by The David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago; Purchase, Smart Family Fund Foundation for Contemporary Art, and Paul and Miriam Kirkley Fund for Acquisitions. Photo © 2015, courtesy of The David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago


Marshall points out how so many of his works depict what is really normative in the African-American experience:  boy scouts and girl scouts depicted like the superhero characters in the comic books of his youth; scenes of African-Amercian romance and domesticity; and especially the Garden series showing the LA housing projects of the sixties. 


Marshall is seen here with the opening tour group seeing the first ever collection/exhibit of all his Garden series paintings together. Photo: Peter Kachergis


This exhibit is actually the first time all of Marshall’s Garden series have been brought together in entirety.  Marshall shared, “The Watts Nicholson Projects is an autobiographical reference for me.  These were idyllic places to be—people wanted to be in the Projects.  My father had been a GI and so we got preference.  You got to rent lawn mowers from the Projects to cut the grass in front of your house. It was the kids who got to do it….They even had toy libraries where you could checkout toys.”


Kerry James Marshall, The Lost Boys, 1993. Collection of Rick Hunting and Jolanda Hunting. Photo: Dominique Provost, © MCA Chicago


This opening tour was such a rich narrative for all of us who fit the rubric of “everyman”.  Art historians who visit this exhibit will no doubt delight in Marshalls’s ever present references in each work to the masterpieces that have defined Western Art.  For the rest of us, there is just so much depth to enjoy in what Marshall has chosen to depict and how he does it.   For sure, this is an exhibit worth visiting many times.


From Chicago, this exhibit will move to New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (October 25, 2016 through January 29, 2017) and then to the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles (March 12 – July 2, 2017).  


You can now catch it in Chicago until September 25, 2016. 


Museum of Contemporary Art

220 East Chicago Avenue

Chicago, IL


For more information call 312-280-2660 or visit the MCA website.





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