Tradition and Conscience: Painter Kerry James Marshall’s Colorful Narratives

By Daniel Garrett

Identity: Kerry James Marshall
Directed by Catherine Tatge
Art: 21
(Art in the Twenty-first Century)
PBS, 2001

Kerry James Marshall is an artist of formal ambition—he is very much aware of the great European painting tradition, of the appeal and monumentality of African sculpture, and of African-American artists of distinction, informed, challenged, inspired by them; and Kerry James Marshall is also an artist of social conscience, shaped by his own (Birmingham) Alabama birth and South Central Los Angeles childhood in the mid-1950s through the 1960s. Kerry James Marshall’s work is accessible and attractive, and I was lucky to attend a screening of a short documentary of his work in the auditorium of the central branch of the Queens Borough Public Library in New York. (A week before I had completed a four-week basic drawing course organized by the gallery staff there, the same staff that organized the Marshall screening and talk.) The documentary, directed by Catherine Tatge, was part of the “Art in the Twenty-first Century” (“Art: 21”) television series featured on the Virginia-based, non-profit media company Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), a service owned by 354 public television stations around the United States. The Kerry James Marshall documentary was a chapter in the year 2001 “Art: 21” series that focused on several themes: place, spirituality, identity, and consumption; and gave attention to artists such as Richard Serra, John Feodorov, Maya Lin, Louise Bourgeois, and Matthew Barney. The Queens library educators at the Marshall event were two young women, and one (Maria) provided the in-person introduction, mentioning Kerry James Marshall’s 1955 birth in Alabama, his family’s move to Los Angeles in 1963, the race riots of the 1960s, and Marshall’s studies at the Otis Art Institute, where he would earn a B.A. and from which he would get an honorary doctorate. She said that African-American experience and also geography, or place, were important subjects for Marshall, who now lives in Chicago and is affiliated with the University of Illinois.

The documentary opens on Steve Martin, sitting near what looks like a house window, through which is glimpsed a lawn (Martin says it’s his house, but the segment, reportedly, was created on a sound stage); and Martin describes himself as not only an actor and comedian, but a man of many interests and activities, including an interest in art, a declaration that encourages us to think about identity and what it consists of, whether it is complex or simple, permanent or temporary. (Martin’s commentary is a collaboration with William Wegman, famous for his photographs of dogs.) Steve Martin has playing cards in his hand, while he refers to notions of identity: which cards are to be played? In one instance, Martin is replaced by a dog in a suit, and in another a male “puppeteer” or “spirit” leaves his body and Martin loses animation. We see a Seurat painting. Kerry James Marshall is introduced talking: We build on established foundations, he says, and the same principles are observed now in art that were observed in the past. Kerry Marshall walks through a museum. He is an attractively ordinary-looking African-American man, seeming tall, solidly built, affable. We see a classic western religious painting, of a holy woman in ascension, in the air.

We see Kerry James Marshall’s “Many Mansions” (1995), and we are told—and can see—that his work does have a classical structure. (We see an identifiable reality, and the implication of story.) “Many Mansions” is a large work, featuring three respectable African-American men doing work on a lawn in front of a housing project; and one thinks of personal dignity and communal purpose. History paintings and grand narratives have intrigued Marshall, who admires Giotto and Gericault, among others; and Marshall wanted his work to participate in that tradition, with a difference, and says his work has been well-received though there has been controversy over his black figures. Kerry Marshall thinks colors are beautiful and powerful—and his black figures are very black. Marshall says that he wanted to reclaim the power of blackness. His work is often large. His first (1980) painting was a picture of an artist as a shadow of his former self, an interesting idea, whether it suggests a shadow self or the changeability of the self, as art often is self-reflection as much as self-confrontation and self-transcendence. We see some of Marshall’s other painted images: a man with a hatchet; a boy on a bike, with a girl and dog both running near him. Kerry Marshall says that whatever medium, whether film, video, or other material he uses, he is working with or against established pictorial principles. Marshall is not trying to reinvent art from the ground up, nor is he exploring an African-American aesthetic that excludes the known human world.

Kerry James Marshall accepts tradition, but offers it certain new ideas and images. In a book review published in African Arts (Winter, 2001) by SUNY-Old Westbury art professor Catherine Bernard that considers the book Kerry James Marshall (Abrams, 2000), a book with contributions by Marshall, Terrie Sultan, and Arthur Jafa, Catherine Bernard says the book documents and expresses Marshall’s love of painting, high regard for historical research, and passion for myriad forms of culture; and that in Marshall’s foreword to the book, Marshall calls beauty “an understanding of the relationship between the parts,” a definition Bernard finds inherited from the European Renaissance. Bernard offers these insights, gleaned from Terrie Sultan’s essay: “Past events are never evoked with nostalgia, but reveal the tension with the present, a dynamic integral to the paintings. History is posited as a shifting paradigm, a perspective that allows the artist to constantly revise his own approach to art making. The history of art, for example, is seen as a collection of ideas and concepts from which one is free to borrow and which can be transformed.”

(Speaking of artistic mediums: at the screening I attended, the documentary seemed well-made: organized, logical, warm in feeling, informative about the artist’s biography and general career development. However, the images we were looking at had been transferred from one medium to another—apparently from videotape to digital video disk—and so the images were not always pristine.)

In the documentary on Kerry James Marshall, Marshall says that when we see paintings of houses and of interiors, there are expectations, and questioning of expectations, of what will appear in those places. After seeing one of his models of a house, in which a light—blue?—seems to have been placed inside, and his drawn and painted images of houses, we are introduced to some of his women acquaintances, presumably relatives, one of whom Marshall has portrayed as a superhero. Marshall’s home visit leads to a childhood memory: one of his teachers had a folder of images—pictures, cards, other things—that she showed only to well-behaved, well-performing students, and one day Kerry Marshall was one of those students, and seeing those images was an epiphany for him: he was dazzled and knew he wanted to make images. Kerry Marshall, as a boy, was introduced to the black-and-white images of African-American artist Charles White,Images of Dignity: we see these images, of deep and dignified people. “Amazing,” Marshall says of the work of the artist, Charles White (1918-1979), whom Marshall was able to visit when White worked at the Otis Art Institute—with Marshall able to observe Charles White’s process and how difficult it could be to achieve the transformation of work from ugly to beautiful. (Like Marshall, Charles White had come to art as a boy; and White studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Art Students League, and, while at New Orleans’s Dillard University, White married Elizabeth Catlett.) Kerry James Marshall still relishes getting a perception of difficult process and savors for that reason unfinished work.

Kerry Marshall describes a Carnegie comic strip project he is involved with, in which he is using the imagery of African sculpture for the creation of active, heroic figures, a way of giving spirit to tradition and continuing tradition into the future. The African sculptures we see do not have the kind of supple form and suggested mobility of Greek statuary, something Marshall remarks upon. Marshall liked comic strips as a boy, and for him, his African comic strip project is partly a return to childhood. Marshall’s desire to present heroes invested with African culture and relevant to African-American and American situations is consistent with what the Otis Art Institute’s alumni internet site, perused in February 2007, referred to as his penchant for “idealized allegory.” (Following a 1998 Brooklyn Museum exhibit of Marshall’s work, much of which focused on the American civil rights movement, Holland Cotter concluded a review—which acknowledged the tone of Marshall’s work, “sentimental and tough, mixing affection and reproach”—in The New York Times, October 2, 1998, with a comment about Marshall’s “militant citizens claiming a place in the mainstream but sustaining a revolution within. It’s a difficult position to negotiate, but a powerful one, and it seems to form the foundation for much of this challenging artist’s work.” The next year, April 9, 1999, Grace Glueck would complain in the same paper about a Jack Shainman gallery exhibit in New York that showed a large Marshall woodcut in twelve panels focused on black men without obvious political implications: she found the intimacy of the six men shown ambiguous but dull. Grace Glueck did not seem to register that what Marshall wanted in the work was to imagine black male freedom. That may be the fault of perception: how many people, drenched in the social expectations of conflict between and from black men, could fail to find friendship and love between them desirable, poignant, rare, and that their treatment as a subject in art has aesthetic and social value?)

Following the screening of the Kerry James Marshall documentary in the Queens Borough Public Library auditorium, we see slides projected by one of the gallery staff (Sarah) of Kerry James Marshall’s work, some of which were featured in the documentary. We see some of the garden series of “Many Mansions,” and in one, as mentioned, there are three well-dressed black men (white shirts, with black ties and pants) working in a garden before large buildings, involved in a communal project. It is a picture full of shapes and colors, with forms pointing in different directions. We see “Watts 1963,” featuring an image of children—three kids on the lawn, with blue birds flying and carrying ribbons, and a large yellow sun in a bright blue sky. The lecturers remark on how affirmative the imagery is. (I wondered about some whitish forms behind the children—they might have been flowers; they might have been skeletons, ghosts.) It is a largely pleasant image.

The Queens library gallery staff encouraged viewers to notice the art, to look at it and share observations: comments were made about cultural and political history, about the social conflicts and hopes of the 1960s, about the value of popular figures, such as civil rights leaders and famous singers, about the transformation of iconographic and ideological content in art, about how much information these pictures seem to hold. I noted that the negative imagery surrounding African-Americans was one reason for the pursuit of positive imagery; and another man said that the very blackness of the figures affirmed a beauty that had been denied—an affirmation that was aesthetic and political. (In a February 2005 article, “Art of a Native Son,” in the Birmingham Weekly Phillip Ratliff writes that Marshall works encourage conversations for viewers and that “the conversations take place mostly inside their heads.” Ratliff also notes, “The subject of black aesthetics is multifaceted: it comprises a panoply of competing modes and styles.”)

Another painting, another slide: “Our Town” features suburbs, and seems idealistic, and depicts children, birds carrying ribbons, and a large sun. This is the picture of the boy on a bike, trailed by a girl and a dog. There are yellow ribbons around trees. (One of the gallery educators will note that the painting was done in 1995, at the time of the Desert Storm military conflict. It was the habit of some American citizens to put yellow ribbons on trees as a memento for the fighting troops.) I asked then about the faces in Marshall’s work, so black that individuality seemed compromised: is that an affirmation of universality, a denial of individuality, or a return to stereotype? I was told that Marshall was conscious of these interpretive possibilities.

In Kerry James Marshall’s “Souvenir III,” there is featured a well-appointed living room—with paintings and African sculpture in the room—and a woman on a couch. There are faces atop the painting—faces of artists and of victims of violence and others, and a large scroll with names on the face of the painting to the left of the seated figure. The scroll has names of musicians such as Sam Cooke, dead musicians, and there is a legend at the foot of the painting—“we mourn the loss.” (Is the loss only that of the dead, of exemplary figures who died too soon, and others whose potential was not ever fulfilled? Or is the loss—in light of the presence of African cultural artifacts—an older one, a loss of ancestral place?) One of the educators drew our attention to the seated figure, who I had thought of as a mother figure: it turns out she has wings, is an angel.

It had been a rather simple program: a documentary, some slides, a conversation, all part of the library’s February 2007 African-American history program, but the program has introduced, or reintroduced, us to an artist of our time, a young master (there was some questioning and quibbling about the 52-year old artist’s age near the end of the program). I wondered about Kerry James Marshall’s place in the art world (I had seen his work several years ago at the New Museum in New York), and I was reassured by library gallery staff that Marshall was respected, that there was excitement surrounding his work. I have since learned that Kerry James Marshall’s work has been shown at the Camden Arts Centre, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the San Francisco Museum of Art, and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. Marshall, who has described the blues—profane, complex, accessible, beautiful—as being something of the aesthetic and philosophical equivalent of what he is after, was recognized in the late 1990s with a MacArthur Foundation grant. When Marshall’s work appeared in Britain, Abigail Dunn wrote in the Commission for Racial Equality’s Catalyst magazine (October 13, 2006), that Marshall’s “Lost Boys” series, inspired by Marshall’s brother’s imprisonment, featured “dispossessed and disenfranchised young black men lost in a ghoulish world between childhood and adulthood.” Marshall expands consciousness and vision by sharing a reality that not all know. It is an irony that many of the kind of boys he depicted in the series are not likely to see Marshall’s work; and if they did, would they understand it? Dunn adds, “Marshall’s Lost Boys are not able to recognize the limitations of their world.” We are lucky that Kerry James Marshall is capable of such recognitions; and that he values transformation.

In the basic drawing course I took, we were encouraged to look, to consider form, contour, gesture, marks, unoccupied space, shading, the illusion of depth, and proportion, the elements that go into making and understanding a composition. What artists give us are not only things to look at, but also ways of looking. I have reservations about some of the fantastical aspects of Kerry James Marshall’s work—the men doing dirty work in dress clothes, birds carrying ribbons, angels—but I appreciate his inscriptions of history and social texture—the civil rights movement, the popular musicians, the lost boys—and I imagine both inclinations express cultural hunger, spiritual need, and the imagination’s attempt to redeem and resolve. Kerry James Marshall, who brings together individual effort and communal mission, tradition and contemporary creativity, is a maker of visions.

Daniel Garrett, a New York resident, is a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the founder of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, and his work has appeared in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, The Compulsive Reader, Film International, Offscreen, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today.


Information about the PBS documentary on Kerry James Marshall can be accessed via the PBS web site: