The one thing missing from the art of Kerry James Marshall is even a scintilla of compromise. There was no compromise in the decision he made as a young man to paint black subjects exclusively, deliberately shifting the trajectory of Western art history, the portrayal of American life, and, ultimately, the visual narrative that will be viewed in museums by future generations. No compromise in his early disregard for genres like abstraction, which were in vogue when he came of age as an artist, choosing instead to create grand-scale figurative and representational works embedded with meaning. No compromise in the use of color, and in rendering figures whose everyday lives, loves, hopes, dreams and deaths he commemorates with utmost sensitivity, in an unrelenting ebony black. No compromise in creating works that radiate a stunning sense of dignity and beauty.
An innovator and visionary, Marshall is a painter with conviction. He paints with eloquence and compassion about life and love from the point of view of the vibrant black part of American society which conventional art has largely treated as invisible.
Mastry, Marshall’s breathtaking 35-year retrospective organized under the leadership of MOCA curator Helen Molesworth, features nearly 80 paintings. The works are presented chronologically, from the artist’s early self-portraits beginning in 1980, to two recent abstract works from 2015 that leap outside the artist’s customary figurative / representational purview. If it was Marshall’s destiny to become an artist, however, it came about in a serendipitous way. His family left Alabama after the Birmingham riot of 1963, only to relocate to Los Angeles not long before the Watts Rebellion erupted in 1965. Marshall grew up in South Central Los Angeles near the headquarters of the Black Panthers. As a young child, one of his favorite pastimes was looking at the teacher’s scrapbook, offered as a reward for good behavior. “Kerry behaved well in order to sit with this scrapbook. He was a person, at a very young age, [who was] really, really drawn to pictures,” said Molesworth in a preview of the exhibition. Visiting LACMA was his first museum experience. Throughout his school years, teachers encouraged his interest in art. He eventually learned about Charles White, the African-American social realist artist who became Marshall’s teacher at Otis College of Art and Design. That’s where Mastry began.
One gallery features a series of paintings portraying artists in the act of painting their own self-portraits — paintings within paintings — as in Untitled (2009). In this work, an elegant, seated female figure with an elaborate headdress holds a large palette. She faces the viewer, her gaze almost confrontational. In the background, her work-in-progress is an unfinished paint-by-numbers painting, by which Marshall intends to symbolize the conventions of the art world to which he chose not to conform. While he made a calculated point not to let the prevailing system define him or his work, Marshall armed himself with the knowledge and technique to become a superlative painter, attaining mastery — hence the satirized title of the exhibit, Mastry.
Marshall wields this “mastery” to chronicle quotidian scenes as well as events of historic importance in the lives of African Americans, emphasizing the importance of those events to the society at large. His range of themes includes tender depictions of romantic love, as in the painting Could This Be Love, (1992), in which a black couple undresses in a bedroom. In his Garden Series, Marshall documents the disillusioning ruins of the once-utopian dream of public housing projects like Nickerson Gardens, where he grew up. He also memorializes the lives of African American youths killed by violence, as in The Lost Boys (1993). In Souvenir 1, (1997) a female figure with golden wings arranges a vase of flowers on a table. Above, the inscription, “In Memory Of” appears along with commemorative portraits of leaders from the civil rights and black power movements, as well as of the four elementary school girls killed in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Alabama. Mini-portraits of the assassinated heroes Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy appear on the right.
The Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel about an African American man whose color renders him invisible, was a profound influence on Marshall. The artist explored the idea of invisibility in his early work, and has focused ever since on making his subjects enduringly visible in a dramatic and compelling way.
Great art may be made as an act of compassion, a gesture of humanity, or a declaration of love. Marshall appropriated the tools and techniques passed down by the European masters, adapting them to declare his singular vision. In his graceful and sensitive portrayal of the people that inhabit these paintings, he draws the viewer into their worlds, making a profound and indelible impression.