Kerry James Marshall

Kerry James Marshall was born in 1955 in Birmingham, Alabama, and was educated at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, from which he received a BFA, and an honorary doctorate (1999).

The subject matter of his paintings, installations, and public projects is often drawn from African American popular culture, and is rooted in the geography of his upbringing: “You can’t be born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1955 and grow up in South Central [Los Angeles] near the Black Panthers headquarters, and not feel like you’ve got some kind of social responsibility. You can’t move to Watts in 1963 and not speak about it. That determined a lot of where my work was going to go,” says Marshall.

In his Souvenir series of paintings and sculptures, he pays tribute to the civil rights movement with mammoth printing stamps featuring bold slogans of the era (“Black Power!”) and paintings of middle-class living rooms, where ordinary African-American citizens have become angels tending to a domestic order populated by the ghosts of Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and other heroes of the 1960s. In RYTHM MASTR, Marshall creates a comic book for the twenty-first century, pitting ancient African sculptures come to life against a cyberspace elite that risks losing touch with traditional culture.

Marshall’s work is based on a broad range of art-historical references, from Renaissance painting to black folk art, from El Greco to Charles White. A striking aspect of Marshall’s paintings is the emphatically black skin tone of his figures—a development the artist says emerged from an investigation into the invisibility of Black people in America and the unnecessarily negative connotations associated with darkness. Marshall believes, “You still have to earn your audience’s attention every time you make something.” The sheer beauty of his work speaks to an art that is simultaneously formally rigorous and socially engaged. Marshall lives and works in Chicago.

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A weekly digest of things to watch, read, and hear from the comforts of your home, selected by Art21-featured artists and Art21 staff.

Teaching with Contemporary Art

Teaching with Community

Art21 Educator Miranda Best shares a playlist of films that informed her unit on “Community,” inspiring student’s artwork and representing the strength and significance of group bonds.

Deep Focus

Family Business

Lucia Hierro recites her path to becoming an artist. From investigating the cultural histories not available in art history to vindicating a career in the fine arts to her family, Hierro explains how she came to bring Carribean iconography into the forefront in her work.

Teaching with Contemporary Art

Who Am I, in Color?

Educator-in-Residence Jocelyn Salaz lays out the elements of her unit on color, in which students make their own paints, study color theory, and investigate the implications of skin tone.

Interview

“Black Romantic” & The Mythology of the Artist

Kerry James Marshall discusses the importance of debunking myths about being an artist, and his 2008 exhibition Black Romantic at Jack Shainman Gallery.

Interview

Portraiture & Representation

Kerry James Marshall discusses the complexities of representational work, and how he sees his portraits existing outside of time.

Interview

“Vignettes”

Kerry James Marshall discusses his relationship to museums during the installation of the exhibition Black Romantic at Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, which features five paintings from the artist’s Vignettes (2003-07) series.

Interview

Correcting the Canon

Speaking with Art21 in 2014 on the occasion of Prospect 3 in New Orleans, Kerry James Marshall describes his drive to change perceptions of beauty and representation by centralizing the Black figure in his work.

Interview

“Many Mansions”

Kerry James Marshall talks about the inspiration for his 1994 painting “Many Mansions,” acquired by the Art Institute of Chicago for its permanent collection.

Interview

“Rythm Mastr”

Kerry James Marshall discusses his comic book series “Rythm Mastr,” which places black superheroes within the pages of comics—a place that had previously only been occupied by white characters.

“We only move into the 21st century on the foundation of things that have been established long, long ago.”

Kerry James Marshall