Coloring Perception
Kerry James Marshall Thinks the Old Masters Have Room for a New Face: His Own

"You've got to invade the space and occupy it in such a way that you can't be thrown out," Marshall says of his career strategy: commanding the European art tradition and then putting his stamp on it. (Warren Skalski For The Washington Post)

CHICAGO -- Can an artist get much more successful than Kerry James Marshall? Museums everywhere own his work. (The Corcoran was one of his first buyers. And the Baltimore Museum of Art is displaying his "Ladder of Success," a recent purchase.) In 1997, he won the $500,000 MacArthur "genius" award, an ultra-prestigious invitation to Germany's twice-a-decade Documenta show and a place in the Whitney Museum's biennial.

In 2003, a big solo show of Marshall's work toured the country to rave reviews. That same year, he was in the Venice Biennale. By 2007, Marshall had received an unheard-of second invitation to Documenta, where his ghetto-themed conceptual comics may have been the best thing in the 113-artist show. (To showcase his work, The Post offered Marshall a two-page spread in the paper to fill with an original piece. He came up with the unique Washington installment of his comic art viewable in this PDF.)

Success, after success, after success, such as few black artists have ever had. And not nearly good enough. Marshall says that he has yet to measure up to certain of his best-known rivals: "Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael. . . . They represent the core of the historical pantheon of great artists, recognized worldwide. And a big part of my objective is to be listed in the history among those artists."

It's about "a longing to be fully a part of the story of some system you are deeply in love with," says Marshall, no doubt echoing the feelings of a certain other black Chicagoan who has made it big lately. And it's about the certain knowledge that, in art at least, no black person has ever truly reached that goal.

Until quite recently, black people have barely even been the subjects of pictures.

Marshall has set out to correct that imbalance. Some of his pictures portray the living rooms of the black middle class. There are also paintings of street toughs, dead before their time. Marshall has painted inner-city housing projects and black lovers by the sea. He's also worked a bit in installation art, photography, video and even puppetry. But whatever the subject, or the medium, his works balance celebration and critique of black America; it's impossible to come to any simple reading of his pictures' point of view. Marshall may be today's most eloquent artistic chronicler, and most compelling analyst, of the African American experience. His success beyond the black community means that he's also opened mainstream eyes to it.

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In his chaotic studio in a run-down neighborhood on Chicago's South Side, Marshall talks about his own experience as a black American, and as a black artist. He's dressed in khakis and a jean shirt, with reading glasses on a string and his salt-and-pepper hair and beard cropped short. He could pass for a senior academic outfitted for Saturday yardwork. Which isn't that far from the truth: He moved to Chicago in 1987 to work at the University of Illinois, and only stopped teaching earlier this decade. (He also has a large yard behind his tidy house nearby, but the compulsive gardening is done by his wife, the actress and director Cheryl Lynn Bruce. Their answering machine gives a constant update on the state of her flowers.)

Marshall was born in 1955, into a working-class family in Birmingham, Ala. When he was 7 his father got a job in the kitchens of a VA hospital in Los Angeles, moving the family to the rough streets of Watts and then to south-central L.A.

"Watts 1963," from Marshall's series devoted to infamous public-housing projects that incorporate the word "garden" in their names. (Jack Shainman Gallery)

Home -- the whole neighborhood -- was art-free, so Marshall launched his career at the local library: "You learn you can take books out. . . . I just started walking up and down the stacks." By the third and fourth grades he knew "every single art book in the library."

Marshall started copying from the Old Masters -- Michelangelo and Raphael and others. "I saw myself as being one of those guys," he says, and assumed that if only he could acquire what he thought of as their "superpower" skills -- "a magical thing called The Mastery" -- he'd be on his way.

It took Marshall a while to notice that "those guys" almost never portrayed people who looked like him. "I just assumed that when you look at the figures in paintings, they were all white figures -- but you don't think of them as white figures. They're just art figures. . . . You never pick up a how-to book that shows how to draw a black man." That assumption only collapsed in the fifth grade, when a project for what was then called Negro History Week led him to a book called "Great Negroes: Past and Present," and its chapter on Charles White, a black artist who drew and painted African Americans. By then, race consciousness was brewing all around Marshall. He'd watched the Los Angeles riots from up close, "almost like in a movie," and his mom had given him one of the first Afros in his class.

The frustrated ambitions of Black America started to affect his budding ambitions as an artist. "When I picked up books on American art, [White] wasn't in them. Neither was Jacob Lawrence." At that point, he says, "part of my project starts to become to be in the books." He also discovered there was a place you could go to learn how to get into them: art school.

He was already there by seventh grade, with a summer scholarship to Otis Art Institute. "I was the only black kid in the class," he says. Which meant he just about fainted when the teacher brought that class upstairs -- to a space where White happened to have a studio. "I didn't know Charles White was alive." White was in his 50s, and a teacher at Otis. "That was the turning point," Marshall remembers. "Charles White was the Old Master to me. . . . I tried to be Charles White."

Thanks to exhibitions, awards and mentors, and to several years of lousy jobs and scrimping, by 1977 Marshall had enrolled at Otis as an undergraduate. He discovered that, in an art world full of Bruce Nauman videos, the kind of Old Master skills he'd always admired were now considered "antiquated." And he felt, and still feels, that left ambitious black artists out in the cold. "All those people" -- all those white people -- "who were making a break from the past were making a break from a past they had." Black artists, he says, had to prove mastery of the tradition in order to own it, and only then could think about moving on. "The lives of black people, in the U.S., have always been about proving your credentials."

He sees that as the story of his career: proving his ownership of the very grandest European tradition, and then seeing if he can take it somewhere new. He thinks of it in military terms. "You've got to invade the space and occupy it in such a way that you can't be thrown out. The campaign allows you to reach a certain plateau from which you can launch the final assault."

From the start, a big part of that campaign was about making sure that complex, compelling -- and critical -- images of black people would at last make their way into museum spaces, alongside all those closed ranks of whites. "People like painting too much for them not to be able to enjoy the black figure in that space," he says. "It's unacceptable to have 600 years of black-free history," at least as told in works of art.

"Souvenir IV" (Kerry James Marshall)

When Marshall paints the living rooms of the black middle class, he paints big, on the scale of Old Master altarpieces and history paintings. Some of those living rooms have included icons of black victory: over-the-sofa pictures of civil rights heroes such as John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. But these same canvases also hint at consumerist complacency: Everything's too new and tidy in those living rooms. Goods matter too much. Marshall depicts this black experience, but he also questions it.

Other paintings have been about the experience of blacks way down the social ladder. Marshall set one series (it won him his first Documenta gig) in infamous public-housing projects with the word "garden" in their names: Wentworth Gardens in South Side Chicago and Nickerson Gardens in Watts, among others. (He once lived in Nickerson, one of the first housing projects in Los Angeles.) The bucolic tone Marshall put into his pictures clearly has an ironic edge, given what we know about the troubles that such "gardens" ended up breeding. But there's also genuine affection there, and a view of lost potential.

"Lost Boys: 8 Ball" (Kerry James Marshall)

But whatever their subjects, Marshall's deluxe, museum-worthy paintings could present a problem for him: They may come too close to the Old Masters to successfully push back against them. Fred Wilson, an African American of Marshall's generation and a fellow MacArthur "genius," makes art by rearranging museum collections to reveal their blind spots and preconceptions, especially when it comes to race. He says he's been a fan of Marshall's art for years. But he recognizes mainstream success as "a double-edged sword" for Marshall. On the one hand, getting a painting into a museum can get viewers to accept it, and to take time with it. "People of all stripes can see the [racial] references, and not take offense." On the other hand, Wilson points out, when art's too easily consumed, "it can blunt the power of the work."

Marshall's paintings sell awfully well for objects with a radical agenda. "He's kind of recession-proof," says Jack Shainman, Marshall's New York dealer, pointing out that his show last summer pretty much sold out. A large Marshall can sell for about $400,000, but that's not much, compared with the multimillion-dollar works of equivalently successful, and much more prolific, white artists. In 2003, Marshall did a "text painting" that addressed this racial discrepancy: It listed the $5,615,750 record for an object by Jeff Koons, for instance, beside the record for a Martin Puryear that came in at one-seventh that.

Among other black artists, Marshall's success in the white art world, and in its market, produces a "special kind of tension," says Leslie King-Hammond, an artist and writer who is also founding director of the Center for Race and Culture at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. She herself considers Marshall's art "a rapturous, carnivorous bacchanal." But for many other African American artists and viewers, his paintings' complex, seemingly ambivalent take on blackness can be "a bit disconcerting," she says.

Marshall's comic strips may address the problem, if only because they're so clearly not deluxe. They come straight out of a visual culture that's not freighted with the powerful "whiteness" of great art, while still being built around old-fashioned skills that have always mattered in the black community, and that leave no doubt about an artist's "mastery." Comics also have a particularly democratic feel, accessible to viewers of all kinds and colors -- they're the perfect art form, for instance, for printing in the pages of a newspaper. A comic, however subtle and artful, positively gains from leaving the museum wall and ending up in cheap ink on newsprint.

"Monuments for a New America." Click on image for a larger view (PDF). (Kerry James Marshall)

And according to Wilson, popular artistic formats, such as Marshall's comic strips, can get viewers to lower their guard, taking in content they otherwise might not: "You learn something, because you're open."

In Marshall's hands, comic-strip readers take in a strong dose of anti-establishment values -- more, maybe, than in his paintings, and much more directly. His comics' recurring characters (heroes, almost) include hookers on the stroll. Other figures spend all their time sitting in a passenger van, endlessly discussing what goes on outside.

And yet the guiding notion behind Marshall's experimental comics has been that, even against a background of dysfunction, there's room for true black heroism. The superhero in his very first strip, titled "Rhythm Mastr," discovers the power of the gods in a museum's African sculptures (no stranger a premise than the "gamma rays" that belted the Hulk) and uses them to fight his culture's enemies, even when they come from within.

You could bill Marshall's Rhythm Mastr hero as the Nat Turner of the projects: a symbol of resistance that others can take inspiration from. It's not a comforting symbol, of course. Turner was a coldblooded killer, and probably half-mad. Marshall's notion of grafting a memorial to him onto the Washington Monument -- as pictured in the pages that he's done for us -- is clearly meant to be provocative. As King-Hammond says, Marshall's "in a minefield and he [expletive] dives into it."

For Marshall, the issues he's addressing demand strong imagery. He believes that electing a black president is a fine achievement. "But the moment that Nat Turner appears on a postage stamp" he says, "is more of a turning point."

WEB EDITOR: Stephanie Merry -

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