Kerry James Marshall is internationally known for large-scale paintings, sculptures, and other objects that take African- American life and history as their subject matter. Marshall’s art is a complex and compelling one that synthesizes a wide range of pictorial traditions to counter stereotypical representations of black people in society and reassert the place of the black figure within the canon of Western painting.
Drawn from African-American popular culture, the subject matter of his paintings, installations, and public art projects is rooted in the geography of his upbringing.
Marshall remarked: “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.”
His works are based on a broad range of art-historical references, from Renaissance painting to black folk art, from El Greco to Charles Wilbert White. A striking aspect of his paintings is the emphatically black skin tone of his figures, a development the artist says emerged from an investigation into the invisibility of blacks 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’s work has been presented in solo exhibitions internationally, most recently at the Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen, Belgium, where a major European retrospective debuted in 2013. It then traveled to the Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Denmark; the Antoni Tapies Foundation, Barcelona; and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid. In 2010, an exhibition focusing on the artist’s representations of the transatlantic slave trade was on view at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Other important exhibitions of Marshall’s work were held at the Secession, Vienna; Vancouver Art Gallery; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio; Camden Arts Centre, London; and The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago. His work has also been included in numerous group exhibitions, including All the World’s Futures at the Central Pavilion of the 2015 Venice Biennale.
In 2014, Marshall was the recipient of the Wolfgang Hahn Prize, an award given annually by the Gesellschaft für Moderne Kunst at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne. In 2013, he was one of seven new appointees named to President Barack Obama’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. His other prestigious awards include a 1997 “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation and a 1991 fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
The artist’s works are held by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Art Institute of Chicago; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; among many others.
Commissioned by Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundation, a major public art project called “A Monumental Journey” was dedicated on 12 July 2018 in Des Moines, Iowa.
Marshall was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1955 and grew up in Los Angeles. He holds a BFA (1978) and honorary doctorate (1999) from the Otis College of Art and Design. Marshall works in Chicago, where he has lived since the late 1980s.
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