Kerry James Marshall, Black America and the Western Canon

Kerry James Marshall, born 1955, American


An exhibition at the Metropolitan, New York, in the autumn/winter of 2016,  of 75 of the paintings and photographs of Kerry James Marshall painted over the last 35 years.  Large lit drawings on glass of his comic strip, Mastry, were also on display.


The artist, an African American, was born in Birmingham, Alabama.

He moved with his family to Watts, Los Angeles when he was 8.  It was at the height of the Black Panther and civil rights movements.

He has said that his introduction to art was a visit when he was 10 to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art where he looked at everything.  He was further encouraged on a visit to the studio of Charles White , the foremost African-American artist of his day and committed to social activism.

He was the first of his family to attend college where, still in Los Angeles, he studied art.  He has lived his mature adult life in Chicago. 


In the matter of art, the artist is an autodidact.

He taught himself the Western and the African ritual traditions.  The Met has included 20 or 30 works of art of great interest to this artist from its own collection.  

He has said that he wished to work within the Western tradition. He wants to represent his people and his community as part of this tradition.  Quite aware – how could he not be? – of the almost total exclusion of his people from this tradition, he is not criticizing it.  He is expanding it.


He depicts historical and mythological figures  as though they were black.  Also historical and mythological events.  He depicts the life of members of this community as he has seen it lived.  He depicts it as some would like to live it.  He memorializes actual events in African American history.


His work inevitably also points up the confounding vileness of North American racism and the tangled consequences of dealing with it day after day. 

Painful dissonances which the painstaking work of this artist shows and which makes this work both poignant and vibrant.


The artist’s work shows also how assimilative is the Western tradition.  He does not shun it or parts of it because of its subject matter.  He reuses its techniques – the historical tableau, landscape, genre painting, and portraiture – to the ends of his inclusion of his community in the Western tradition.



The  many-tentacled Western tradition which- despite frequent transgression and servility to the distortions of the powers that be,  contains the tools to unshackle us from the constraints of our history so that larger and larger numbers of us can move to greater autonomy and  individual freedom and to spiritual maturity.

A promise which this artist has taken up for himself, pointing the way for others looking and wanting.





One of two floors of the Met Breuer building showing the artist’s work, many of which are in large, unframed format.



There are only black people in the artist’s tableaux and they are one shade of black:  very dark.   The artist has said that black is black.  His work is not about the history and politics of the shades of the country’s black (and white) population.


In many of the artist’s paintings, there are identical or similar elements:  internal organs of the human body which, of course, are neither ‘white’ nor ‘black’. 


Also there are often houses with no windows.


Also areas of white paint covering words or symbols, often rectangles and sometimes areas of irregular shapes.


Sometimes these overwashes introduce a sense of menace and always the idea of disconnection, dysfunction, dissonance, unreadability, in the environment of the painting.  In the world of the people he presents.


Sometimes the word(s) is legible as in the painting immediately below of the false promises of the consumer life. 


Also lines, cream or white, which lead nowhere and end in ’empty’ space on the canvas.  More of the idea of disconnection:  things and people sharing the same environment but without full connection to it or to other people.







Great America, and details, 1994, acrylic and collage on canvas.  National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC




 Untitled (Studio), 2014, acrylic on PVC panels.

The artist describes a visit to the studio of the painter, Charles White, 1918-1979,     between his seventh and eighth grades.  There was laid out the physical and human context which allowed him to understand that he, too, could become an artist.




 Invisible Man, 1986, acrylic on canvas

From Ralph Ellison, 1952:   I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.



A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of his Former Self, 1980, egg tempera on paper. 

In other words, a painting of a black man’s feeling about being looked at in a white world.  What people see is not a man but a pigmentation, blackness.

  The artist was 25 when he painted this.  He was looking, he said, from then on, to find how the view by another of a black man could be changed.

From Ralph Ellison, 1952:   I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.



Silence is Golden, 1986, acrylic on panel

From Ralph Ellison, 1952:   I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.



Two Invisible Men (The Lost Portraits), 1985, acrylic on board

From Ralph Ellison, 1952:   I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.




Self-portrait of the Artist as a Supermodel, 1994, acrylic and collage on board





(Untitled) Mirror Girl, and detail, 2007, PVC on Panel









De Style, and details, 1993, acrylic and collage on canvas.

An important work for the artist in terms of both content and style, this is a tableau of a barber’s shop, a place of community, socialization, news, self-transformation in the African American community.

The name of the painting refers both to an actual shop, Percy’s House of Style, and the Dutch modern art movement, De Stijl whose emphases on red, yellow and blue and a rectilinear grid are reflected here.









School of Beauty, School of Culture, and details, 2012

A Snow Beauty – a kind of memento mori -is examined by a child but is totally ignored by the adults in this tableau.  It has lost its symbolic significance.  The artist has included himself in the front center.  A hair salon where nobody is concerned with anything going on elsewhere.







Beauty Examined, 1993, acrylic and collage on canvas.

Standards of beauty are racialized and unrealistic.  Blush for a black woman?  Very rare to see a black woman blushing.



Voyager, 1992, acrylic, collage and glass on canvas.  Corcoran Collection of the National Gallery of Art

In 1858, The Wanderer, a luxury yacht constructed in New York but retrofitted as a slave ship by Southern plantation owners, arrived at Jekyll Island, Georgia carrying 409 enslaved West Africans.  4 attempts to prosecute the ships owners were unsuccessful even though this importation violated The Slave Importation Act of 1807.

This painting is about the pain of that passage and the ancestry of the slaves in that yacht.




Vignette, and detail, 2003, acrylic on fiberglass.  Adam and Eve are escaping the Garden of Eden.



Portrait of Nat Turner with the head of his master, 2011, acrylic on PVC panel. 

Nat Turner raised a revolt in 1831 which resulted in the deaths of 60 white Americans and the liberation of a number of slaves.

The Met refers us to any number of paintings of Judith and Holofernes and David and Goliath.



 Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, and detail, 2009, acrylic on PVC panels





The Lost Boys, and details, 1993, acrylic and collage on canvas.

An important work for the artist in terms both of content and style, this painting mourns the deaths of young African Americans.  The dates are the dates of the young boys’ death.

  By 1993, many African American and white communities had slid into a desperate poverty after years of job loss and governmental neglect.  The killings are still going on more than 25 years later as is, again, the joblessness and poverty.



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Untitled (Policeman), 2015, synthetic polymer paint on PVC panel with plexi frame.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY





 So This is What You Want?  1992, acrylic and collage on canvas.




Campfire Girls, and detail, 1995, acrylic and collage on canvas. 

Girls in girlish activity in the midst of a bucolic landscape with reminders wrapped around the pole of the many kinds of legal covenants used to disenfranchise American Blacks. 




Untitled (Altgeld Gardens), 1995, acrylic and collage on canvas




Bang, 1994, acrylic and collage on canvas.

The persistence of a people trying to live ‘normative’ lives.  But there is often that bang, sometimes gunfire and sometimes not.






Our Town, and details, 1995, acrylic and collage on canvas.

Children being children despite a bleak and hostile environment.  But they are determined.



Better Homes, Better Gardens, 1994, acrylic and collage on canvas.



 Untitled (Club Couple), 2014, acrylic on PVC panel.



Untitled (Painter), 2008, acrylic on PVC



Untitled, 2009, acrylic on PVC panel



 Self Portrait with Two Pupils, 1785, oil on canvas.  Adelaide Labille Guiard, 1749-1803, French.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY




Untitled (Painter), 2010, acrylic on PVC



Portrait of a Curator (In Memory of Beryl Wright), 2009, acrylic on PVC



Still Life with Wedding Portrait, 2015, acrylic on PVC.  A portrait of Harriet Tubman on the occasion of her marriage with her first husband






Could This Be Love, 1992, acrylic and collage on canvas




Untitled (Vignette) , 2012, acrylic and glitter on PVC panel.



dsc00033 Gulf Stream, 2003, acrylic and glitter on canvas







Memento #5, 2003, acrylic, collage, silkscreen and glitter on canvas








Souvenir 1, and details, 1997, acrylic, collage, silkscreen, and glitter on canvas. 

This tableau memorializes people killed in the fight for civil rights.  It also recalls those who keep these memories alive.



Untitled (Blot), 2014, acrylic on PVC panel. 

Using the colours of the Pan-African movement, the artist has blown up an ink blot of the kind developed for Rorschach tests. The artist’s point is that abstraction is not accidental, or universal or color-blind.

2 thoughts on “Kerry James Marshall, Black America and the Western Canon

  1. Très beaux tableaux.
    Je ne connaissais pas cet artiste, il est vrai que les artistes noirs et surtout les activistes sont peu montrés en Europe.
    Merci de me l’avoir fait découvrir.

  2. It is difficult for us, too, to see an artist like this: not white, not young, and not a New Yorker! But I am glad this was of interest to you. It is helping us keep on going into a new year so unexpected!

    Best wishes, Sarah

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