Kerry James Marshall: Pictorial Record of a People



Kerry James Marshall, born 1955, American



A first retrospective exhibition at the Metropolitan, New York, was organized for the autumn/winter of 2016: 

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.





O Freedom, 1956, charcoal with crayon, erasing, stumping, and wash on ivory illustration board, and detail. 

Charles White, 1918-1979, American. Private collection on loan to MOMA, NY in 2018



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.









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 were laid out the physical and human context which allowed him to understand that he, too, could become an artist.




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

Including these two:




Grape Wine, 1966, tempera on Masonite. 

Andrew Wyeth, 1917-2009, American.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY .

A portrait of a drifter, Willard Snowden, who lived in Wyeth’s Pennsylvanian studio for many years and often greeted visitors with a glass of wine.  The background of the painting is a ruby red.





Odalisque in Grisaille, 1824-1834, oil on canvas. 

Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres and Workshop.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 

Of interest to this artist because this image exists as only image  – with clear body distortions – and nothing else and is thus, he says, ultra-modern’.



He has said that he wished to work within the Western tradition. He wants to represent his people within 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.  






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.


He depicts the life of members of his community as he has seen it lived. 






Bang, 1994, acrylic and collage on canvas. 

The Progressive Corporation on loan to the Metropolitan Museum in 2016

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







Banner for Willy J., 1976, oil on canvas, and detail. 

Charles White, 1918-1979, American. Private collection on loan to MOMA, NY in 2018.

  Charles White’s cousin died in a shooting at a bar where he was a bystander.



Kerry James Marshall depicts life as some African-Americans like to live it.





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





His work inevitably 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 artistic tradition.  He does not shun it or parts of it because of its subject matter. 

He uses its techniques – the historical tableau, landscape, genre painting, and portraiture – to the ends of his inclusion of a pictorial record 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 



– and despite the threats to the health of individuals and communities which rampaging me-meism can pose –  

contains the tools to unshackle us from the constraints of our history

so that larger and larger numbers of people can move to greater autonomy and the individual freedom and spiritual maturity which is the promise of this tradition.



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.





With very few exceptions, 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. He has always used unmixed black to depict the people who populate his canvases.





 Invisible Man, 1986, acrylic on canvas

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



His work is not about the history and politics of the shades of the country’s black (and white) population: a subject of extreme sensitivity which blows up all other discussion.


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’. 






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



Also there are often houses with no windows.


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


Sometimes these overwashes introduce a sense of untouchability, of improbability, of unattainability;

pointing to disconnection, dysfunction, dissonance, unreadability, in the environment depicted. 


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

There are also lines, cream or white, which lead nowhere and end in ’empty’ space on the canvas. 

As though we are looking at 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






A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of his Former Self, 1980, egg tempera on paper.   Private collection on loan to the Metropolitan Museum in 2016.


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.






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









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

Museum Associates, Los Angeles County Museum on loan to the Metropolitan in 2016


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. 

The partial veiling here seems to denote that in this hair salon is a protected zone.

Nobody here need be concerned of anyone else’s concern about the activities here.  Even if the blonde cut-out is a reminder of the ubiquity of the ‘white’ norms.









Beauty Examined, 1993, acrylic and collage on canvas.

Standards of beauty are racialized and unrealistic. 

Blush for a black woman? 

I have never seen the blush of a black woman.  But then my experience is not the limit of all possibilities, either.





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, become menacing.  The butterflies fly with them.




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







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. 





1994 ‘Garden Project’ series showing early, utopian days in public housing in Chicago and Los Angeles.

  Image by Agaton Strom for The New York Times





Untitled (Altgeld Gardens), 1995, acrylic and collage on canvas from the ‘Garden Project Series’.







Our Town, and details, 1995, acrylic and collage on canvas.  From the ‘Garden Project’ series. 





Better Homes, Better Gardens, 1994, acrylic and collage on canvasFrom the ‘Garden Project’ series.






Heirlooms and Accessories, 2002, inkjet prints in artist’s frames (with light interference).


Photographs were widely circulated of lynchings.  This triptych of photographs shows lockets on golden chains.


 The photographs in the lockets are white women’s faces taken by Lawrence Beitler. This work  centers around the lynching of  J. Thomas Shipp and Abraham Smith in Marion, Indiana, in 1930.


Kerry James Marshall concentrates on the photographs of three women  of three generations who who watched this lynching.





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






Untitled (Painter), 2008, acrylic on PVC





Untitled, 2009, acrylic on PVC panel







Untitled (Painter), 2010, acrylic on PVC. 

I don’t know why painting with numbers.





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.  The cross can be seen in the lines traced by his fingernails and her buttons. 

This is a depiction of a would-be hanging of a painting of this subject in the august halls of a museum.  I don’t recall what the green-and-gold object is.  Perhaps a levelling device?









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. 

A memorial to important milestones in the history of Civil Rights; now veiled and receding.






Black Painting, 2003-2006, acrylic on fiberglass. 

Private loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2016.  Kerry James Marshall, “Black Painting,”  Image from the Blanton Museum of Art Collections.


Fred Hampton, African American activist and the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party was assassinated in the early morning of December 4, 1969 by Chicago Police officers. 

The image shows Mr. Hampton in bed at almost the hour of his death.










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

 Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago on loan to the Metropolitan Museum in 2016.

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.

Rennie Collection, Vancouver, Canada on loan to the Metropolitan Museum in 2016.


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.











4 thoughts on “Kerry James Marshall: Pictorial Record of a People

  1. Do you watch Hulu? There’s an interesting series called 1969. I was a teenager and I remember reading the Malcolm X interview in my dad’s Playboy mag but I didn’t understand the historical impact at the time. It’s all in these paintings. Still relevant.

    1. I gave up watching tv, films etc almost 20 years ago because I know I cannot control anything about images flowing through my eyes. I don’t know how to do that.

      It is shocking how little has changed. Which isn’t to say that some important things have changed. We have, all said and done, had a black president for two terms. Who would have thought it in 1960?


  2. What a treasure-trove you have so painstakingly shared with us. Your comments are great, but above all Marshall’s humour and the variety of both his figures and his colours give this blog endless pleasure to scroll through. Thank you so much.

    1. Thank you, Susannah! I’m glad to tell you also that one of his paintings was bought by an African American singer and hip-hop artist for $21 million recently. And why not?!

      Love, Sarah

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