The artistic trajectory of painter Kerry James Marshall was determined by civil rights movements. Born in 1955 in Birmingham, Alabama, he observed an upheaval before his family relocated to Watts in 1963, where he’d witness the Watts riots. But his experiences were never the ones portrayed by master painters he admired. And so, two years before graduating from Otis Art Institute, Marshall painted A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self (1980), his first image of a black figure. The piece depicts a man’s coal-black face set against a black background, his only discernible features being the whites of his eyes and a cartoonish rictus—a commentary on the way a black man might be perceived in a white world, which is to say, barely at all. Marshall has painted black figures ever since, less to criticize Western art and more to insert the largely absent African American into a narrative that has captivated him since his first visit to a museum—LACMA—at the age of ten. On March 12 Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, which showcases nearly 80 of the artist’s works, opens at the Museum of Contemporary Art. “One of the effects of a Kerry James Marshall show is a call to thinking,” MOCA cocurator Helen Molesworth says. “Are we prepared to let go of the fantasy that whiteness equals wealth, beauty, fill in the blank?”
The paintings in Mastry fulfill Marshall’s mission to render the daily rituals of black life on a grand scale. In 1993’s De Style (above), he ennobles barbershop culture—the barber is even haloed à la medieval-era saints—while saluting his predecessors: The title refers to the shop’s name, Percy’s House of Style, but also De Stijl, the Dutch art movement that embraced primary colors and geometric shapes. (Mondrian was a founder, hence the palette of blues, reds, and yellows.) It was the first of Marshall’s paintings to enter a museum collection—LACMA’s, fittingly—though his most famous work is The Garden Project, a group of five paintings that focus on public housing, including Watts’s Nickerson Gardens (all are on view in Mastry).
Today Marshall’s pieces fetch more than $2 million at auction and are in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian and the Met. “On the one hand, he’s an artist painting his own experience,” Molesworth says, “and on the other hand, he’s correcting historical record.”