For more than 40 years, the Chicago-based artist has made it his mission to paint black figures into the canon.

WE COULD BEGIN IN Birmingham, Ala., where the artist Kerry James Marshall was born in 1955, his father a postal worker whose hobby was buying broken watches, fancy ones — Baume & Mercier, Piaget, Patek Philippe — that he’d pick up in pawn shops for a song, figure out how to fix with the help of books he’d find used, and resell. From that story, we could derive the practical idea that Marshall, a companion on his father’s expeditions from a very early age, saw that something rarefied and complex, in which one had zero training, could be approached, deconstructed and — with education and application — mastered. Or we could begin by talking about Marshall’s older brother, Wayne — one year and nine days older, who, straight out of high school, went to work for the post office like his father and worked there until he retired — Wayne who was always first at everything, whom Marshall was always chasing, from whom he was inseparable except at school where their ages kept them in different grades, Marshall trying to catch up but always falling short, one year and nine days short. From that story, we could understand that Marshall is a man who, from the beginning, has been hustling to get to where he wants to go. Or we could begin in Watts, in 1963, when Marshall was 7, when his family moved there in time for the riots, 12 blocks from the Black Panther headquarters, a neighborhood where he learned things you’re not supposed to know about when you’re a kid. We could talk about how their mailman, a really nice guy, got killed on Marshall’s best friend’s front porch, in a robbery gone wrong, two doors down. How, on another day, coming home from school, cutting through the alley he always cut through, he found three grown women rolling around in the grass of a front yard, stab wounds all over them, stabbed by a young man who’d been discharged from the Army with problems, a man who’d just stabbed his mother, his aunt and his grandmother 70 times. And how, later, when Marshall was voted homecoming king of Jefferson High and was on his way there in his suit for the first homecoming parade in a decade — Jefferson having gotten kicked out of the conference because there’d always been problems — he arrived to find everybody heading the other way: Three people had just been shot on the field, friends of his. That was the kind of world Marshall grew up in, a world where he knew founding members of the Crips, and where a lot of the people he knew are now dead of unnatural causes and have been for a long time. From those stories, we’d be amazed to learn — as he told me in August when I visited him on the South Side of Chicago where he’s been making one masterpiece after another for three decades — that “it didn’t stop me from developing the sense that, still, everything is possible. I was never in despair.”

Kerry James Marshall in conversation with his fellow Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates.

FROM THE HISTORICAL sense that, throughout the American experiment, very little has been possible for black people; to a generational sense that, despite a great deal of change in American society through time, a great deal still isn’t possible; to Marshall’s personal sense that, nonetheless, everything is possible: That’s the short version of the story that his work has been telling — mostly in paint but also in sculpture, photography and installations — since he became the first member of his family to go to college, graduating from Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles in 1978. In that interval, Marshall has become a preeminent American artist, one whose work is in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian, the National Gallery of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a dozen other major American museums. He has received a MacArthur fellowship and his paintings can command over 2 million dollars at auction. This past spring, Marshall’s career became the subject of its first major retrospective, a chronological march through 35 years of extraordinary creation, a vast show that opened in Chicago at the Museum of Contemporary Art and moves to New York this week — opening at the Met Breuer on Oct. 25 — before its final stop in Los Angeles, at the MOCA, next year.

Let’s look at the very first painting you come to in the show, one that Marshall made when he was 25, a painting called “A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self.” The first thing you notice is its size — 8 by 6½ inches — small by any measure but particularly so given the monumentality of the paintings Marshall has become famous for since. From this small vertical surface, seen as if in silhouette, a black face stares. Male, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a heavy coat, he’s all eyes and grin. Literally: The only features that one can discern in this carbon-black face are two cartoonishly white eyes and, rooted in dark pink gums, 18 large white teeth with a gap dead center, a top incisor mysteriously gone, a void in a face that, in its way, is itself a void. In Chicago, I watched one museumgoer after another walk up to it and reflexively smile back, and I can report — as one of those people — that you get an odd feeling when you do, the sense that you shouldn’t be smiling. For the only other pictorial detail on that little canvas is a bright white glimpse of shirt peeking out from the general darkness, and the funny thing about the shirt is that if you stare at it long enough, its sharply drawn dimensions finally snap into focus: It looks like the blade of an axe, one poised at the neck of that huge, haunting, gap-toothed smile. This portrait of the artist as a shadow of his former self looks like something out of minstrelsy, a white actor in blackface. What we have before us is a portrait of a black man by a black man, but one that looks the way a black man might feel about being looked at in a white world by people who see, in the face of a black man, not a person but a shade, a shadow, a pigmentation: blackness.

“Everything changed when I made that painting,” Marshall told me in his studio this summer. Marshall, still powerfully built at 61, with short-cropped hair going gray and a tidy beard gone grayer, is a large presence in this large set of workspaces, some 2,200 square feet on two floors. We were speaking upstairs, in front of an angled drawing board to which several works in progress were pinned: the beginnings of a plan for a large canvas, mapped out on a grid in linear perspective, a figure in the foreground, a window at the rear; a small storyboard for a series of comic-strip panels that will be blown up into enormous lightboxes; and an ink-wash study for a portrait of a woman smiling, a woman who stands in a gallery before what looks like the very portrait before us, the smile on her face as unburdened as the smile on the 1980 portrait was haunted.

“The person that I was in 1980,” Marshall said in a voice that’s still inflected here and there with Alabama vowels, “was really starting to understand how you could start with a premise and see it all the way through. What I wanted the work to be able to show, over time, is that it was possible for the image of the black figure to evolve.”

That the image of the black figure has needed to evolve through time is a bald fact of American political life, but what makes Marshall’s work as a painter unprecedented, beginning with that first self-portrait, is how he’s been engaging with that evolution as an aesthetic project. “Stereotypical representations of black figures,” Marshall explained, with the clarity and persuasiveness of the professor of art that he was, teaching at the University of Illinois until 2006, “had always been this sort of flat, cartoony cypher. If you read in any of the meditations on beauty, if you read Thomas Jefferson’s ‘Notes on the State of Virginia,’ he talks about [blackness] as unbeautiful.”

Marshall’s paraphrase doesn’t begin to suggest the nature of Jefferson’s remarks on what separates whites and blacks. The words retain their charge:

“The first difference which strikes us is that of colour … is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immovable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favour of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan for the black women over those of his own species.”

There is very little one can think to say, after reading this secular saint’s testimony on beauty and race, except that we might bear his words in mind on a visit to a major Western art museum where an idea of beauty is everywhere apparent — one in which black skin has had no place. While you’ll see a lone black body in a teeming canvas by Bosch or a turbaned Turk in Delacroix, there’s no meaningful history of black figures in the Western painting tradition. “When you talk about the absence of black figure representation in the history of art,” Marshall told me, “you can talk about it as an exclusion, in which case there’s a kind of indictment of history for failing to be responsible for something it should have been. I don’t have that kind of mission. I don’t have that indictment. My interest in being a part of it is being an expansion of it, not a critique of it.”

In the large paintings for which Marshall has come to be known, art history is always part of the picture, if not as corrective, then suggestively. “De Style,” 1993, spanning over 8½ by 10 feet, frames five black figures in a barbershop, a barber working an electric clipper at a client’s head. If the content of the scene sounds Rockwellian, to an extent it is: a modest scene from quotidian black life, one altogether different from the miserable bulletins that make the evening news. And yet the style is anything but Saturday Evening Post. The barber’s hand is benedictively raised behind his client’s head, his own head emanating rays of light in a nod to the Flemish masters, their images of beatification. The painting’s background is subtly sewn through with the rectilinear blues and yellows and reds and white of Mondrian’s work, to which the painting’s title playfully alludes.

I asked Marshall about his sewing in of references. “It’s negotiating the problem of what makes paintings complex,” he told me, “on top of it, what makes artwork modern. And if modern means in some way that the images become more fragmented and less clearly defined, then there’s no way to escape the trajectory laid out by Picasso. There’s another answer. And the answer to abstraction is not the jettisoning of representation.”

“The Lost Boys,” from the same year, represents a further pictorial permutation of that answer, a canvas of similarly large scale, in which two black boys, one holding a pink water-gun, another sitting in one of those 1-dollar car rides that vibrate outside of supermarkets, or did. The painting’s foreground features a tree whose trunk is rung with yellow police tape that’s snaking its way toward the branches, branches blooming with a strange sort of fruit, yellow bullets glowing as if with inner light. The snaking tape makes visual allusion to Michelangelo’s “Fall of Man” in the Sistine Chapel, Satan’s snake ensnaring Adam and Eve before their expulsion. Marshall’s painting depicts the instruments of these children’s possible martyrdoms — guns and cars — adult machines that have hurried too many young black boys to their untimely falls from both innocence and life itself. Marshall has called this painting a “kind of a memorial painting to lost innocence,” but it’s also a monument to an idea of a painting as a thing that needed not to be looked at so much as read.

‘When you talk about the absence of black figure representation in the history of art, you can talk about it as an exclusion. I don’t have that indictment. My interest in being a part of it is being an expansion of it, not a critique of it.’

In all these paintings, the one unchanging feature is the uniform blackness of the skin of the lives depicted. Though they’ve been rendered with greater modeling through the years — with more roundness and shading than in the initial self-portrait, its annihilating flatness — the absolute blackness has remained. Marshall uses three kinds of black — carbon black, originally from soot; mars black, from iron oxide; and ivory black, originally from burned bone — each subtly different. To further model the black, he adds in color — yellow ocher, raw umber, two shades of blue — to give him seven blacks to work from, shades which differ chromatically, differing in color as opposed to differing in “value,” the term in art for distinguishing lightness and darkness, the value of a pigment changing when white is added. The blacks in Marshall’s paintings have an absolute value, if you see what I mean, and what he means: blacks into which not a drop of white is added — a working method that’s also, clearly, an essential conceptual feature. “The idea of those paintings,” Marshall told me, “is that blackness is non-negotiable in those pictures. It’s also unequivocal — they are black — that’s the thing that I mean for people to identify immediately. They are black to demonstrate that blackness can have complexity. Depth. Richness.”

This is a political impulse that is being aesthetically expressed, but Marshall makes very clear that, despite the strength of his political convictions, the essence of his endeavor is a painterly one, that of a painter responding to the history of art and its peaks of invention, peaks at which no black painter for 2,000 years was pictured planting his flag. “You are required to respond to it because it exists,” he said. “It can’t be denied. Or ignored. I never bought into the idea that what I was doing was trying to express myself.”

So what was he doing it for?

“You’re driven by the need to succeed. It comes in part from a way of reading history, the history of black people. There are a couple of questions you’re going to have to answer, and one of them, for me, has always been: How come it was possible for black people to be enslaved in the first place? What were the conditions, the circumstances? What made it possible for that to happen? And when you find out what that is: Don’t do that anymore!” Marshall laughed, though there should be another word for the kind of laugh that’s an expression not of humor but of rage. “One of the things was that when Europeans arrived on the continent they had a technological advantage over Africans that Africans have been trying to make up ever since. So one of the things you have to do is, at the moment you have to find yourself down, you have to start thinking strategically about how to get yourself into a position where you’re not that vulnerable. This is precisely how I see the world.”

AFTER A FEW HOURS in his studio, Marshall and I got into his Toyota minivan and drove around his neighborhood, Bronzeville. In the 1920s it was known as “Black Metropolis,” home to Gwendolyn Brooks and Louis Armstrong and the families of the Great Migration that left the South in search of a better life up North. So here we were a century later, in this neighborhood two miles south of the Chicago Loop’s southern border, staring east across 53rd Street as if through a void in the world: You could see the overgrown green of empty lots extending for three blocks in the distance, in several distances, emptiness crossed by the elevated train line, by a boarded-up building, by a little cinder-block rescue mission hung with a sign reading “DOOR OF HOPE.”

We drove on, Marshall taking us through the intersection of Pershing and Indiana a few blocks north, and I recognized it as the vista that appears in his 2003 painting “7am Sunday Morning,” an urban landscape painting with, in its blurred passing car, a nod to one of Marshall’s favorite painters, Gerhard Richter, but which moreover showcases the real storefronts of Rothschild Liquors and, adjoining it, Your School of Beauty Culture, the latter of which I stared at in something like wonder. Closed and unappealing from the outside, its interior is depicted in Marshall’s extraordinary 2012 painting, “School of Beauty, School of Culture,” a companion to “De Style,” the two making a diptych of a kind: two intimate spaces in which men and women reimagine themselves, paintings that themselves reimagine what a black life looks like from the outside.

“That block and that block,” Marshall told me, pointing forward and then back, as we at last pulled to a curb on South Calumet, “there was a period when both those blocks were dominated by two different gangs.” He pointed to the right. “In the CHA building” — Chicago Housing Authority, low-income project housing — “was another gang.”

We were parked in front of a pretty, two-story red-brick home that Marshall and his wife, the actor Cheryl Lynn Bruce, have shared for nearly a quarter century. They bought the 100-year-old structure in 1992 for $15,000 — its plumbing and electric looted, its roof rotten, its interior walls in decay. But Marshall, upon seeing it for the first time, said: “I think we can do something with this.” The couple spent many years doing the demolition, the reconstruction, making it habitable, making it lovely.

“A little girl was shot on the corner, once,” Marshall told me, as we got out of the car. “A boy was killed in that block by another kid who shot him in the head while he was walking down the street with his girlfriend. Someone from that CHA building” — since torn down — “shot into our house two years in a row on New Year’s Eve, into our kitchen. The light was on. We were sitting at the table, Cheryl and I. The curtain was like — pfooom! — like that.” Marshall laughed that same laugh that should be a different word. “And then somebody shot into this window from down there” — he pointed to a window on the north side — “and a police car was driving by and I said, ‘What should we do?’ And the police said, ‘Stay away from the window!’ ”

“There used to be drive-bys,” Marshall continued. “I came home one day and that block was a slalom course; they had TVs and sofas and chairs in the street so nobody could drive through. Sometimes you have to put the sofa and the TV in the street so nobody can shoot up your house. Those are tactics people had to have.” He paused. “We were here from the beginning, we stayed through the whole thing, we weren’t going anywhere. I wanted to be here.”

What we have before us is a portrait of a black man by a black man, but one that looks the way a black man might feel about being looked at in a white world.

I asked if I could ask a dumb question.

“Why?” Marshall laughed, and at last that was the right word for it. “Well, there are two reasons. If people who are successful always run from the neighborhood, it’s a guarantee that the neighborhood’s going to go the way of the gangbangers. We’ve had to fight in a way to stay here. Somebody’s got to say, ‘We’re not going to be afraid to live in our neighborhood with our own people.’ South Central L.A. wasn’t.… I’ve seen some rough things. I’m not frightened by things that happened. Some of the things that happened, time and little bit of ingenuity you can remedy some of that. The other thing was that I wanted to be in a neighborhood where kids knew somebody who was trying to do something. That you could be their neighbor.”

“That’s Mr. Marshall,” I said. “He’s a painter.”

“Yeah,” Marshall said, before he led me inside, where we visited with his wife, stepping out into their back garden, appreciating their tomato plants, their flower beds, tasting the last of the mulberries on their tree, Marshall finding a dead junebug (“You don’t see these that often in Chicago. We used to catch ’em and wear ’em like a scarab.”), appreciating its shining metallic carapace, green and blue and silver in the light.

But Marshall wanted to show me more of his neighborhood, and so we were back in the van, heading another mile south, into Englewood. “You would think you were in Mississippi,” Marshall said, in amazement. “The level of emptiness. I’ll show you this one section. Cheryl and I, we drive around sometimes and it’s stunning, still, even to me.”

I have never seen anything in an American city like what Marshall showed me: We were five miles from the Willis Tower — roughly the distance between NYU and Columbia universities in New York — and here we were, surrounded not by lots so much as vast fields of high grass and brush interrupted by the very rare derelict house to which the few remaining residents had clung. “Where are we?” he said, astonished. “You have kids who started kindergarten and they’re walking past those vacant lots on their way to school when they started kindergarten, and when they graduated high school, they were still walking past those same vacant lots. What an impact that must have on their conception of what’s possible.”

Kerry James Marshall is featured on one of the covers of T’s Oct. 23 Greats issue.

A bit later, we sat at a restaurant and spoke more, but I was distracted by the recollection of what we’d just seen, a derelict city overgrown with grass. It reminded me of a picture in Marshall’s retrospective, one that I was now seeing in a new light. Called “Vignette,” from 2003, the title references paintings by the French Rococo master Fragonard, paintings in which romantic love is celebrated. In Marshall’s version, a black man and woman, naked as in Eden, with the exception of an Africa pendant worn by the man, run against a background of high lush grass, trees in the distance, birds and butterflies soaring around them. I’d read the picture as a — what? I’m not sure — but certainly not an urban scene. And yet, there in the foreground left of the huge canvas was a fringe of concrete. These lovers, these pure hearts: They were running in Englewood, being chased, or chasing. Where were they going? What could they hope for?

“When you look at a thing,” Marshall told me, as our meals were served and we prepared to eat, “the experience you’ve had in solving other problems in other domains gives you the information you need to solve that problem too. You need a wide base of knowledge and experience — with your own hands. That optimism. This is why I have that optimism.”

I suggested that optimism was a kind of hope.

“No. I don’t believe in hope,” Marshall said. “I believe in action. If I’m an apostle of anything: There are always going to be complications, but to a large degree, everything is in your hands.”


Oct. 23, 2016

An article on Page 174 this weekend about the artist Kerry James Marshall, who shows the writer Wyatt Mason around derelict areas of his Chicago neighborhood, gives an outdated name for the city’s Sears Tower. It was renamed the Willis Tower in 2009.

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