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Four Decades of Paintings Vibrantly Depict Black Life

From barbershops and artist studios to Chicago's South Side and LA's Watts, Kerry James Marshall captures the full breadth of black American life.

Kerry James Marshall, School of Beauty, School of Culture, 2012 Acrylic on canvas. 107 7/8 x 157 7/8 in (274 x 401 cm.) Collection of the Birmingham Museum of Art; Museum purchase with funds provided by Elizabeth (Bibby) Smith, the Collectors Circle for Contemporary Art, Jane Comer, the Sankofa Society, and general acquisition funds

For its first staging of a monographic exhibition by a living artist, The Met Breuer opened Kerry James Marshall: Mastry. The retrospective largely traces nearly four decades of the artist’s paintings of black figures, and pictures a contemporary, vast, and localized history of black American life.


The traveling exhibit, which began at the MCA Chicago and will travel to MOCA Los Angeles, features 72 paintings by Marshall, an installation of his superhero cartoon series, Rhythm Mastr, a hanging photo installation, and a gallery curated by the artist of works from the Metropolitan Museum’s collection, entitled, Kerry James Marshall Selects.

Rythm Mastr, 1999 - ongoing. Lightboxes, inkjet prints on Plexiglas. Overall dimensions variable; nine lightboxes, each 48 x 36 in. (121.9 x 91.4 cm); 3 lightboxes, each 16 x 76 in. (40.6 x 193 cm). Courtesy of the artist

“Kerry is the first living monographic subject for Breuer,” explains Met curator Ian Alteveer to The Creators Project. Alteveer says it was important for the museum that Marshall anchor their first year of programming “not because of the subjects of his pictures but because of his broad reach into art history.” The curator says, “Kerry has an amazing knowledge of and makes an amazing tribute to the history of painting.” Alteveer adds, the artist really “believes in painting’s life and possibilities.”

A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self, 1980. Egg tempera on paper 8 x 6.5 in. (20.3 x 16.5 cm) Steven and Deborah Lebowitz

The exhibition begins chronologically with Marshall’s 1981 career-shifting painting, A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self. It’s a black on black painting that employs egg tempera, a popular Renaissance era painting technique that speaks to the invisibility of black folk in society, on museum walls, and in positions of power. The only things visible are the whiteness of the figures teeth, eyes, and shirt. Marshall has called the work—and his other black-and-white 80s paintings, Invisible Man, Silence is Golden, Two Invisible Men, Portrait of the Artist and A Vacuum—“clarifying.” The works gave him a way to reinvent painting by investigating representations of the figure in art historically, in the everyday, and in blackness.


De Style 1993 Acrylic and collage on canvas 8 ft. 8 in. × 10 ft. 2 in. (264.2 × 309.9 cm) Los Angeles County Museum of Art KJM.017

On display are matte, obsidian, midnight, and pitch-black scenes that closely follow the progression of each of the last four decades and respond to centuries of events that shaped America. There’s Vignette, of slaves stealing away, Portrait of Nat Turner with the Head of his Master, and Souvenir 1, which details the faces of civil rights leaders President Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Great Migration is on display in Watts, the beauty salon and barbershops—venerable American institutions—are pictured in De Style and School of Beauty, School of Culture.

The grand historical gestures are mounted next to smaller yet powerful moments of black humanity: There’s a couple getting married; a girl looking at her body in the mirror; a pin-up; and then there are many of black people at home or at work in their communal gardens, artists in their studios reshaping portraiture. Taken together, the large and small moments are a picturing of black lives mattering.

Untitled (Studio), 2014 Acrylic on PVC panels 83 5/16 x 119 1/4 in. (213.4 x 302.9 cm)Lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Foundation Gift, Acquisitions Fund and the Metropolitan Museum of Art Multicultural Audience Development Initiative Gift, 2015

Art of Hanging Pictures, made up of 36 hanging photographs taken by Marshall, “speaks to the idea of museum display but also to a more kaleidoscopic, rich and nuanced view of life on Chicago’s South Side.” The wall installation features snapshots of building facades, couples in love, and at its core an image of the Chicago Police Department carrying out former Black Panther Fred Hampton’s bullet-ridden body after a raid on his home.


Kerry James Marshall Selects: Horace Pippin, American, West Chester, Pennsylvania 1888–1946 West Chester, Pennsylvania Self-Portrait II Oil on canvas, adhered to cardboard 8 1/2 x 6 1/2 in. (21.6 x 16.5 cm) Bequest of Jane Kendall Gingrich, 1982

The curated section of Selects is a way to highlight the context in which the work can be seen in. Alteveer says, “If the Chicago museum shows Kerry in the context of a broader program about the global art situation, then we can show Kerry in the context of art dating 5,000 years back.” He says, “We spent time in the Met galleries talking to some of my colleagues about which works could provide context. Most of the works are things he looked to in the past.”

Kerry James Marshall Selects: Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, French, Montauban 1780–1867 Paris and Workshop Odalisque in Grisaille Oil on canvas 32 3/4 x 43 in. (83.2 x 109.2 cm) Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1938

“I’ve learned things about history that I didn’t know before because of Kerry’s paintings,” explains Alteveer. “I wasn’t really taught in school about the Great Migration. Kerry and his family were a part of the 8,000,000+ people who left behind the places they experienced hardship to find, as Isabel Wikerson’s book notes, ‘the warmth of other suns.’ It was an incredible experience to learn [through Kerry’s paintings] about something that was so hugely important in American history that represents a sea change in the landscape of this country.” This is represented in the autobiographical painting, Watts, of the artist and his siblings settling into their new home in Watts, Los Angeles after their move from Birmingham, Alabama.

The Actor Hezekiah Washington as Julian Carlton Taliesen Murderer of Frank Lloyd Wright Family 2009 Acrylic on PVC panel 30 7/8 × 24 7/8 × 1 7/8 in. (78.4 × 63.1 × 4.8 cm) Collection of the Hudgins Family, New York KJM.047

“There’s an amazing amount of history and validation in this show for the people and the subjects in Kerry’s pictures,” says the curator. The exhibition shows that the subjects are worthy of being pictured in the first place, that their lives deserves to be displayed on walls of museums, and that they have lives that are rich and meaningful. Alteveer says, “they are beautiful subjects rendered in an exquisite way and there’s something so powerful about that.”


Vignette, 2003 Acrylic on fiberglass 72 x 108 in. (182.9 x 274.3 cm) Defares Collection

Kerry James Marshall: Mastry continues through January 29 at the Met Breuer. Click here for more information.


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