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Kerry James Marshall: A Black Presence In The Art World Is 'Not Negotiable'

Mar 28, 2017
Originally published on March 28, 2017 5:00 am

With his large-scale, exuberant paintings, artist Kerry James Marshall is on a mission: to make the presence of black people and black culture in the art world "indispensable" and "undeniable." Now 61, Marshall was a young artist when he decided to paint exclusively black figures.

"One of the reasons I paint black people is because I am a black person ..." he says. "There are fewer representations of black figures in the historical record ..."

Marshall was born in Birmingham, Ala., in 1955, just before the Montgomery Bus Boycott began. He grew up in South Central, Los Angeles, and was living in the Watts neighborhood in 1965, when riots broke out in protest of police brutality.

"The hope was always to make sure these works found their way into museums so they could exist alongside everything else that people go into museums to look at," Marshall says.

And it's worked — a 35-year retrospective of his work has appeared at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, and now, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

His paintings depict daily life — people planting gardens, picnicking and getting haircuts. Helen Molesworth, curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art exhibit, points out Marshall's 1993 work, De Style. "I consider this to be Kerry's first great painting," she says. It's a massive canvas that shows a scene in a barbershop.

"He's going to give you an image of blackness, of African-American culture, of daily life that is both rooted in everyday pleasures, but also transcendent at the same time," Molesworth says.

Molesworth's favorite painting, School of Beauty, School of Culture is monumental. It bursts with riotous colors and spirited life. The work shows women's space — little kids play as ladies pose and primp.

"One of the things that these pictures show us over and over again is that the category of beauty is really large," Molesworth says. "If whiteness is the only form of beauty you see, you are operating in a pretty small universe."

People can get emotional in front of these paintings.

"I've seen people kiss in front of Kerry James Marshall paintings ..." Molesworth says. "These paintings are emotional — they are filled with love."

It's not all happiness on these walls, though — there are funerals, killers, lost boys, anger and grief — but always depicted in bright, bold colors and powerful shapes.

Marshall's 1994 "Garden Project" series shows the early, utopian days of public housing in Chicago and Los Angeles. Lovers stroll along groomed lawns, men rake and plant flowers, children ride bikes and run dogs.

"There's kind of a mixed message and it has everything to do with what people expect in a painting that's about housing projects," Marshall says.

In one, a man sits on one hip, leaning forward on the grass, supported by extended arms. He stares directly at us — very seriously. Behind him, white paint blots a big sign that says Welcome to Altgeld Gardens. Click here to get a closer look at the painting. Some might perceive desperation in his eyes — but not the artist.

"I know better," says Marshall, who has lived in public housing. "I know it's not so despairing. ... When I look at his demeanor, I see contentment. That's what I see. The gaze out at the spectator, there's a certain uncertainty about the way he sees himself being perceived by the spectator."

These are not romanticized images; they are vivid, energetic, real-life reports — and Marshall wants those reports on museums walls. His works have sold at auction for $1 million and $2 million. And his paintings are part of the permanent collections of the Met, the National Gallery, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and more.

"What you're trying to create is a certain kind of an indispensable presence," Marshall says. "Where your position in the narrative is not contingent on whether somebody likes you, or somebody knows you, or somebody's a friend, or somebody's being generous to you. But you want a presence in the narrative that's not negotiable, that's undeniable."

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The artist Kerry James Marshall has a remarkable history. He was born in Birmingham, Ala., and was a little boy when Martin Luther King Jr. was in jail there. Later, his family moved to Los Angeles not long before the Watts riots. The paintings he makes are both exuberant and deep. A retrospective of his work is at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. And NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg says the artist's path onto museum walls has been quite deliberate.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Kerry James Marshall puts the color black in everything he paints. And he only paints black people.

KERRY JAMES MARSHALL: Well, for an obvious reason (laughter). One of the reasons I paint black people is because I am a black person. And in the history of painting as we come to know it and understand it and appreciate it, there are fewer representations of black figures in the historical record than there are figures of other people - of white figures, let's say.

STAMBERG: He's also determined to populate museums with black culture.

MARSHALL: That's the idea. The hope was always to make sure these works found their ways into museums so they could exist alongside everything else that people go to the museum to look at, all the other things that people say are the best that can be done.

STAMBERG: 61 years old, relaxed but purposeful in his speaking and thinking, Marshall makes the invisible visible - paintings of daily life, people doing ordinary things, planting gardens, picnicking, getting haircuts.

HELEN MOLESWORTH: I consider this to be Kerry's first great painting. It's called "De Style." And what we're looking at is five black men in a barber shop.

STAMBERG: Helen Molesworth is curator of the MOCA show and exuberant about the barber shop client's massive hair styles - ballooning, swooping. And the barber...

MOLESWORTH: He's got a halo because the barber's a genius. The barber's got mad hands. The barber's got skills, right? The barber is an artist.

STAMBERG: She says on this massive 1993 canvas, Marshall shows he is not fooling around.

MOLESWORTH: He is going to give you an image of blackness, of African-American culture, of daily life that is both rooted in everyday pleasures but also transcendent at the same time.

STAMBERG: A beauty parlor Marshall painted in 2012 is her favorite. Monumental, again, "School Of Beauty, School Of Culture" is teeming with riotous colors and spirited life. It's women's space - little kids playing, curvy ladies posing and preening, and their hair.

MOLESWORTH: Oh, there's every kind of hair style in here from people who are going all natural Angela Davis to people who have extensions and cornrows and braids.

STAMBERG: Regal braids and twists, self-adornment, glorification. Black is indeed beautiful on these knockout canvases.

MOLESWORTH: One of the things that these pictures show us over and over again is that the category of beauty is really large. And if whiteness is the only form of beauty you see, you are operating in a pretty small universe.

STAMBERG: People sometimes get pretty emotional in front of these paintings.

MOLESWORTH: Elated, joyful, touch one another. I've seen people kiss in front of Kerry James Marshall paintings. The painting of the beauty parlor is a painting where a lot of people decide to get married in front of this painting. These paintings are emotional. They are filled with love.

STAMBERG: Yeah, but it's not all happy days on these walls. There are funerals of beloved leaders. There are killers, lost boys. There's anger, grief, but always the joyous colors and powerful shapes. Marshall's purposeful display of the spirit and strength of black life can be confusing to white eyes - mine, anyway. His 1994 series "Garden Project" re-imagines the early utopian days of public housing.

MARSHALL: There is a kind of a mixed message. And it has everything to do with what people expect in a painting that's about housing projects.

STAMBERG: He shows lovers strolling on groomed lawns, kids riding bikes. I get that. But in one, a man leans forward on the grass staring at us intently. Behind him, a big welcome sign is smeared with white paint. Blobs of paint drip behind it. In the background, the housing looks like prison. I see deterioration and desperation - get me out of here - in his dead eyes. Kerry James Marshall disagrees. He lived there.

MARSHALL: I know better. I know it's not so despairing. And so what seems to me when I look at his demeanor, I see contentment. That's what I see. And the gaze out at the spectator, there's a certain uncertainty about the way he sees himself being perceived by the spectator.

STAMBERG: There is the crux of the work - his intentions, his mission to make spectators who come at the idea of public housing with a sense of dread and yes, pity, to also see the hope and pleasures there. These are not romanticized images. They are vivid, energetic reports on how it is, reports he once installed on the walls of our museums.

The show has already been at the Met in New York and Chicago MOCA. Curator Helen Molesworth says Marshall's ambitions are even bigger. Studying painting and art history, he aims to work at a level as fine as that of Rembrandt, Velazquez, any of the masters.

MOLESWORTH: That's absolutely right. I think very early on Marshall set an extremely high bar for himself. And that bar was to be included among the great painters of Western civilization.

STAMBERG: And he's doing it. His paintings have sold at auction for $1 and $2 million. And his works are part of the permanent collections of the Met, the National Gallery, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and more. Marshall's vision and devotion are indeed paying off.

MARSHALL: What you're trying to create is a certain kind of an indispensable presence, where your position in the narrative is not contingent on whether somebody likes you or somebody knows you or somebody's a friend or somebody's being generous to you. But you want a presence in the narrative that's not negotiable, that's undeniable.

STAMBERG: In downtown Los Angeles and the Kerry James Marshall show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARVIN GAYE SONG, "WHAT'S GOING ON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.