For the first thirty years of his career, Kerry James Marshall was a successful but little known artist. His figurative paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs, and videos appeared in gallery and museum shows here and abroad, and selling them was never a problem. He won awards, residencies, and grants, including a MacArthur Fellowship in 1997, but in the contemporary-art world, which started to look more closely at Black artists in the nineties, Marshall was an outlier, and happy to be one. He had an unshakable confidence in himself as an artist, and the undistracted solitude of his practice allowed him to spend most of his time in the studio. The curator Helen Molesworth told me that during the three years it took to put together “Mastry,” Marshall’s first major retrospective in the United States, which opened in 2016 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and travelled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, “there were still people in the art world who didn’t know who he was.”
This is no longer the case. The exhibition outed Marshall as a great artist, a virtuoso of landscape, portraiture, still-life, history painting, and other genres of the Western canon since the Renaissance. The return to figurative art in the past two decades has been embraced by a new wave of younger Black artists, and for many of them, it is now clear, Kerry James Marshall has been a primary inspiration. “Kerry’s influence expands so far beyond his own project,” Rashid Johnson, who at forty-three is one of the strongest voices in contemporary art, told me. “He’s an electric and dynamic thinker who’s also had an enormous influence on those of us who use abstraction and more conceptual approaches. There are two artists without whom I probably would not have become one—David Hammons and Kerry James Marshall.”
Marshall, whose calm manner and impeccable courtesy put people at ease, talks about his work with clarity and precision. “Everything I do is based on my understanding of art history,” he told me recently. “The foundation of art as an activity among human beings has always been some form of representation, and there isn’t a mode of art-making that I haven’t explored, and put into use when it was necessary.” His painting is figurative but not realistic. In 1993, he made two paintings that set him on a course that was entirely his own. He was thirty-eight years old, living in Chicago with his wife, the actress Cheryl Lynn Bruce, and he had recently moved into his first real studio, a three-hundred-and-fifty-square-foot office space with an eleven-foot-high ceiling. The new paintings were much bigger than anything he had done for quite a while—nine feet high by ten feet wide. “The Lost Boys” shows two young Black boys, one of whom sits in a dollar-a-ride toy car; the other stands nearby, holding a pink water pistol, beside a tree that has a yellow “Do Not Cross” police tape around its trunk. The boys look directly at the viewer, and there is something unnerving about them, a sense of sadness and vulnerability.
The painting, Marshall said, came partly out of experiences he’d had during his own boyhood, in South Central Los Angeles, where his family lived in the nineteen-sixties. “This was the period when the Crips and the Bloods came into existence and everything changed,” Marshall recalled. “The level of violence grew exponentially. Before, gangs were groups of guys who hung out together and now and then they would have a fight, but it was a fight. When the Crips came, it was just shooting, and a lot of young people died. My older brother, Wayne, narrowly escaped a drive-by shooting on our block. ‘The Lost Boys’ was built around a child who was killed by a police officer because he had a toy pistol that they mistook for a gun. When I finished ‘The Lost Boys,’ I stood back and said, ‘This is the kind of painting I always imagined myself making.’ It seemed to me to have the scale of the great history paintings, mixed with the rich surface effects you get from modernist painting. I felt it was a synthesis of everything I’d seen, everything I’d read, everything that I thought was important about the whole practice of painting and making pictures.”
The other painting, which he began working on at the same time as “The Lost Boys,” is called “De Style.” The title is a play on the Dutch movement De Stijl, founded in 1917, which opened the way to pure, hard-edge abstraction in art and architecture, and the setting is a barbershop—the window sign reads “Percy’s House of Style.” A customer is in the chair, and three others wait, two seated and one standing. Behind them, red cabinets with white drawers form a structure of precise rectangles, echoing Mondrian. Our attention is drawn to the men’s elaborate hair styles—sculptured masses on the standing figure, a tower of stacked braids on one of the sitters, who I could have sworn was a woman. (Marshall said they’re all men.) He went on to explain how young men of his generation in South Central had been captivated by the blaxploitation movies of the seventies, which “gave us models of high style and sophistication that a lot of guys I was in high school with emulated. My brother and I did each other’s hair. I had mine in rollers when I went to bed. Guys were spending as much on their hair as girls did. And not only hair. We designed our own suits and had them made. You worked all summer so you could start school in the fall with a new wardrobe.” For a Black teen-ager in Los Angeles, life was in the details. “Just walking is not a simple thing,” Marshall told the curator Terrie Sultan. “You’ve got to walk with style.”
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art bought “De Style” the year Marshall painted it—his first sale to a major museum. The price was “around twelve thousand dollars,” he recalls, and he saw this as a down payment on what had become his overriding ambition: to bring large-scale Black faces and Black bodies into places, such as museums, where their almost complete absence had troubled him since he was a child. “Once I made those two pictures, I understood clearly how to move forward,” he told me.
Knowing what to do and how to do it is the cornerstone of Kerry James Marshall’s existence. When he was in the seventh grade, at the predominantly Black George Washington Carver Junior High School in Los Angeles, he took every shop class that was available—the school offered a wide range of options. During summer vacations, when the shop facilities were open to the public, Marshall spent one summer learning about plastics—how to laminate, cut, sand, and polish earrings, ashtrays, and other objects. “I sometimes use plastic now, because I know what I can do with it,” he told me. “The new D.I.Y. culture is so behind what we had. Parents spoiled it by suing schools if anybody got hurt in shop class, and so you have a whole generation of kids who don’t know how to make anything.” Today, the workshop in his studio is three times as big as the area where he paints. When the overhead lighting there needed rewiring a few years ago, he rented a hydraulic lift and fixed the problem himself. “There isn’t anything I can’t do,” he said. “I am not going to be found not knowing how something works.” He is bone-certain that knowing how things work gives him a freedom and an independence he would not otherwise have. Marshall once told a group of doctors, only half joking, that with a couple of weeks’ study he could do brain surgery.
How someone with Marshall’s depth of knowledge, confidence, and self-reliance escaped being somewhat insufferable is a good question. His alert and amused approach to the world has brought him many close friendships, and no discernible detractors. I sometimes wonder how much of this is related to the remarkable woman he married. They met in 1985, when Marshall came to New York for a one-year artist residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem. He had driven from L.A. in a Volkswagen van packed with all his belongings, and he arrived two weeks early, planning to store his things at the museum while he explored the city and found a place to stay. Cheryl Bruce, the museum’s public-relations director, had to tell him that he couldn’t do so, because the three outgoing residents hadn’t left yet. Bruce had grown up in Chicago. She was seven years older than Marshall, she had a thirteen-year-old daughter, Sydney, who lived with Cheryl and spent summers with her father, in Los Angeles, and she was already launched on an acting career. That fall, when she was offered a role in a series for children, starring a very young Ben Affleck, which would be filmed on location in Yucatán, she quit her job at the museum. At her going-away party, Bruce struck Marshall as “the strangest girl I’d ever seen, because she was just crying her eyes out. I had never seen anybody do that. She was also extremely beautiful and vivacious, with personality in excess.”
Four months later, after Bruce finished working on the series, she returned to visit her friends at the museum. Mary Schmidt Campbell, the director, asked if she wanted her job back, and she said yes. Marshall called her the next day. Would she be interested in going with him to see Orson Welles’s “The Magnificent Ambersons,” which was playing at the Thalia on upper Broadway? Bruce said she did not date artist residents or people who worked at the museum. “But I felt badly about turning him down, and I asked him to my place in Brooklyn for dinner with me and my daughter, Sydney,” she recalled. “I was making a salad when all of a sudden he kissed me. I thought, Oh, man, he is really misconstruing this. But then we talked for a long time. Sydney went to bed. As Kerry was getting ready to leave, he said, ‘You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.’ And I remember—maybe this was another night—I looked out the window and saw him walking under a tree, playing his harmonica.”
The no-dating rule lasted for six months. Marshall had stayed in New York after his Studio Museum residency ended, living in Harlem and working for a Manhattan print publisher. He was in the early stages of his career, making small abstract paintings and collages, some of which he had shown in 1985 at the Koplin Gallery in Los Angeles. He and Bruce started dating, but they didn’t live together. They were best friends. She kidded him a lot, and they made each other laugh. Sydney thought he was cool, because he talked to her the same way he talked to her mother, and was “incredibly comfortable about going his own way.” One night, when Marshall and Bruce were in the Union Square subway station—she was headed for Brooklyn, he was going uptown—he asked if she’d like to get married. “I had already put my token in—that was when you still used tokens—and I said . . . ‘Kerry, you can’t ask me something like that going through a turnstile. I can’t answer you. Give me some time to think about it.’ He asked me again a couple months later—we were in a playground somewhere in Manhattan—and I hadn’t thought about it. I’d promised to give him an answer, though, and I said O.K. We didn’t set a date. And then my sister Vicki got very sick with multiple sclerosis, and my mom said she needed me home in Chicago.”
Marshall drove her there in a U-Haul. They dropped her belongings off at her mother’s garage, explained that they would be back as soon as possible, then turned around and went to South Carolina. Both of them had agreed to work on an independent film, written and directed by Julie Dash, called “Daughters of the Dust,” about three generations of Gullah-speaking people living on an island off the coast. Marshall had been recruited as the film’s production designer by Arthur Jafa, its cinematographer and Dash’s husband, whom he had met a few years earlier in Los Angeles. Bruce would play one of the key roles. They had come to South Carolina to make a “proof of concept,” a few scenes to help raise money for the film. Shooting the footage took several weeks. Marshall provided all the props—if he couldn’t find them in stores on the mainland, he made them himself. Although Dash and Jafa broke up a few years later, the four of them have remained close, and “Daughters of the Dust,” released in 1991, is considered one of the classics of independent cinema.
After driving back to Chicago with Bruce, Marshall returned to New York and his job at the print publisher. “When I left L.A., I had planned to stay in New York,” he told me. “But I felt confident that I could go anywhere on the planet and do what I had to do.” As soon as he had some money in the bank, he moved to Chicago permanently. Bruce’s acting career was thriving—she was in two plays, one at the Northlight Theatre, in Evanston, and the other at Steppenwolf, in Chicago. She also landed a film role that allowed them to sublet an apartment in Hyde Park. They got married in April, 1989, at the South Side Community Art Center, in Chicago. By 1992, Marshall had made enough money to buy, for fifteen thousand dollars, the house they live in today.
James Marshall, Kerry’s father, didn’t graduate from high school. He served in the Army during the Korean War, then went to work as a dishwasher at the veterans hospital in Birmingham, Alabama, his home town. His wife, Ora Dee, had hoped to be a singer-songwriter; she made a record with a doo-wop group in Birmingham, and co-wrote a song called “Lovin’ Feeling,” which paid her royalties for years, but that was the extent of her musical career. Kerry, their second child, was born in 1955. Birmingham then was so rigidly segregated that the only white people he and his brother Wayne, who was a year older, came into contact with were the Italian family that ran the corner store and the Catholic nuns who taught at the Holy Family school he attended, where the students were all Black. Marshall’s most vivid early memory was of looking through a scrapbook of pictures—Christmas cards and Valentine cards, photographs from National Geographic and other magazines—that belonged to Miss Hill, his kindergarten teacher and the only Black teacher in the school. She rewarded well-behaved children by letting one of them have the book during nap time. “I was captivated by those images,” Marshall told me. “I remember saying to myself, This is what I want to do, I want to make pictures.”
The family moved to Los Angeles in 1963, first to a public-housing project in the Watts area and later to a rented house elsewhere in South Central, the heart of the Black diaspora. They were part of the Great Migration of more than six million Black people who left the South during the Jim Crow era, to find better jobs and more humane treatment. James worked for the U.S. Postal Service, and Ora Dee ran a secondhand shop, selling objects she bought at auction. Racial tensions were building in L.A. The Watts riots erupted in 1965. By then, Kerry and his family were a few miles north, but the rioting spread throughout the area; Kerry and Wayne saw a supermarket on fire and bricks being thrown through store windows. “It looked like a carnival,” Kerry recalled. Gang warfare was on the rise. Neither Wayne nor Kerry joined a gang. Wayne had gained respect at their public school as someone you didn’t mess with, and, because he looked out for his younger brother, Kerry didn’t have to fight. They both did well in school, and became avid readers—their mother had read Aesop’s Fables and other classics to them, and she signed up for a subscription to receive the Dr. Seuss books—as a bonus they were given a “Children’s Guide to Knowledge.” “I also became obsessed with comic books,” Kerry said. “When I was in the fifth grade, my brother and a friend and I rode our bikes to a used-magazine store in Huntington Park, just south of L.A., which had back issues of Marvel Comics. I wanted to go again by myself, so one day, after lunch, I climbed the fence at school and walked there.” It took him four hours. He arrived just in time to buy three comic books before the store closed, and he didn’t get home until nine-thirty. “I told my mother I’d been helping a teacher at school.”
Kerry and Wayne both liked to draw images of comic-book superheroes and other characters. “Kerry was just sketching all the time,” his younger sister Jennifer, who was born in Birmingham the year before they left, told me. She remembers lying on the floor in front of the TV, with Wayne and their youngest brother, Travis, “and Kerry would be drawing us.” In 1965, the same year Kerry played hooky from school, his class made a field trip to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which had just opened at its current location. “I didn’t know there was such a thing as a museum,” Kerry told me. “Once I learned how to get there, you couldn’t keep me away.” What he remembers vividly from that first visit are two huge allegorical paintings by Veronese and a wooden tribal figure from Mali, a Senufo executioner with feathers on the head and two sticks for arms. (“That thing scared me to death.”) He didn’t know art schools existed until several years later. A teacher at his junior high school had noticed that Kerry was more interested in drawing than any of the other students were, and he recommended him for a summer drawing class at the Otis College of Art and Design. This was where Marshall discovered the work of Charles White. Born in Chicago in 1918, White was a great but largely unrecognized Black artist. Marshall had read a biography of him when he was in the sixth grade, and he had written a paper on it, but he had no real conception of what White’s work looked like until the Otis instructor George De Groat projected reproductions from “Images of Dignity,” a book of White’s drawings. The pictures were all of Black people, and they had a depth and a power that astonished Marshall. White was teaching at Otis then. De Groat took the class upstairs to see his studio, and later that afternoon White himself walked into their classroom. “He was shorter than I was, but he had a big voice,” Marshall told me. “That’s when I decided Otis is where I want to go after high school.”
Otis required that applicants to its B.F.A. program have two years of college credits. Marshall graduated from high school in 1973, and spent the next year washing dishes, parking cars, and finding other odd jobs. He lived with Wayne for a while, after Wayne’s girlfriend moved out of his house, and he learned to subsist on five dollars a week. In 1975, he entered Los Angeles City College. By the time he became a full-time student at Otis two years later, Marshall had taken evening and weekend classes with Charles White and Sam Clayberger, both of whom knew how to analyze a painting and build visual structures. “Charlie White just adored him,” the veteran Otis teacher Arnold Mesches told Ian Alteveer, the curator who installed Marshall’s retrospective at the Met. “Charlie would say, ‘He’s a bit obnoxious, isn’t he? . . . He’s good, but he’s opinionated.’ ” To Marshall, though, the Otis program was a bitter disappointment: “By the time I got there, conceptual art was the dominant force in a lot of art schools, including Otis. Anything that looked like conventional painting and drawing and sculpture was dismissed. Charles White was still there, but the Old Guard had been pushed aside. There was no rigor.” Except for White and a few others, Marshall said, “it just seemed like a colossal waste of time.”
Soon after he graduated from Otis, his abstract collages were in a group show called “Newcomers” at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery. A Los Angeles couple had bought four of them, but Marshall was losing interest in abstraction and collage—like Otis, they both now seemed too forgiving, lacking in rigor. His life was opening up in other ways. He went to New York for the first time, to see the monumental 1980 Picasso retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art—more specifically, to see “Guernica,” which he called “one of the greatest history paintings in modern art,” and which would be repatriated to the Prado Museum in Madrid after the show ended. Around that time he read Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel, “Invisible Man,” which changed his approach to representation in art. “It allowed me to set a path away from those abstract collages and mixed-media work,” he told me. Ellison’s piercing insight, that Black people were invisible because white people refused to see them, was a revelation. It also made Marshall realize that he could use the human figure to explore the phenomenon of being present and absent at the same time.
This idea is embodied in “A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self” (1980), the first figurative painting Marshall had done in several years. Only eight inches tall by six and a half inches wide, on paper, it shows the head and torso of a Black man in a wide-brimmed black hat, against a dark-gray background. His skin is so dark that all we see at first are the dazzling whites of his eyes, a triangle of white shirt, and eighteen teeth in a comically wide, gap-toothed grin. “There’s a joke about people being so black that you can’t see them at night unless they’re smiling,” Marshall told me. “Being Black was a negative, and for me this was the starting point from which I could build an image of Blackness without those negative associations.”
Instead of oil paint, he used egg tempera, which he mixed according to the formula in a fifteenth-century treatise by the Renaissance artist Cennino Cennini. This gave his Black figure an uncanny depth and richness of tone. “With egg tempera, as with fresco painting, you have to know what you’re doing because the medium dries so quickly,” Marshall said to me. “It allows you to be deliberate in your approach.” Marshall had no interest in chance or the sort of random order that many contemporary artists used to give an effect of spontaneity. He wanted total control of everything that happened in his work. He also wanted to be a painter of social and political history, and the question he asked himself was: “How do you address history with a painting that doesn’t look like Giotto or Géricault or Ingres, but without abandoning the knowledge that painters had accumulated over the centuries?”
The key to “A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self,” Marshall told me, “is that every single shape you see in it was calculated in a way that exercises a certain force against the edges. The angle and the crease of the hat, the location of the shirt, the gap in the teeth, all those things are lined up on vectors that either stabilize or add tension to the direction those shapes are going in—it’s plotted like a mathematical equation.” The result is shockingly vivid. He had turned a racist caricature into a powerful, disturbing, and complex work of art. Martha Koplin, who opened her L.A. gallery in 1982, heard about Marshall and asked him to bring in some of his work. He brought “A Portrait,” and she sold it the next day, for eight hundred and fifty dollars, to a Los Angeles collector who donated it, three years ago, to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Several more “Invisible Man” paintings followed. In each one, the Black figure’s outlines are barely visible against the black background, but the longer you look the more you see. The figure is simultaneously there and not there.
After they married in 1989, Marshall and Cheryl Bruce went back to South Carolina to shoot “Daughters of the Dust.” Marshall was the production designer for two more independent films after that, one of which was Haile Gerima’s “Sankofa.” Filmmaking usually required working with other people, though, and Marshall preferred to be alone in his studio. In the early nineties, he painted tender visions of Black lovers in domestic interiors, and strange, surrealistic works that borrowed images from African folklore and Haitian voodoo. The breakthrough came in 1993, with “The Lost Boys” and “De Style.” The next year, he began work on the “Garden Project,” a series of large paintings that confirmed his new direction as a history painter.
His subject was the public-housing projects that had been introduced in the nineteen-twenties to get low-income families out of urban slums—a well-intentioned experiment that poor planning, spreading poverty, and the drug wars turned into a nationwide disaster. Marshall and his family had lived in one of these developments, called Nickerson Gardens, when they moved to Los Angeles in 1963. “This was before the projects were overloaded with people who were out of work,” he said. “I would mark the transformation to sometime after the 1974 recession, when the cycles of poverty set in. After that, nobody wanted to live in the projects, but when we were there everybody did.” Marshall’s tapestry-like paintings, which are on unstretched canvas, with grommets to hang them by, show well-maintained buildings, neatly dressed Black people gardening and enjoying one another’s company, children running or biking to school, and lots of songbirds, blue sky, and green lawns. “The Garden Project paintings are overabundant, particularly lush, particularly rich in surface and mark-making,” Marshall wrote in a 2000 essay. “[The] sky is always just a little too bright a blue; the sun is always beaming just a little too gaily; there are bluebirds of happiness and flowers bursting out all over the place.” Why all the too muchness? “I wanted to evoke some of the hope that the projects started with, but also to demonstrate a little bit of the despair,” he told me. “And the way I did that was to go over the top, with the Disneyland fantasy and the bluebirds.” The gangs and the drugs and the poverty that overwhelmed the projects are what we remember, not the utopian dreams that inspired them. As his work would demonstrate again and again in the years to come, Marshall was not interested in depicting Black trauma. He wanted to show that there has always been more to the Black experience in America than oppression and humiliation—that somehow, in spite of everything, Black lives have been and can be rewarding, diverse, and full of joy.
The dense, matte, ultra-black skin that he gave to everyone in these paintings is a rhetorical statement about Blackness itself—not realistic but didactic. “When you say Black people, Black culture, Black history, you have to show that,” he remarked, in one of our conversations. “You have to demonstrate that black is richer than it appears to be, that it is not just darkness but a color.” Marshall worked with the three black pigments that can be bought in a paint store—ivory black, carbon black, and Mars black—and he mixed them with cobalt blue, or chrome-oxide green, or dioxazine violet. The result, which is fully visible only in the original painting, not in reproductions, is something entirely his own. “That’s what got me to the place I am now, where the black is fully chromatic,” he said.
The “Garden Project” paintings were shown at the Art Institute of Chicago, in a 1995 group exhibition called “About Place,” curated by Madeleine Grynsztejn, and soon afterward they appeared at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York. Shainman had become Marshall’s New York dealer, working in collaboration with Martha Koplin in Santa Monica. All five paintings sold quickly, four of them to museums and one to a private collector. “Kerry had a waiting list from then on,” Shainman recalls. It was a limited one, and buyers had to be patient, because Marshall worked slowly. As Shainman explained, “Kerry told me right at the beginning that every painting he did had to have a reason for existing, and he never, never produced for the market.”
In 1997, recognition “was just raining on me,” Marshall said. He was invited to show at the Whitney Biennial and at Documenta X, the big international art exhibition in Kassel, Germany, and the MacArthur Foundation awarded him one of its “genius” grants: sixty thousand dollars a year, for five years. He used the money to buy the building his studio was in—to buy it outright, with no mortgage. Being debt-free has always been important to him. Until quite recently, he did all the maintenance work and improvements on the two-story brick house that he and Bruce had bought in 1992, on Chicago’s South Side. Their neighborhood, called Bronzeville, had once attracted successful Black professionals—doctors, lawyers, musicians—but by the nineteen-sixties most of them had left, and the area had been in decline for many years. The house, which he saw in a local listing, had been abandoned and occupied by squatters, and it was in bad shape. Marshall bought it because the price was low and he could make the necessary repairs himself—putting in new bathrooms and a new roof and shoring up the floors, with help from Bruce. “He referred to me as unskilled labor,” she said, and added, “Our kitchen window was shot out one New Year’s Eve. The next year, we heard a similar noise. No windows were broken, but a week later I was sweeping the second floor and I found a bullet.”
Marshall stopped a police car one day, described the shootings, and asked what could be done about them. “Stay away from the windows,” he was told. “About eight years ago, when our neighbors threatened to harm us, I did go shopping for a firearm, but I didn’t buy it,” Marshall said. “Guns are really expensive. I knew that if I got one I was probably going to use it, so we had to find a better way.” Moving to a safer neighborhood was not an option. Aya-Nikole Cook, a former student of Marshall’s who became his first (and last) studio assistant, from 1995 to 2013, told me that she often felt nervous because he and Bruce would confront their neighbors for playing too-loud music at night. The house was their home, and they refused to be pushed out. Bruce was attached to her substantial garden in the back yard. The greeting on her answering machine, updated regularly, always began with a horticultural note: “Peonies are blooming. Please leave a message.” As Cook explained, “They both felt very strongly that once you achieve a level of success you have a responsibility to the neighborhood. . . . They expanded my view in so many ways.” The Bronzeville neighborhood has improved considerably in recent years, and in 2017, to Bruce’s utter amazement, Marshall agreed to a complete renovation of their house, which involved an architect and a contractor. The job took two years, during which they lived on the twenty-first floor of an apartment building overlooking Lake Michigan.
Marshall never had creative blocks or fallow periods. He explored a wide range of media, including photography, video, and sculptural works such as the 1998 “Mementos”—vastly oversized stamps and ink pads scattered around a room, with their printed messages (“Black Is Beautiful,” “Black Power,” “We Shall Overcome,” “By Any Means Necessary,” “Burn Baby Burn”) on the wall. The “Garden Project” was followed by “Souvenir,” a series that memorializes the civil-rights struggles in the sixties. Violence and trauma are present in them, but not on view. In a painting of a middle-class living room, a woman with mysterious golden wings bends to move a vase of flowers, wall hangings mourn the martyred Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, Jr., and the faces of the four girls who were killed in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing and other victims of white supremacy float near the ceiling. (The Marshall family had left Birmingham a month before the bombing.) “Heirlooms and Accessories,” a later work, shows three open lockets on chains, each one bearing a photograph of a different white woman. The women were part of a large and festive audience that gathered on August 7, 1930, in Marion, Indiana, to watch the lynching of two young Black men. Marshall had singled them out from a photograph of the event, which is reproduced in the background, but so faintly that the other celebrants and the victims are hard to see. The three white women are “accessories” to the crime, ready to hang from someone’s unsuspecting neck.
“Kerry has such a whimsical, quizzical mind,” Arthur Jafa told me. “His paintings take on the whole weight of Western civilization, but I don’t know another person with whom I laugh as much when we talk.” In the years since Jafa and Marshall worked together on “Daughters of the Dust,” Jafa had become an artist as well as a cinematographer, but his career in art had developed more slowly than Marshall’s. “He is amazingly generous,” Jafa said. “He tried fiercely to get me into Documenta in 1997. He’s not just a friend but a comrade.”
“Rythm Mastr,” Marshall’s visual Black superhero narrative, started in 1999 as a comic strip. Images from it were shown at the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh that year, on newsprint, and it had a limited run in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette while the show was on. Since then, the evolving concept has appeared, in different forms, at the David Zwirner gallery, and, this summer, in a large group exhibition of comic-strip art at MCA Chicago. Marshall is now working on a new version in the form of a graphic novel, which will become the basis for an animated film, and then a live-action feature film.
We talked about this hugely ambitious project one morning. Marshall was in his studio on Michigan Avenue, an eighty-by-twenty-foot building that an architect was commissioned to build, to Marshall’s exact specifications, in 2011. (Architecture, like brain surgery, is one of the rare disciplines that he hasn’t had time to master.) He was sitting at his desk on the mezzanine, where the walls are covered with drawings, prints, and images of all kinds. One section is devoted to his meticulously organized art library, and another to dozens of small action figures, dolls, furniture, and other objects that he often makes himself and uses as models for things that will appear, enlarged and altered, in his paintings. Genial and self-contained, as always, Marshall took pictures on his iPhone to show me the rest of the studio—the twenty-by-twenty-foot area on the ground floor where he does his painting, and the adjoining, much larger workshop space, filled with machinery and tools to make whatever he needs. “I’m in the midst right now of developing the graphic novel,” he said, “but I also paint every day. I’m always doing several things simultaneously—they overlap, and become completely integrated. I hate to have people drop in on me here because it breaks my concentration. Cheryl gives me a courtesy call before she comes, and”—laughing—“she has to call before she gets to the corner of my block.”
Through the decades, Marshall said, a lot of people have tried to introduce Black superheroes. One of the first was the Black Panther, who appeared in Marvel Comics’ “The Fantastic Four” in 1966. “But none of them got the kind of traction that Superman or Batman or Spider-Man had, and that gave me a challenge.” Marshall saw no point in a Black superhero who was created by a white artist, and for that reason he has little interest in the new Black Panther series that was developed by Marvel, and written by Ta-Nehisi Coates. “If all you can do is take characters that already exist, it’s a failure to me,” he said. Marshall wanted to invent his own characters, and a narrative and a world in which they could function. He found his narrative in two things that were happening simultaneously in Chicago in the late nineties: the “explosion of violence” that the gang wars were inflicting on young people, and the demolition of public housing, “which moved kids into neighborhoods where the gangs didn’t want them.” His superhero is dual—Rythm Mastr, an old man who teaches his young protégé, Farell, the ancient secrets of drumming that can activate the powers of African tribal objects on display at the Art Institute of Chicago. There are echoes of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker here, but the characters are different, and, anyway, why not? “ ‘Star Wars’ is more than a trilogy,” Marshall said. “Those characters are iconic—there isn’t a person on the planet who doesn’t know who Darth Vader is.” What Marshall has in mind is a film on the scale of the Steven Spielberg and George Lucas epic. “My goal is to match the iconic level of ‘Star Wars,’ ” he said.
Marshall clearly sees this magnum opus as both an art work and a cinematic blockbuster. “I think it can be as complex as anything I’ve done as a painter,” he said recently to Arthur Jafa, who shares Marshall’s love of comics, and, in particular, of Jack Kirby, the comic-book artist who collaborated with the writer Stan Lee to co-create the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk, and other Marvel Comics superheroes. “Jack Kirby was the man, the king,” Jafa told me. “A Jewish guy from the Lower East Side invented all this stuff. You think of the ten biggest-selling movies of all time, and several of them are Marvel Comics adaptations, right? And they all come out of this one guy Jack Kirby. He had a bigger visual impact on me than anyone. I think he’s up there with Charlie Parker and Picasso and Miles Davis.”
Kirby’s drawings, Marshall said, have an artistry that goes beyond technical skill. “He was a great storyteller with pictures—looking at one of his comic books is like watching a movie. The page layout and the way the action is drawn is really dynamic. There’s a kind of electric plasma that he did with dots—they’re called Kirby dots—to show something that’s been charged with radiation. I always saw the absence of Black superheroes in comic books as a failure of Black imagination that needed to be resolved, and I wanted to be an inventor, like Kirby, rather than a follower.”
In our mezzanine conversation, Marshall told me that the “Rythm Mastr” story line has become increasingly complex. There are now two different groups of people trying to stop the gang violence—Farell and his crew of Afrocentric drummers, and a posse of wheelchair-bound tech wizards, victims of drive-by shootings, who use weaponized robots against gangs. He also said that Chicago is no longer where it happens. “I’ve substituted a city and a world that I created myself,” he said. “It’s invention the whole way. And I don’t think it will take another ten years. It’s possible within the next five.”
In the early two-thousands, a few perceptive curators started to think about giving Marshall a mid-career survey show. Elizabeth Smith, the chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago at the time, approached him about doing one. Marshall didn’t want a survey. What he wanted was a show of existing and new works of his that dealt with Black identity and Black culture in white society. This led to “Kerry James Marshall: One True Thing, Meditations on Black Aesthetics,” which opened in Chicago in 2003 and travelled to museums in Miami, Baltimore, New York (the Studio Museum), and Birmingham. Five years later, though, Madeleine Grynsztejn, who had recently become the director of MCA Chicago, proposed doing a full-scale retrospective of Marshall’s work there and he said yes. At Grynsztejn’s suggestion, they decided to wait until he turned sixty. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles signed on to take the show when Helen Molesworth became its chief curator in 2014. The Metropolitan Museum of Art had already agreed to do the same, a decision that helped make the exhibition a major art-world event.
Marshall gave Grynsztejn and Molesworth complete freedom to do the kind of show they wanted, a chronological survey that concentrated on his paintings. They wanted to call it “Kerry James Marshall: Old Master,” but he balked at that. “Kerry didn’t like the word ‘old,’ ” Molesworth confided, smiling. “He came back with ‘Mastry.’ I think he liked playing with the word—what it meant to have mastery, and to misspell it and make it colloquial, and put it in the tradition of African American wordplay.” “Mastry” opened at MCA Chicago in April, 2016. I saw it a few months later in New York, where its seventy-two paintings filled two floors in the Met Breuer, at that time the Met’s modern and contemporary branch. (The building had formerly housed the Whitney Museum of American Art.) For me and for many others, the exhibition placed Kerry James Marshall in the pantheon of great living artists. “One might have thought it impossible for contemporary art to simultaneously occupy a position of beauty, difficulty, didacticism, and formalism with such power,” the artist Carroll Dunham wrote, in Artforum. “There really are no other American painters who have taken on such a project.”
Painting after painting bore witness to the fusion of image and idea, and to the subtle, not so subtle, and sometimes hilarious references to art history. The “Vignette” series (2003-12) shows mostly young Black people in antique clothes enjoying the rococo charms of Fragonard’s “The Progress of Love.” “Do Black people seek out pleasure?” Marshall asked me. “Of course. So let’s have some of it.”
In “Black Painting,” whose blackness is so deep that it takes a minute or more to make out the image, two people are in bed, one of them a woman who has just heard something that prompts her to raise herself up on one arm. Marshall’s junior high school was a few blocks from the Black Panther headquarters in Los Angeles, and he remembers the police raid on it in 1969. His painting shows “the instant when nothing has happened yet, but it’s about to happen,” he said. “It’s not Fred Hampton and his wife; it’s meant to evoke the whole range of police raids on the Black Panthers.” The painting is dated 2003-06, because Marshall was not satisfied with its first incarnation; he took it back from his New York gallery and continued to work on it, off and on, for three years.
Marshall’s paintings often have inexplicable elements. “7am Sunday Morning”—the title refers to Edward Hopper’s “Early Sunday Morning”—is divided down the middle. The left half is a precise, almost photo-realist rendering of a street crossing near Marshall’s studio, with red brick storefronts, a pedestrian in a yellow jacket, and a flight of birds overhead. The only unclear object is a blurred gray car, speeding across the space and linking the left side of the painting to the right side, where nothing is clear. I asked Marshall what was going on there. “It’s like a lens flare,” he replied. “It’s the sun reflected in the glass of that building on the corner, an optical phenomenon that lets you introduce into the space something that’s not there, a mirage.” His aim was to catch “a moment that’s miraculous in the context of a mundane, ordinary day.” There are several such moments in his huge, 2012 “School of Beauty, School of Culture,” which channels his earlier “De Style” and also Velázquez’s “Las Meninas.” Here we are in a hairdressing salon, where eight or nine women talk or preen or stand and watch. The critic Peter Plagens described it as “one of the most complex orchestrations of color in contemporary painting.” A large poster of a woman with a flower in her hair, on the wall at the far right, is from Chris Ofili’s 2010 show at Tate Britain in London. (“I was absolutely floored when I saw that image,” Ofili told me. “I’m still honored when I think of it.”) Two toddlers are in the foreground, one of them a boy, who is peering at a distorted yellow-and-white shape on the floor, which no one else seems to have noticed; it is an image that can be seen only from an extreme angle, an anamorphosis, like the skull in Hans Holbein’s “The Ambassadors”—in Marshall’s painting, it is Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. The idea of white female beauty as the impregnable standard in Western art is only one of the questions raised by this endlessly evocative painting.
Marshall’s craftsmanship and free-ranging imagination make his later work as unpredictable as “A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self.” The “Painter” series shows confident, sumptuously dressed women and men, several of whom pose in front of their unfinished, paint-by-number canvases. Anyone can paint, they seem to say; their absurdly oversized palettes are abstract paintings in themselves. There is a series of imaginary portraits, most of them of historical figures such as Nat Turner, the rebel slave, who holds the hatchet he has used to kill his master, and Harriet Tubman, portrayed as a young woman, with the man she just married, who has vanished from the historical record. The exhibition at the Met also included an example of Marshall’s photographs of people—himself, his wife, and several close friends—in black light, which is ultraviolet light. “What this does is to give this beautiful dark tone to the skin, and a kind of blue wash over everything,” Naomi Beckwith, the Guggenheim Museum’s chief curator, and one of the sitters, said. “Kerry has always been interested in the question ‘What would art history look like if we had saturated it with Black American cultural history?’ ”
The most indelible painting in the show, to me, was his 2014 “Untitled: (Studio).” It shows four people and a yellow dog in a room where radiant color and magically calibrated design make it feel like the most desirable place on earth. It’s hard to imagine a painting more mysteriously seductive than this, but Chris Ofili is convinced that Marshall’s best work is yet to come. Comparing him recently to a Formula One racing driver, Ofili said, “For quite some years, we’ve been watching Kerry doing warmup laps to get his tires sticky. Now he’s ready to assert his authority on the contemporary history of painting. His tires are sticky, and he knows he can take the corners a little bit tighter than before.”
A big retrospective can derail an artist’s career, but Marshall took his in stride. When “Mastry” was about to close at the Met, the museum gave him an informal party in the Temple of Dendur which was one of the most joyous gatherings I have ever attended. Something magnificent had happened, and was being celebrated. Soon afterward, Marshall went to the opening in Los Angeles, and then returned, with a sigh of relief, to his studio and his unrelenting work schedule. Only a few people were aware that he had undergone successful surgery for prostate cancer early in 2016. In the past two years, Cheryl Bruce has had a pulmonary embolism and a second knee replacement. They are both in good health now, and they have decided to move to Los Angeles. It won’t happen for a few years—they are too busy with ongoing projects and obligations—but the bitterly cold Chicago winters and a yearning to spend more time with their families are too strong to resist. Marshall’s brothers and sisters and their children live in or near L.A., and so does Bruce’s married daughter, Sydney Kamlager, who went into politics and was recently elected to the California State Senate. (Marshall, her godfather as well as her stepfather, now calls her Senator Godchild.)
In the meantime, their Chicago life continues as before. Marshall gets up at five-thirty or six every morning and is in his studio by eight-thirty. Before her knee operation, Bruce was performing several times a week in “Theater for One,” a production, in Chicago, for a solo actor and a sole audience member. In the evening, Bruce cooks dinner, and they argue and spar amiably. She makes fun of his erudition, calls him El Jefe, and threatens to beat him up. Years ago, they had talked about having a child. “The timing was always wrong, and somehow it didn’t work out,” Bruce said. After dinner, they watch classic films from Marshall’s extensive collection, and at eleven-thirty they tune in to “NHK World-Japan,” a Japanese channel (in English) that Marshall, who discovered it, describes as being devoted to explaining what it means to be Japanese. “You see craft traditions that are hundreds and sometimes thousands of years old,” he said. Lately, they’ve been glued to the sumo-wrestling tournaments that are shown for fifteen days every other month. “Cheryl has become obsessed with sumo wrestling,” Marshall said.
Since his retrospective, the prices paid for Marshall’s work embarrass him. “Past Times” sold at Sotheby’s in 2018 for twenty-one million dollars, the highest auction price yet registered for a living African American artist. (The buyer was Sean Combs.) David Zwirner, the mega-dealer who represents Marshall in Europe, told me that his new paintings can sell for seven or eight million dollars. Marshall is a semi-celebrity: his name turns up in rap songs, including “Vendetta,” by Vic Mensa, and “One Way Flight,” by Benny the Butcher. He is working on a new series of paintings, called “Black and part Black Birds,” which will eventually include all the species in John James Audubon’s “The Birds of America” that are black or have black markings. Using Audubon’s images as a starting point, he depicts each species in a fanciful environment, perched on trees and posts adorned with brilliant flowers. Marshall is a longtime bird-watcher. A few years ago, he captured a juvenile crow in his bare hands—the bird was sitting on a low limb of a tree near his property, and he managed to sneak up on it from behind. He tied one of the bird’s legs to a milk crate on the second-floor deck of his house, took photos and videos, set out water and mulberries for it to eat, and released it the next morning. “I’d always had a fantasy about a crow that was my friend, and would come to my call,” he told me.
“London Bridge,” which he painted in 2017, is his most recent history picture in the grand manner. The famous landmark was judged unsafe for traffic in the early sixties, and an American entrepreneur named Robert P. McCulloch bought it from the city, dismantled it, and used the parts to create a replica, as a tourist attraction, on the shore of Arizona’s Lake Havasu. “The picture is about dislocation,” according to Marshall, who obviously had a fine time painting it. Among the tourists strolling near the bridge is a Black man, dressed in the Beefeater costume of the guards of the Tower of London. He’s wearing a sandwich board that advertises “Olaudah’s Fish and Chips,” which refers to another dislocation. “One of the earliest slave narratives was by Olaudah Equiano,” Marshall explained, smiling broadly. “He and his sister were sold into slavery as children, and Olaudah ended up as a servant to a British sea captain. He eventually became free, settled in England, married an Englishwoman, and got rich from his book.” In the painting, Marshall said, “the staff he carries has a picture of Queen Victoria, and the song he’s singing”—it’s notated on a scroll—“is the Rolling Stones’ ‘Sympathy for the Devil.’ ” The painting was bought by the Tate, where it quickly became a crowd favorite.
Marshall’s determination to know more than anyone else about whatever he does is unabated. “Kerry is like Goya, you know,” Madeleine Grynsztejn told me. “He’s a political, social, emotional, intellectual powerhouse.There’s a drawing that Goya made in his last years of an old man, bent over, leaning on two sticks, who says ‘Aun aprendo’—I’m still learning. That’s Kerry.” ♦