Untitled (Pen), 1998. C-Print. Gallerist: Kavi Gupta, Chicago
Kerry James Marshall was born in 1955 in Birmingham, Alabama before his family moved to South Central Los Angeles where he was raised in the Watts neighborhood—known for the riots in 1965 that were a response to police brutality. Marshall witnessed the riots and grew up surrounded by the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s, which impacted him deeply and shaped his perspective as an artist.
Marshall was surrounded by a community of Black artists in his neighborhood, which inspired him to pursue an arts education. He was trained as a painter at the Otis Art Institute, choosing painting because of its powerful historical tradition in museums and the art world, and because he has always been fascinated with the work of great painters dating back to the Renaissance. One of the keys to Marshall’s success is that he never felt that he didn’t belong amongst other masterful painters in museums. He states: “You can wait for somebody to let you get in the door, or you can assume your place among equals and put yourself in the world too, and put yourself in the stories that you want to see told.”
Kerry James Marshall is best known for his paintings of blacker-than-black figures with a dignified, calming presence, set in everyday environments such as the barbershop or housing projects. The composition and style of painting are informed by “Old Master painting” – which has been rare in African-American art.
The focus of much of Marshall’s work is American history and specifically the Black experience. It is important to Marshall, however, that his work be viewed as a “beautiful picture,” not just as a political symbol or a form of artful activism. He wants to inspire a sense of awe, and he builds his paintings with extreme precision and “rigorous intention.”
Despite being known as a painter, Marshall has not shied away from creating in other mediums. He has worked with photography, video, comics, and light installations. In his comics, he centers the experiences and possibilities of Black people, aspiring to show what could be: “Images don’t only express our desire but teach us how to desire in the first place. When you get used to seeing images like this that seem attractive or powerful, it teaches you how to desire more of them. They do set your expectations.”
He previously taught painting at the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois in Chicago. In 2017, Marshall was included on Time Magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Though Marshall’s piece in our collection (pictured above) is called “Untitled,” it is actually Barack Obama’s letter opener. He is one of the most highly-regarded American painters of our time and Jane and I are thrilled to have his work in our collection.