Kerry James Marshall delivered the 17th annual Plonsker Family Lecture in Contemporary Art to a half-filled Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall on Thursday night – not at all a bad crowd for an arts talk. Marshall is famous for paintings that are traditional in every sense except their subject matter; his paintings are typically of black figures in roles both unexpected and stereotypical. Marshall was a charismatic and sophisticated speaker, amusing his audience and at the same time challenging a mostly white crowd with a perspective that disallows the association of whiteness with normality.
Now based in Chicago, Marshall was born in Birmingham, Ala. in 1955 – one year after the Brown v. Board of Education case and the same year of Rosa Parks’s famous bus ride – and moved to Watts, Calif. in 1963, two years before the riots there.
Marshall spoke about being an art-obsessed African American boy, going to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and feeling both impressed and alienated. “When I went to the museum and didn’t see work by African American artists depicting black figures, that was a problem for me,” he said.
But Marshall acknowledged the significance of what he did see, and was determined to match its quality. For Marshall, his was not an ordinary artistic ambition, but a moral imperative to insert strong black presences into a white tradition.
Marshall was exposed to the artist Charles White at a young age, and he came to see the artist as a role model. “Charles White painted images of black people like I had never seen before,” Marshall said during the lecture, still excited by the memory after 45 years. “Now that’s graphic power,” he said, pointing to a slide of heroic black figures with bulging forearms.
Marshall studied at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, where White had a studio that Marshall was welcome to even before matriculating. On his first visit, Marshall saw White’s works in their early stages, works nearing completion and works at every interim stage of development. White sparked for Marshall the crucial realization that one could be both black and an artist, and demystifyed art teaching him that it was a discipline in which knowledge and hard work counted just as much as talent.
Knowledge is an asset that Marshall values highly and refers to frequently. “You have to know everything at this point,” he told a group of students Friday morning in Paresky. “But there’s always more to know.” Marshall started his career by copying comic books with his boyhood friends, and he was not the most facile copyist in the group. He could not coast on talent; it was only in recognizing his limits that he could fully realize his potential.
Marshall made his reputation in the 1980s, with LACMA taking the lead as the first museum to take on his work in 1983. This era was the heyday of Neo-Expressionism, when big paintings re-emerged as a fashionable commodity after a decade of conceptual austerity. No peintre maudit like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Marshall has been able to extend his career over three decades with a workmanlike ethic, hard-earned skill and impressive sophistication in regards to both the art world and black history.
He paints modern history paintings, representations of historical black figures never before pictured, requiems for the 1960s (“We Mourn Our Loss” – a series picturing shrines to the assassinated liberal heroes of the decade, including the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, Jr.) and urban housing projects euphemistically called gardens that document recent social history. He paints black female nudes meant to redress the absence of desirable black bodies in the history of art. Asked about this during a conversation the next morning, he explained that the objectification of women is doubly problematic for black women, since they are at once stereotyped as hypersexual and excluded from eroticized mass imagery. He sees himself as filling this vacuum with pictures such as “The Prettiest Girl in the Whole Wide World.”
I asked Marshall if the emergence over the last two decades of an exciting generation of young artists – Kara Walker, Glenn Ligon, Mark Bradford, who are engaging in issues of African American identity – changed his sense of what it is to be a black artist in today’s world. Marshall answered that his sense of mission is undiminished. But he did acknowledge that one thing is certain: Contemporary art is no longer the same. If race is now problematized as never before, it is undeniably a rich treasure trove of subject-matter.