Can an artist get much more successful than Kerry James Marshall? Museums everywhere own his work. In 1997, he won the $500,000 MacArthur "genius" award, an ultra-prestigious invitation to Germany's twice-a-decade Documenta show, and a place in the Whitney Museum's biennial. In 2003, a big solo show of Marshall's work toured the country to rave reviews. That same year, he was in the Venice Biennale. By 2007, Marshall had received an unheard-of second invitation to Documenta, where his ghetto-themed conceptual comics may have been the best thing in the 113-artist show.
Success, after success, after success, such as few black artists have ever had. And not nearly good enough. Marshall says that he has yet to measure up to certain of his best-known rivals: "Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael. . . . They represent the core of the historical pantheon of great artists, recognized worldwide. And a big part of my objective is to be listed in the history among those artists."
It's about "a longing to be fully a part of the story of some system you are deeply in love with," says Marshall, no doubt echoing the feelings of another certain black Chicagoan who has made it big lately. And it's about the certain knowledge that, in art at least, no black person has ever truly reached that goal.
Until quite recently, black people have barely even been the subjects of pictures.
Marshall has set out to correct that imbalance. Some of his pictures portray the living rooms of the black middle class. There are also paintings of street toughs, dead before their time. Marshall has painted inner-city housing projects and black lovers by the sea. He has also worked in installation art, photography, video and even puppetry. But whatever the subject, or the medium, his works balance celebration and critique of black America; it's impossible to come to any simple reading of his pictures' point of view.
Marshall was born in 1955, into a working-class family in Birmingham, Ala. When he was 7, his father got a job in the kitchens of a Veterans Affairs hospital in Los Angeles, moving the family to the rough streets of Watts and then to south-central L.A.
Home — the whole neighborhood — was art-free, so Marshall launched his career at the local library: "You learn you can take books out. . . . I just started walking up and down the stacks." By the third and fourth grades he knew "every single art book in the library."
Marshall started copying from the Old Masters — Michelangelo, Raphael and others. "I saw myself as being one of those guys," he says, and assumed that if only he could acquire what he thought of as their "superpower" skills — "a magical thing called the Mastery" — he'd be on his way.
It took Marshall a while to notice that "those guys" almost never portrayed people who looked like him. "I just assumed that when you look at the figures in paintings, they were all white figures — but you don't think of them as white figures. They're just art figures. . . . You never pick up a how-to book that shows how to draw a black man."
That assumption only collapsed in fifth grade, when a project for what was then called Negro History Week led him to a book called "Great Negroes: Past and Present," and its chapter on Charles White, a black artist who drew and painted African-Americans.
By seventh grade, Marshall had a summer scholarship to Otis Art Institute. "I was the only black kid in the class," he says. Which meant he just about fainted when the teacher brought that class upstairs — to a space where White happened to have a studio. "I didn't know Charles White was alive," he says.
Thanks to exhibitions, awards and mentors, and to several years of lousy jobs and scrimping, by 1977 Marshall had enrolled at Otis as an undergraduate. He discovered that, in an art world full of Bruce Nauman videos, the kind of Old Master skills he'd always admired were now considered "antiquated." And he felt, and still feels, that left ambitious black artists out in the cold. Black artists, he says, had to prove mastery of the tradition to own it, and only then could think about moving on. "The lives of black people, in the U.S., have always been about proving your credentials."
He sees that as the story of his career: proving his ownership of the very grandest European tradition, and then seeing if he can take it somewhere new.
When Marshall paints the living rooms of the black middle class, he paints big, on the scale of Old Master altarpieces and history paintings. Some of those living rooms have included icons of black victory: over-the-sofa pictures of civil rights heroes such as John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. But these same canvases also hint at consumerist complacency: Everything's too new and tidy in those living rooms. Goods matter too much. Marshall depicts this black experience, but he also questions it.