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Contemporary Art

Kerry James Marshall's Grand-Scale Urban Pastoral

Kerry James Marshall’s pivotal Past Times (1997) was a highlight of the artist’s recent mid-career survey organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. The most significant work by the renowned artist to ever come to auction, with an estimate of $8,000,000–12,000,000, Past Times is poised to set a new artist record at the Contemporary Art Evening Auction (16 May, New York). 

An extraordinary visual feat that positions Marshall’s singular vision in dialogue with the masters of art history, Past Times has been a cornerstone of Kerry James Marshall’s acclaimed career since it debuted at the 1997 Whitney Biennial. Throughout his career Marshall has consciously pushed against the constraints of art history, subsequently redefining its past, present and future. With Past Times, he confidently reclaims the presence of figures of African descent in the canon of Western art.

“Artistically complex, politically engaged and career-defining, it is an awe-inspiring work of art; standing in front of this astonishing painting, one uncovers layers of meaning and discovery in each and every detail of this richly-laden work,” said Saara Pritchard, Sotheby’s Senior Specialist in Contemporary Art. 

Standing in front of this astonishing painting, one uncovers layers of meaning and discovery in each and every detail of this richly-laden work.
Saara Pritchard, Sotheby’s Senior Specialist in Contemporary Art.

In this immense 108- by 157-inch canvas, Marshall expands upon his foundational series, the 1994–95 Garden Project paintings, first shown in Documenta X in Kassel, 1997. Comprised of five works of art, this group of paintings depicts the daily routines of black residents in romanticized versions of major housing projects in Los Angeles and Chicago, including the Nickerson Gardens housing project, the artist’s childhood home. By calling attention to the gap between the idealized notion of community and the harsh reality of low-income housing, as well as the disconnect between the dire living situations imagined by those on the outside versus the hope retained by those in the inside, Marshall highlights the multi-layered incongruences of these urban settings. Widely regarded as the artist’s first, triumphant artistic breakthrough, the majority of the Garden Project paintings are held in the collections of such museums as the Denver Art Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, amongst others.

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KERRY JAMES MARSHALL, PICTURED HERE IN HIS STUDIO IN THE SOUTH SIDE OF CHICAGO,  REINTERPRETS SCENES FROM WESTERN ART HISTORY. PHOTOGRAPH BY BRETT T. ROSEMAN FOR THE WASHINGTON POST / GETTY IMAGES.

Following completion of these paintings in 1995, Marshall created three final works of immense size and complexity, the last of which is the present work from 1997. Past Times reimagines art history, taking as his point of departure Western masterworks of narrative painting such as Giorgione’s The Tempest, Édouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe and Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. The final product is a brilliant reinterpretation of pastoral scenes in which aristocrats frolicking in Europe are replaced with black figures relaxing on the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago; sailboats, crew shells and parasols are substituted with motorboats, water skiers and boom boxes; and a summer breeze is swept aside by lyrics from Motown and Snoop Dogg. Boldly re-invigorating the grand tradition of Western painting in the service of those made invisible within the same tradition, Marshall’s virtuosic mastery of the grand style demands that the absence of the black artist and subject be not only recognized, but immediately and irrevocably rectified.

This enormous accomplished work is deeply linked to Marshall’s upbringing in Birmingham, Alabama; South Central and Watts, Los Angeles, California; and Chicago, Illinois. As an adolescent and a young adult, Marshall wandered the halls of Los Angeles museums and devoured books in his neighborhood library – through this education, he became acutely aware of the artistic language of the Dutch masters, the French Impressionists and the American Abstract Expressionists, but also the absolute absence of people of African descent in any of these works. This voracious appetite for art history informed Marshall’s singular artistic goal, appropriating the grand artistic gestures of historical movements in order to rectify the glaring absence of the black figure within Western art history.

Before its auction debut, Past Times will be on view beginning 4 May in Sotheby's New York galleries.

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