Kerry James Marshall’s Powerful Critique of the Western Canon

Kerry James Marshall’s Powerful Critique of the Western Canon

F ollowing Sotheby’s inaugural iteration of The Now Evening Auction in New York in November 2021, which was 100% sold, the sale series returns to New York this May anchored by Kerry James Marshall’s exceptional Beauty Examined, a powerful and historically resonant large-scale work critiquing the anatomical dehumanization of Black bodies throughout Western art and culture. Executed in 1993, the same year as the artist’s debut solo exhibition at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, Beauty Examined is a pivotal example of Marshall’s revolutionary synthesis of formal rigor and social critique, which seamlessly weaves text, found imagery, and art historical references with motifs of the artist’s own invention to examine the complex intersections of art history, aesthetic culture, and scientific racism.

Kerry James Marshall's Beauty Examined

Drawing on a wide range of art historical and cultural influences, such as Andrea Mantegna’s Lamentation of Christ, Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, Thomas Eakin’s The Gross Clinic, Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings, and 19th century ethnographic studies, Beauty Examined is a powerful critique of the Western art tradition, fusing these references into a singular image that spotlights the historical subjugation of the Black female body and lays bare the brutality of the gaze to which it has been subjected.

As a star lot of The Now Evening Auction on 19 May, Beauty Examined will be offered at auction for the first time with an estimate of $8–12 million. The sale this May also marks the most significant work by Marshall to come to auction since Sotheby’s record-setting sale of Past Times in 2018, which sold for $21.1 million to Grammy Award-winning record producer and entrepreneur Sean Combs.

Detail of Beauty Examined

Proceeds from the sale of Beauty Examined will benefit the Institute for Genetics and Translational Genomics at California’s Loma Linda University, where the painting has resided since 2019 as a gift of alumnus Dr. Charles Sims. Noting its themes of anatomy and the historical study of the body, Dr. Sims’ gift to the university showcased the dialogue between the painting and Loma Linda’s mission-focused educational vision to transform lives through selfless service, including its innovative medical research and healthcare programs.

“Kerry James Marshall is one of the most dynamic and influential artists working today, whose paintings and portraits insert Black figures into a wide range of pictorial traditions. Beauty Examined is a quintessential example of the artist’s work, interrogating both the Western art canon and collective preconceptions of beauty.”
Elizabeth Webb, Sotheby’s Senior Specialist, Contemporary Art

Making its auction debut this May, Beauty Examined has not been on the market since its initial acquisition by Dr. Sims in 1993, who then gifted the work to Loma Linda University in 2019. As both a resounding manifesto and an emotional spotlight on the scrutiny to which Black women’s bodies have been subjected for centuries, Beauty Examined is an exceptional example of Marshall’s acclaimed contributions to art history, reconfiguring and interrogating the accepted modes of representation. As a testament to the significance of Beauty Examined within Marshall’s prodigious career, the painting was one of the most critically and publicly lauded works that was selected for Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, the major mid-career survey that ran from 2016 – 2017 that was co-organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

Images from left to right: Andrea Mantegna, Lamentation of Christ, 1480. Image © Pinacoteca di Brera, Milano / Bridgeman Images.
Kerry James Marshall’s 'Beauty Examined.' Estimate $8-12 million.

B eauty Examined emphatically declares the arrival of Kerry James Marshall’s mature and celebrated artistic project: the thorough interrogation of the Western art history to revise its traditions and counter the glaring absence of the Black body within the canon. The present work also reflects the ambitious shift in the scale and subject matter of Marshall’s practice in the early 1990s. Beauty Examined was one of the first paintings that Marshall presented in monumental scale on unstretched canvas, as well as one of the earliest paintings by the artist that foregrounded the Black female body.

“Beauty Examined is one of Kerry James Marshall’s most celebrated works. A centerpiece of the celebrated Kerry James Marshall: Mastry exhibition in 2016-17, the work is one of his earliest major paintings to center the Black female figure, which has become a key motif for the artist as he continues to explore race and gender in American society. It is fitting that this work, with its deeply critical examination of the history of anatomical studies and their exploitation of the Black body, will be auctioned to support the medical research initiatives of Loma Linda University, as a reminder of the progress made and the progress that is still needed in order to create a more equitable future. ”
Lucius Elliott, Sotheby’s Head of The Now Evening Auction

Detail of Beauty Examined

While many of Marshall’s paintings celebrate Black culture by representing the Black figure at leisure in exuberant colors, Beauty Examined is more somber in mood. Riffing on anatomical studies, and literally collaging them to the surface of the canvas, Marshall scrutinizes the philosophical examination of the body throughout art history, and exposes the reprehensible narratives that were crafted to support the “scientific” justifications of racism used for centuries to degrade and subjugate Black people.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (Hand Anatomy), 1982. Private Collection. Art © ESTATE OF JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT. LICENSED BY ARTESTAR, NEW YORK

In Beauty Examined, Marshall confronts the artistic canon on its own terms, boldly usurping the grand artistic gestures of past movements to assert the primacy and presence of the Black narrative within the legacy of Western painting and history. In doing so, he has forged a groundbreaking aesthetic path that has inspired new generations of artists and has ever increasing resonance today.

Detail of Beauty Examined

The work will be on view in Sotheby’s Los Angeles galleries from 15 – 20 April before returning to New York for exhibition on 6 May ahead of the auction on 19 May.

Proceeds from the Sale Will Benefit Loma Linda University’s Institute for Genetics and Translational Genomics

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