Contemporary Art

The Study for Kerry James Marshall's Masterpiece Reveals New Insights

By Sotheby's

I n May 2018 Kerry James Marshall’ s pivotal Past Times sold at Sotheby’s for $21.1 million, shattering the artist’s auction record and cementing a new top price at auction for any work of art by a living African American artist.

Now emerges Study for Past Times, an intimate composition that grants rare insight into Marshall’s artistic process. Study for Past Times comes from the collection of Joel Straus, the art advisor who had originally curated the monumental Past Times into Chicago’s McCormick Place Art Collection. Believing the study for the work provided rich access to Marshall’s creative process, Straus purchased it for his family's collection, acquiring it from the artist directly.

Kerry James Marshall, Study for Past Times , 1997. Estimate $900,000–1,200,000 in Contemporary Curated (25 September, New York).

The intimate composition is rich with minute painterly elements and preparatory investigations, affirming Marshall’s uncommon sensitivity to his subject matter through the rigorousness of his workmanship. Completed soon after Marshall’s now iconic Garden Project series, Study for Past Times expands on the artist’s investigation into African American subjects in various states of repose, engaging in leisurely recreational activities more associated with wealthy suburbia than Chicago’s urban landscape. In it’s smaller scale and more experimental rendering, Study for Past Times combines the most thought provoking and visually appealing features of his larger scale paintings along with insights into his compositional and conceptual decision-making in a manner that is seldom afforded by his grander canvases.

Through Study for Past Times, it is possible to see Marshall navigating his conceptual aims. “The overarching principle is still to move the black figure from the periphery to the center," Marshall explains, "and, secondly, to have these figures operate in a wide range of historical genres and stylistic modes culled from the history of painting. Those really are my two overarching conceptual motivations. I am using African American cultural and social history as a catalyst for what kind of pictures to make. What I’m trying to do in my work is address Absence with a capital A.” 1

Kerry James Marshall, Past Time s, 1997. Sold at Sotheby's New York for $21.1 million in May 2018.

The perimeter of Study for Past Times is lined with numbers from one to thirteen, part of the grid system that Marshall used to scale the painting, using an arithmetical preparatory approach to plan his scene such that the study is perfectly proportioned to the finished canvas.

This mathematical exactitude is dramatically countered by passages of intuitive revision. Marshall preserves marks that lay out the development of the scene from idea to execution; faint lines ensconce his figures throughout the sprawling work on paper. In this way, Study for Past Times conflates moments of deliberate premeditation with exploratory mark-making, countering every ruled line with a splash of expressionistic color.

Study for Past Times was selected by this season's curator Grammy-Award-winning producer Swizz Beatz as one of his 16 favorite works from the Contemporary Curated auction.

1. The artist in conversation with Dieter Roeltraete in “An Argument for Something Else,” in Ed., Nav Haq, Kerry James Marshall: Painting and Other Stuff, Ghent 2014, p. 26.

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