Kerry James Marshall: Artist Portrait

Kerry James Marshall

Born 1955.

Works by Kerry James Marshall at Sotheby's

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Kerry James Marshall Biography

The artist Kerry James Marshall is principally known for his visually striking and skillfully executed acrylic paintings that explore ideas and concepts around the modern African American experience. Born in 1955 in Birmingham, Alabama, and raised in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, from 1963—just a couple years prior to the eruption of the Watts Riot—Marshall’s personal history between these two locales greatly influenced both himself as an artist and the development of his personal style. Saying of his early life experience, “You can’t be born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1955 and grow up in South Central near the Black Panthers headquarters, and not feel like you’ve got some kind of social responsibility. You can’t move to Watts in 1963 and not speak about it.”

Marshall studied at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, earning his BFA in 1978 (in 1999 the Institute would award him an honorary doctorate), and in 1985 he received a residency fellowship from the Studio Museum in Harlem. In 1987 he and his family relocated to Chicago, Illinois, and within a few short years his work began garnering national acclaim; one of his first significant career achievements was receiving a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which ultimately allowed him to pursue art on a full-time basis. Marshall subsequently went on to be the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Grant in 1997, which is often colloquially referred to as a “genius grant.”

Within Marshall’s oeuvre, the central figuration in his works is always, as he has described them, “unequivocally black, emphatically black.” Common in his paintings as well is the presence of canonic modes and motifs from Western art history, which in turn highlights the historical absence of black figures within the history of art on a whole. Speaking of the references to art historical canon present in his work, Marshall describes part of his overarching ambition, saying, “When you talk about the absence of black figure representation in the history of art, you can talk about it as an exclusion, in which case there’s a kind of indictment of history for failing to be responsible for something it should have been. I don’t have that kind of mission. I don’t have that indictment. My interest in being a part of it is being an expansion of it, not a critique of it.”

Marshall has been included in numerous national and international exhibitions, including the Whitney Biennial, Documenta, and the Venice Biennale, and his work is held in numerous museum collections, such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Art Institute of Chicago; and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He currently resides and works in Chicago.

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Artist Image: Credit: fototext / Alamy Stock Photo