Photo: Dawoud Bey

Kerry James Marshall is looking for a book—an artifact, really. It’s buried somewhere in a back corner of his studio, a slim, two-level brick building on a corner in Bronzeville. He shoves aside some boxes. Behind them, three bookcases are filled with sets of encyclopedias that Marshall has collected. The library is an apt introduction to a painter who, at 60, has spent his career meticulously studying the canon of Western art with one question in mind: Where are all the black people?

After a few minutes, Marshall spots the book, its spine held together with duct tape: Great Negroes: Past and Present. Marshall was in fifth grade when he first encountered it. He had a preexisting passion for art—it started with his third-grade teacher, who taught him to paint flowers—but his imagination was captured by one of the book’s subjects: Charles White, a Chicago-born artist whose social realist drawings and murals depicted the everyday lives of African Americans. Marshall did a project on White, a Works Progress Administration artist, for his school’s Negro History Week. It wasn’t until two years later that Marshall realized White was still alive and teaching at an art school in Los Angeles, where Marshall lived at the time. So, in seventh grade, he made a decision: He would study under White at the Otis College of Art and Design.


Now, four decades into his career, Marshall has long since joined Charles White—who died in 1979—in the ranks of important African American artists. A MacArthur “genius,” he is widely recognized as one of the country’s preeminent contemporary painters. He has shown pieces all over the globe, including at the Whitney Biennial and Documenta, and in 2013 the National Gallery of Art hosted an exhibit of Marshall’s work to showcase its acquisition of his Great America, a tart, haunting rendering of the transatlantic slave trade as a ghastly carnival ride.

And now Marshall is the subject of a new retrospective, Mastry, which will open in Chicago at the Museum of Contemporary Art on April 23. “The best, pound for pound,” says Helen Molesworth, the chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and cocurator of Mastry.“He’s one of the most important artists of his generation.”

For Marshall, the best measure of that success is whether his work has affected others. “What’s the point of making artwork—of making anything—if it doesn’t in some way become influential or meaningful to the progress of somebody else?” he says.

Marshall, who has lived on the South Side since following his wife, the actress, writer, and director Cheryl Lynn Bruce (Head of Passes), to Chicago in 1987, was always drawn to the canvas. His interest began in 1963 when his parents—his father worked as a dishwasher at a VA hospital; his mother was a homemaker—moved him and his two siblings from Birmingham, Alabama, to Nickerson Gardens, a public housing project in the Watts area of Los Angeles. It was there that Marshall began to sketch obsessively. He didn’t create much original work but absorbed every technique he could from the Jon Gnagy TV show Learn to Draw. He went to the library and studied every art book he could find.

In high school, Marshall sneaked into Otis and sat at the back of Charles White’s evening art class, hoping to remain unnoticed. “I didn’t have any business being in there in the first place, and then there was a naked person in there, so that was even more of a factor, you know,” Marshall recalls, laughing. White noticed the youngster and approached him, saying, “You can’t see nothing from back here.” He moved Marshall to the front and taught him how to draw a head in profile. He could come back anytime, White said. The memory makes Marshall grin. He has a broad, generous smile, and he punctuates most sentences with it.

Marshall knew he wanted to be an artist, but he didn’t know what kind. After graduating from Otis—he did end up studying, formally, under White—he tried some social realist stuff. He tried collage. He tried abstraction. But none of it fit. “I hadn’t quite figured out what my interest in making art was supposed to be,” he says. “Except I really wanted to do it.”

So, at 25, he decided to return to the basics and paint a self-portrait—a classic portrait, almost. Its title alluded to a great literary work: Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self. Marshall used egg tempera, a 13th-century favorite. He adopted compositional techniques associated with artists such as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael. But, of course, his subject was black. So black that the shade of his skin is deeper than the portrait’s black background, which he fades into, as if invisible. Compared with conventional European portraiture, it’s like a photo negative. “This is where I first started to figure out you can use all that information, all that knowledge, you can use that technique, you can use this medium, but it doesn’t have to look like any of the things that you say it’s intellectually based on.”


And so Marshall settled on creating a body of work inspired by and in dialogue with the classics—his early barbershop portrait De Style, for example, its name a sly play on the Dutch abstract art movement de Stijl—while remaining resolutely its own thing. He found success with a simple insistence on placing black people, and black history, at the center of his raucous, colorful paintings, and that has opened a space for younger artists.

One Marshall disciple, Kehinde Wiley, the star 39-year-old New York artist whose huge canvases show black people in the heroic postures favored by the old masters, has said that when, as a child, he walked into the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and saw a Kerry James Marshall painting, its black subjects highlighted nothing so much as their absence elsewhere in the museum.

In a certain sense, young Kehinde Wileys have always been Marshall’s target audience. “If I have anything to do with it, you’ll always be able to encounter a picture that has a black person in it that’s also made by a black person,” says Marshall.

But his work does more than simply represent black people in art; many of his pieces also express something humorous, or ambivalent, or ironic, which the painter credits to a moment when he was 9 years old. He and his brother watched as the Watts riots—which erupted in 1965 out of the black community’s growing frustrations with its plight—lit up Los Angeles. Marshall spent most of the night looking out the window of a neighbor’s second-floor apartment. Across the street, he saw a Jack in the Box, the restaurant all burned up except for its ludicrous clown head out front. “Everything was pitch-black behind, because the lights were out, but there was a wall of flames, and the jack-in-the-box was on the top of that pole, just slowly going around,” recalls Marshall. “It was surreal.”


The rioters had made a potent political statement; they’d also, in the process, burned down their neighborhood. “That clown really started to make things come into focus. It said: ‘You think this is funny now? Wait till you wake up tomorrow morning. You’ll see how funny it is. You can’t even go to the store.’ ”

Marshall’s paintings are about the inescapableness of history—an appraisal from the morning after. They’re often dark or grim, but they’re never hopeless. What he wants is to show black people in every kind of circumstance, he says, to create a “whole-person picture of the black figure” through his body of work: “They can be political at times. They can be mundane at times. They can be heroic at times. They’re all of those things.”

About two hours have gone by, and Marshall suddenly remembers something he meant to say about the book that set him on his path. When he was named a MacArthur fellow in 1997, he used the grant money to buy his first studio. Like his current one, it was in Bronzeville; it was on Indiana Avenue and had formerly housed a roofing company. As Marshall was clearing out some of the junk, he opened a desk drawer, and there it was: Great Negroes: Past and Present. Just sitting there, left behind by a previous tenant. He hadn’t seen a copy since fifth grade. “So of course I keep this,” he says, holding the book in his hands. “I could never get rid of this.”


Five of Marshall’s Standout Works

‘Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self’ by Kerry James Marshall

Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self 1980

Photo: Matthew Fried, © MCA Chicago

Marshall painted this, his first major work, at 25, just a few years after graduating from art school. The title is a nod to a book by James Joyce, and the image itself to Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, who was a huge influence. The piece launched a series that Marshall created in the 1980s of similarly mordant black-on-black paintings, one of which was actually titled Invisible Man. For all the punch it packs, Portrait measures just six and a half by eight inches—one of Marshall’s smallest works on paper.


‘Beauty Examined’ by Kerry James Marshall

Beauty Examined 1993

Photo: Matthew Fried, Courtesy of Charles and Nancy Adams-Sims, © MCA Chicago

One of the first paintings Marshall created in response to a historical work, this piece recalls Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp. But Marshall puts a black female body under the knife in place of the white male cadaver. It’s a critique of white beauty standards—a frequent refrain in his work.


‘Many Mansions’ by Kerry James Marshall

Many Mansions 1994

Photo: The Art Institute of Chicago, Max V. Kohnstamm Fund, © The Art Institute of Chicago

In 1963, when a 7-year-old Marshall moved with his family into Los Angeles’s Nickerson Gardens, his initial impression was that the housing project was “paradisical.” After all, there was a yard, a gymnasium, and a library from which he could borrow toys. Only later was the neighborhood beset by neglect and violence. In the 1990s, Marshall created a series of paintings depicting public housing projects—including Nickerson Gardens and Chicago’s Stateway Gardens and Altgeld Gardens. In an ironic flourish, he called the series The Garden Project. Despite their sunny names, the locales were at this point “notorious for everything but being garden spots,” he says. Still, for years after the Chicago high-rises were torn down on the South Side, Marshall noticed former residents gathering on the vacant lots for barbecues during the summer. “For all the hardship, there was pleasure to be had,” he recalls of growing up in the projects. “There was community to be had.”


‘Vignette’ by Kerry James Marshall

Vignette 2003

Photo: Defares Collection, Image courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner, London

Marshall says that this Edenic painting, first displayed at his 2003 show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, poses a question: “How do you recover something like that [Eden] when you, after generations, have been conditioned by a history of deprivation?” In earlier works, Marshall favored painting subjects with an absolute blackness, but here the figures have more nuanced tones. Vignette was his first painting to fetch more than $1 million. It went to a private collector.


‘School of Beauty, School of Culture’ by Kerry James Marshall

School of Beauty, School of Culture 2012

Photo: Sean Pathasema, Collection of the Birmingham Museum of Art. Museum purchase with funds provided by Elizabeth (Bibby) Smith, the Collectors Circle for Contemporary Art, Jane Comer, the Sankofa Society, and general acquisition funds

Inspired by Your School of Beauty Culture, a cosmetology school a block from Marshall’s Bronzeville studio, this piece reflects, he says, a space where “[black] women go to make themselves into their own ideal of beauty.” Contrasting white-centric notions are represented by the distorted Sleeping Beauty head, which mimics the tilted skull in the 16th-century painting The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger.

GO Mastry runs April 23 to September 25 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave. $7 to $12.