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Kerry James Marshall’s Met Breuer retrospective brings black lives to the fore

Written by
Paul Laster

An artist who grew up in Los Angeles during the racial turmoil of the 1960s and then settled in Chicago in the late ’80s, Kerry James Marshall is celebrated for creating a space for black people within the canon of Western painting. He is now the subject of a retrospective at the Met Breuer—the largest such survey of an American artist in the history of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. From his Chicago studio, Marshall recently spoke with us about the show (“Mastry”), his passion for the Old Masters and the  influence of African-American writers on his work.

You’ve included an early self-portrait of a shadowy figure who is mostly visible by the white of his eyes, teeth and shirt. What was your thinking there?
I look at that picture as a kind of reset after coming to the conclusion that the kind of work I’d been doing—abstract collage and assemblage—wasn’t getting me to where I wanted to go.

And where was that?
I realized that art history is built on representation, which mostly meant white figures. I wanted to represent the black body at the same level of complexity, sophistication and aesthetic value. You can’t achieve real equality unless people are able to see it in art.

I’ve read that you love the Old Masters. How has their art inspired yours?
My desire to make art came from reading about the Old Masters and going on field trips to museums. My favorite paintings at the Los Angeles County Museum were two Paulo Veronese canvases of male figures that looked like superheroes. I was also interested in the Flemish painters, who had a style of  clarity and crispness that  appealed to me.

How did growing up in Los Angeles during turbulent times impact your life and art?
It had a profound effect on me and on what I would later feel was important to do as an artist. Art history is filled with work  that tells a story. The Watts riots and the LAPD  raids on the Black Panthers and the Black Student Union protests were bound to 
inspire me.

You mention telling stories. How important is that to your work?
I’m less interested in storytelling than I am in staging scenarios, putting people in situations in a way that you can make up your own narrative from their presence.

Speaking of narratives, does African-American literature play 
a role in your art?
My painting Invisible Man was hugely inspired by the famous Ralph Ellison book of the same title. It helped me understand the different qualities of the black figure’s invisibility, an idea found in everyone from Richard Wright to Toni Morrison. So yes, those writings have had a big impact on me.

“Kerry James Marshall: Mastry” is at the Met Breuer Wed 25–Jan 29

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