By his own account, Kerry James Marshall’s upbringing was crucial to his work, which comprises large-scale paintings, sculptures, and other objects. “You can’t be born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1955 and grow up in South Central [Los Angeles] near the Black Panthers headquarters,” he explains, “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. That determined a lot of where my work was going to go.” In his work—which began with collages reminiscent of Romare Bearden and has been linked to the politically oriented paintings of Leon Golub—Marshall has focused on African-American life and history, specifically the legacy of the Civil Rights movement. Though much of his output is based on contemporary urban life, Marshall’s art is also notable for its broad range of references to art historical precedents, including Renaissance painting, El Greco, black folk art, and Charles White, with whom Marshall studied at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles.
As a youth, Marshall frequented the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and read about artists who studied anatomy—Leonardo da Vinci, in particular. To develop a mastery of the human body, Marshall spent his evenings drawing from a plastic skull and skeleton. After receiving his BFA from Otis College of Art and Design in 1978, he began producing figurative paintings that featured very dark-colored protagonists, which would become his signature style. In the 1980s, Marshall worked on series of paintings including the Invisible Man and Lost Boys, which examined racial stereotypes and notions of beauty while investigating social issues. The Lost Boys works, for instance, confront the deleterious effects of public housing, illiteracy, and poverty.
In the 1990s, Marshall based several pieces on actual events, such as Voyager (1992), which refers to the schooner Wanderer, the last ship that secretly transported African slaves to the United States in 1858. His subsequent projects have continued to examine different aspects of black history; the Mementos series (begun in 1997) focused on the legacy of the Civil Rights movement, and the Vignettes (begun in 2003) picture couples in romantic landscapes reminiscent of eighteenth-century Rococo paintings. Initiated as a way to insert the black figure into historical narratives from which it had been excluded, the Vignettes also led Marshall to explore themes of courtship in natural, urban, and suburban settings.
Maxwell L. Anderson. American Visionaries: Selections from the Whitney Museum of American Art. (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2001), 200.