"I persist, trying to make pictures that inscribe black existential realities without sacrificing a sense of majesty. I'm driven by a desire to meaningfully provoke others' curiosity, to paint without cynicism. I still believe in mastery; in the service of imagination it can exceed the limitations of circumstance."
— Kerry James Marshall
Keeping the Culture
Set in a revolutionary apartment in the cosmos, Kerry James Marshall's Keeping the Culture optimistically anticipates a future that pays homage to the past. Ushering in a new stage of the artist's output, Keeping the Culture shifts focus from the failed utopia of urban renewal and the commemoration of civil rights era heroes in favor of a more technically refined meditation on the preservation of the traditional and spiritual values that shaped a culture. Placed in an ultramodern environment, two siblings marvel at a projection of the earth--in which Marshall has aptly positioned the African continent toward the viewer-while their affectionate parents dance in the foreground. Overlooking the milky way, Marshall's space-age flat is decorated with earthly relics-wooden tribal sculptures, rugs and tapestries-a meaningful marriage between old and new.
Marshall's pictures use a unique adaptation of the narrative tradition to condense aspects of the African American experience. As an artist raised in Birmingham, Alabama and later raised in Watts, his own life has taken place on the turbulent axes of black history in the States; in his artworks, Marshall commemorates this mixed and often troubled legacy through story and history, through the translation of personal experience. "I've always wanted to be a history painter on a grand scale like Giotto and Gericault" he reflects " but the moment when that kind of painting was really possible seems so distant, especially after Pollock and Polke.
Nevertheless, I persist, trying to construct meaningful pictures that solicit identification with, and reflection on Black existential realities" (Kerry James Marshall in a letter to Arthur Jafa in the summer of 1994). Keeping the Culture pays homage to the past, letting us appreciate the importance of the consequences of positive actions in order to promote an optimistic vision of the future, celebrating the values that will stand true for generations to come.
At the First Post-War and Contemporary Art auction held in Christie’s in New York on September 26 & 27, 2013, the original painting of Keeping the Culture was the only work of art, with over four hundred lots offered, given four full pages in the auction catalog which complements the importance and value of these rare screenprint and linocut prints.
Kerry James Marshall was born in 1955 in Birmingham, Alabama, and was educated at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, from which he received a BFA, and an honorary doctorate (1999). The subject matter of his paintings, installations, and public projects is often drawn from African-American popular culture, and is rooted in the geography of his upbringing: "You can't be born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1955 and grow up in South Central [Los Angeles] 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. That determined a lot of where my work was going to go," says Marshall.
In his "Souvenir" series of paintings and sculptures, he pays tribute to the civil rights movement with mammoth printing stamps featuring bold slogans of the era ("Black Power!") and paintings of middle-class living rooms, where ordinary African-American citizens have become angels tending to a domestic order populated by the ghosts of Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and other heroes of the 1960s. In "RYTHM MASTR," Marshall creates a comic book for the twenty-first century, pitting ancient African sculptures come to life against a cyberspace elite that risks losing touch with traditional culture. Marshall's work is based on a broad range of art-historical references, from Renaissance painting to black folk art, from El Greco to Charles White.
A striking aspect of Marshall's paintings is the emphatically black skin tone of his figures—a development the artist says emerged from an investigation into the invisibility of blacks in America and the unnecessarily negative connotations associated with darkness. Marshall believes, "You still have to earn your audience's attention every time you make something."
With his works in 2002, Marshall literally and metaphorically closes the curtain on the period where he commemorates and chronicles the civil rights movement and starts the beginning of his exploration of black aesthetics.
The term “black aesthetics” first emerged in the 1960s within the Black Power movement as a way to raise awareness for black rights, foster black cultural pride and develop strategies for African Americans to participate more actively in the mainstream of U.S. society. The Black Arts movement, an outgrowth of the Black Power movement, took the concept further, creating a set of standards for music and literature from an African-American perspective.
Marshall extends this concept into the visual arts by drawing upon the rich layering of language, music and art characteristic of black expression. Like a jazz composer superimposing multiple rhythms and harmonies, Marshall mixes a myriad of sources to highlight the uniqueness of black culture and to advance new interpretations of traditional Western art forms. According to Marshall, he has tried to “make a visual equivalent to the idiosyncratic, haunting music of Robert Johnson and Howling Wolf and blues that functions and resonates the same way as a musical form does.” Marshall describes this work as sentimental and romantic ode to Africa as a source of black culture and creative inspiration.
The sheer beauty of Kerry James Marshall work speaks to an art that is simultaneously formally rigorous and socially engaged. Marshall lives in Chicago.
Museum and Public Collections
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid
Whitney Museum of Art, New York
Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
Studio Museum in Harlem, NY
Arkansas Art Center, Little Rock
Art Bank Santa Monica Arts Commission, CA
Loyola Law School, Los Angeles
Laguna Art Museum, CA
Wadsworth Atheneum, Boston
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Denver Art Museum
St. Louis Art Museum
Johnson County Community College, Overland Park, KS
University of Arizona Museum of Art, Tucson
Art Institute of Chicago
Legler Branch Chicago Public Library, Chicago
Dain Bosworth Inc., Los Angeles
The Contemporary Museum, Honolulu
Peter & Eileen Norton Family Foundation, Santa Monica
The MacArthur Foundation, Chicago
Lewis Manilow Foundation, Chicago
Principal Financial Group, Des Moines
Progressive Corporation, Cleveland
Seattle Art Museum
Sheldon Memorial Gallery, Lincoln, Nebraska
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Pearl C. Woods Gallery, Los Angeles