For Kerry James Marshall, the mission is clear: Bring portraits of black life into very white art museums

r much of his adult life, the artist Kerry James Marshall has been on a mission to redress a big omission: “When you go to an art museum,” Marshall says, “the thing you’re least likely to encounter is a picture of a black person. When it comes to ideas about art and about beauty, the black figure is absent.”

Marshall has spent 35 years working to rectify that absence, creating powerful paintings of black figures in everyday life and, often, in settings referencing earlier work by artists from the Renaissance to Edward Hopper and Frank Stella. Marshall, 61, has been rewarded for that effort with residencies, fellowships and other accolades, including a MacArthur grant in 1997 and the acquisition of his work by the likes of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Art Institute of Chicago.

The Chicago-based artist’s first major U.S. retrospective, “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” opens Sunday at the Museum of Contemporary Art in L.A., one of three co-organizers of the show. The exhibition ran last year at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and this winter in New York at the Met Breuer. The New York Times called the show “smashing” and its subject “one of the great history painters of our time.” The New York Review of Books and Artforum magazine put large images from the show on their January covers.

“I’ve been acutely aware that museums are behind their academic colleagues in terms of thinking of representation and people of color,” MOCA chief curator Helen Molesworth says. “I find Kerry’s paintings ravishing — they are drop dead, great paintings — and they have an extra level of reward for people who hold in their heads a history of Western painting.”

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Marshall is a compelling storyteller, whether on canvas or in conversation. Talking at length during a visit to MOCA, he is easygoing but eloquent, recalling his neighborhood in Birmingham, Ala., where he was born in 1955, or about growing up black there and in Los Angeles. He remembers the names of teachers who encouraged him — as far back as his kindergarten teacher, Mary Hill.

Hill kept a scrapbook full of greeting cards, pictures from National Geographic and other images that she would show her students as a reward for good behavior. “Her class was my first encounter with imagery that let me know I wanted to be an artist,” Marshall says. “It sounds extraordinary, but the truth is nothing had as much impact on me as looking through that scrapbook. It was clear those cards were made by hand, and if somebody else could do it, you could do it too.”

His world view also was shaped early on. In 1963, a pivotal time in civil rights history, Marshall’s family moved from Birmingham to the Watts area of Los Angeles. Their first home here was in the then-new Nickerson Gardens housing project, subject of one of his most poignant large-scale paintings. When the Watts riots came in 1965, he watched from a nearby friend’s attic window as flames consumed stores, and he describes the scene in as much detail as if it happened last week. 

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Chris Alexakisart