As a youngster, Kerry James Marshall spent hours in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art looking at the Old Master paintings, wondering what it would be like to make pictures worthy of hanging beside them.
But as an African-American child from a modest household in South Central, he had few role models. There were no black artists on the museum's walls or in the art history books he pored over in the city's public libraries.
One day he came across James A. Porter's landmark 1943 book, The Negro Artist, the first comprehensive study of African-American art. It was a revelation: Here was a rich tradition of artmaking he hadn't known existed -- of black artists creating works for and about black people, their hopes, joys and sorrows.
Marshall decided that he, too, would one day create paintings that would hang on museum walls.
How well he succeeded can be seen in One True Thing: Meditations on Black Aesthetics, the much-anticipated touring exhibition that opens next Sunday at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
The show represents the culmination of decades of steady effort that have brought Marshall, at 49, a level of success few artists achieve. His works are collected by major museums such as the Art Institute of Chicago, Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn. He's been the recipient of numerous honors, including a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in 1991 and, in 1997, the prestigious MacArthur Foundation "genius" award. And since 1993, he has taught art at the University of Illinois, Chicago.
Yet for all his accomplishments, Marshall remains deeply dissatisfied with the way African-American art and artists are viewed by the cultural establishment.
"One has to be identified with innovation in order to be considered historically significant, in the sense that what you do changes the way everybody else is able to think about what can be done next," he says. "But you probably can't name a black person in the history of American art who's done work that anybody would say was significant.
"We already know what it's like to see successful African-American artists at this level," Marshall adds. "What we haven't seen is African-American artists who set the agenda for generations of all artists."
Organizing show here
Marshall was in town recently to visit Frank Smith's South Baltimore studio in preparation for an exhibition Marshall is curating for Artscape 2004, the city's annual outdoor festival of the arts.
Smith showed his visitor around, pointing out works he hoped would be included in the show. Marshall, tall and handsome with a bit of stubbly, graying beard and alert, smiling eyes, stopped in front of a large, free-form, textile-based work whose bold patterns and bright colors recalled African-American quilting.
The studio visit is one of several that Marshall will make while organizing the Artscape show, which opens at the Maryland Institute College of Art on June 20 (the same day as the BMA show). Called The Baltimore / Chicago Show, it will include six artists from each city. As he goes from studio to studio, Marshall is searching for works of visual sophistication that wrestle with the complexities of identity. "Something that seemed fresh, challenging and that I thought had presence," he says.
He might also be describing his own work. In the large-scale paintings on unstretched canvas that have been his signature since the mid-1980s, the artist often overlays classical motifs with early modernism, gestural abstraction, folk art and pop culture to limn the complexity of the black experience in America.
"The melding of the conceptual and the aesthetic is the whole idea of his project," says Tricia Van Eck of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, where Marshall's show originated.
"His idea was to go back to the idea of black aesthetics, a movement of the 1960s that came out of the black power movement, and to talk about it now in an era when civil rights have eroded and also when a lot of younger artists feel they don't need to deal with these issues of race and civil rights. Kerry is saying, 'This is something we still need to deal with, because black aesthetics was also a political tool in a political struggle, and that struggle isn't over.' "
The complex interplay of the visual and conceptual give Marshall's work a disturbing, disorienting character even when it depicts familiar, commonplace situations that we feel we already understand.
"The only thing that really shakes up the field is when something arrives on the scene that challenges those notions, that doesn't behave well, and then aims to completely disrupt the comfortable pattern we've arrived at of what kinds of things should be in the museum and what kinds of things qualify as works of art," he says. "That is my intent."
Recently, Marshall has begun to incorporate photography, video and installation into his artwork. "I don't think an artist can do just one thing," he has said. "All the categories are traps -- painting, sculpture, conceptual, landscape. ... What's really valuable is not in any of these external modifiers, but in the relation you establish between the medium or form and the concept."
Concept is key
For Marshall, the concept is paramount. Like Marcel Duchamp, one of his heroes (another is Leonardo da Vinci), Marshall sees artworks as embodiments of ideas as well as aesthetically appealing objects. His artworks are allegories, narratives, scientific investigations of social reality and political commentary all rolled into one.
"You could call his work 'conceptual painting,' in the sense that what's in them is meant to be read," says Chris Gilbert, the BMA's curator of contemporary art. "It's painting in the service of a message. And the proof of its success is that the messages embodied in the work can be quite pointed, wry and critical."
Gilbert cites Marshall's painting Vignette (2003), one of several mural-scale works in the BMA show, which depicts a nude black couple with 1970s hairstyles running through a highly stylized landscape reminiscent of the 19th-century French naive painter Henri Rousseau's work.
Then one notices the sliver of modern sidewalk across the bottom of the picture. And a red-and-black pendant shaped like an African continent suspended from the man's neck. Is this Adam and Eve being expelled from the garden? A pair of 19th-century fugitive slaves eluding their pursuers? Or actors on a Hollywood movie set?
Pastiche -- the layering of unrelated, contradictory imagery -- is by now a familiar postmodernist strategy, but Marshall personalizes and sharpens the technique to emphasize the historical ironies of the African-American experience.
"Our whole history has been about pointing out the contradiction between the aspirations of America and the reality of American practice," the artist says. "My paintings take the language of classical painting, of abstraction, vernacular painting -- and use all of it. But they also incorporate the black figure as the central element, so that you can talk about the social issues and the painterly issues in the work at the same time."
David C. Driskell, a professor emeritus of art history at the University of Maryland and a leading expert on African-American art, says the conceptual sophistication and clarity of Marshall's work set it apart from that of most contemporary artists.
"He's taken what I would call 'traditional painting' to a new level," Driskell notes. "For him, the image is something that is conventional and yet it's also beyond convention; it's based in a tradition of excellent drawing, and yet there's so much more there than just beautiful drawing. In that sense he has moved into new territory."
Artist since childhood
It's a journey Marshall has been making since childhood. "I always knew I wanted to be an artist," he says. "As a kid, I spent all my spare time drawing pictures."
Born in Birmingham, Ala., in 1955 -- the year of the Montgomery bus boycott -- Marshall moved with his family to a housing project in Watts, Calif., when he was 8. There he witnessed the 1965 Watts riots and shootouts between the Black Panthers and police. The family later moved to South Central Los Angeles.
Those early experiences influenced his paintings, many of which deal with the legacy of the civil rights era. In Sunday Morning (2003), for example, Marshall re-creates a postcard-pretty Los Angeles street scene. Except one side of the picture is blotted out with swipes of paint that seem to obscure the image like the selective memory that keeps us from seeing the past clearly.
In Memento (2003), an African-American woman stands in a middle-class living room behind a curtain of transparent material; above her on one side float ghostly images of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, and on the other, an apparition of Malcolm X. The picture recalls the revered place these men held in the homes of many African-Americans during a turbulent era. Its palpable sense of tragedy and loss is a recurring theme in Marshall's work.
By the time he was in junior high school, Marshall was spending all his spare time drawing or looking at pictures. "My parents neither encouraged me nor discouraged me," he recalls. "They just left me alone and didn't stand in my way. I was pretty single-minded and self-motivated from the time I decided I was going to do this. I didn't need any encouragement; I was just going to do it."
Marshall vividly remembers participating in drawing contests with his older brother. "We used to draw wars with each other. That was a game we played," he recalled in a monograph of his work published in 2000. "Then we would get into drawing ray guns, when we found out about rockets and aliens and stuff like that." He also enrolled in art classes at the Otis Art Institute, where he met his first important teachers and was mentored by the African-American artist Charles White (1918-1979).
White, who enjoyed a modest national reputation as a social realist painter and master draftsman, had studied at the Chicago Art Institute and the Art Students League in New York City before moving to Los Angeles in the 1960s.
"I happened to be lucky enough to have encountered Charles White really early in my life," Marshall recalls. "I looked at his stuff and it just seemed so amazing. I mean, those were just really powerful drawings. But I also noticed that I didn't see any Charles White drawings in the L.A. County Art Museum. That wasn't lost on me. So I literally decided early on to see if I could fix that, basically."
Marshall attended community college after high school, then earned a bachelor's degree in fine arts from Otis Art Institute in 1978. By the late 1980s, he had begun producing the layered, collage-like compositions with deftly drawn, shadowy figures in symbolic or allegorical settings that would become characteristic of his work.
He was also beginning to exhibit widely and win a measure of recognition for his art. In 1985, he was awarded a resident fellowship at the Studio Museum in Harlem. And in 1998, his career got a big boost when the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago organized a major show of his work that traveled around the country.
He also has worked as a production designer for films that include director Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust (1989), Haile Gerima's Sankofa (1990) and Dash's Praise House (1991). Marshall's wife, the actress Cheryl Lynn Bruce, played the role of Viola Peazant in Daughters of the Dust.
The directors wanted their movies to capture the feel of Marshall's large-scale murals, which in their powerful evocation of the recent and not-so-recent past have the timeless quality of history paintings.
Looking to a new art
Marshall thinks of One True Thing as a summing up, a coda to this phase of his career. Now, he says, he's got to go beyond that. "My work up to this point has used minimalism, conceptual art, vernacular painting, pop art, and now it's here in the museum," he says. "But in some way that defines the limits of its success. It has made its way into the museum as an institution, but it didn't really challenge the terms under which things arrive in the museum."
The art world, Marshall says, has rewarded him handsomely for works that acknowledge what it already values -- the respectful nod to art history, the technical mastery, the agreeable relationship to visionary and folk art.
"Those are all very proper behaviors for an artist who wants to be in the museum," Marshall says. "But they don't really challenge any of the assumptions under which we think artworks operate.
"So in a sense, I'm only doing this because this is a prelude to something else," Marshall continues. "It's the something else that actually is going to matter more."
Right now, Marshall can't say what that something else is -- only that it will be a new art, one not limited by the conventional terms, yet which springs directly from the realities of American history and of the black experience. He's just begun to start "shaking things up."
"Can you really create an evolution of aesthetics from where the chain [of African-American culture] has been broken?" he asks.
"Can you rebuild the connecting links, and then see what it would have looked like if it had gone another way as opposed to having gone through slavery and the whole colonial thing? Can you imagine a way around the colonial, and then see what an African-American art might have looked like if it hadn't gone through that? That's what I want the new art to be like."
Kerry James Marshall
Born: Birmingham, Ala.
Raised: Los Angeles
Education: Thomas Jefferson High in Los Angeles, Los Angeles City College, Otis Art Institute
Day job: Art professor, University of Illinois, Chicago
On defining a black aesthetic: "The only chance you're going to have of developing something that has the capacity to change the paradigm and the way people see things is to come at it from what's different, what's unique. So you take a position that maximizes your difference."
What: One True Thing: Meditations on Black Aesthetics
Where: Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive at 31st and Charles streets
When: June 20 through Sept. 5
Hours: Wednesday-Friday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.
Admission: $7 adults, $5 students and seniors
Call: 410-396-7100, or visit the Web site, http: / / artbma.org
What: The Baltimore / Chicago Show
Where: Decker Gallery in the Station Building, Maryland Institute College of Art, 3100 Mount Royal Ave.
When: June 20 through July 31
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday
Call: 410-225-2300, or visit the Web site, www.mica.edu