Kerry James Marshall was born in Birmingham, AL in 1955. He has said in the past that it was impossible for his art not to have been influenced by his birthplace.
One of Mr. Marshall’s core beliefs is that “we all stand on the shoulders of giants.” Some of his most significant influences have been classic pieces of art, their structure, and their subject matter. He developed this idea in his work and has applied many of these forces in creating his Black masterpieces.
As Mr. Marshall would walk the hall of various museums, he noticed a striking difference between the busts of African heroes and the ones of Greco-Roman heroes. There was animation, aggressiveness, and heroism in those busts, while the African pieces were static, inert, and passive. Why couldn’t Black people be depicted as the Greco-Romans were?
From that idea came modeling his subjects as superheroes. Superheroes have been mostly White through the ages, and it was one of his ways of taking back power in Black imagery. The positive associations and feeling that superheroes engender were exactly what Mr. Marshall was seeking. Strength, positivity, and heroism, long absent in representation.
For this idea, he hearkened back to his childhood and his love of superhero comic books. The irony that in this case, he stood on his own “shoulders” resurrected a long-dormant idea. There was power in the blackness that had long been hidden and questioned by the White world. He furthered this idea by depicting his figures as the blackest of black, often highlighted by his colorful backgrounds.
The other thing that struck this reporter about his art was his depictions of houses, all closed up from the outside, but inside, animated and warm. What went on behind the closed doors of Black folks? The maids, field hands, servants, slaves? What were their secret dreams and desires? To the rest of Caucasian America, this was indeed a mystery. Exposing the hidden yearnings and often sad and powerful world behind these doors is another goal of Mr. Marshall’s art. The overarching idea is that there is power and heroism in Blackness, and we need to spread the word.
“I am trying to establish a phenomenal presence that is unequivocally black and beautiful. It is my conviction that the most instrumental, insurgent painting for this moment must be of figures, and those figures must be black, unapologetically so.” — Kerry James Marshall
- If you missed his latest exhibition ‘Mastery’ at The Met, not to worry, the audio guide for the show is still up on the museum’s website. You’ll find out more about his inspirations from Renaissance masterpieces to comic books—the discussion is led by a Met curator and the artist himself as they explore details and share the remarkable stories behind select works in the exhibition.