Now on view at MOCA Grand Avenue through July 3, 2017, Kerry James Marshall: Mastry is a 35-year retrospective of the acclaimed painter. Mastry is Marshall's first major retrospective in the United States, featuring nearly 80 paintings that portray black subjects going about their daily business, presented with equality and humanity. Marshall’s figurative paintings have been joyful in their consistent portrayal of African Americans.
In the nearly 600-year history of painting, there are remarkably few African American painters and even fewer representations of black people. A child of the civil rights era, Marshall set out to redress this absence. Marshall has said:
“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.”
Marshall graduated from the Otis College of Art and Design in 1978. After being an artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1986, he moved to Chicago, where he continues to live and work today. Marshall has exhibited widely, both nationally and internationally, and is the recipient of several awards, grants, and fellowships, including the MacArthur Genius Grant in 1997 and an honorary doctorate from Otis in 1999. In 2013 he was named to President Obama’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.
A deeply accomplished artist, Marshall’s strategy was threefold. First, as a young artist he decided to paint only black figures. He was unequivocal in his pursuit of black beauty. His figures are an unapologetic ebony black, and they occupy the paintings with a sense of authority and belonging.
Second, Marshall worked to make a wide variety of images populated with black people. This led him to make exquisite portraits, lush landscape paintings, everyday domestic interiors, and paintings that depict historical events, all featuring black subjects as if their activities were completely and utterly normal.
Third, Marshall concentrated on painterly mastery as a fundamental strategy. By mastering the art of representational and figurative painting, during a period when neither was in vogue, Marshall produced a body of work that bestows beauty and dignity where it had long been denied.
Mastry is presented in chronological order, allowing the viewer to trace the development of Marshall as a painter. The exhibition also charts our nation’s evolving ideas and attitudes towards race, beginning with an exploration of Ralph Ellison’s classic novel Invisible Man, which explores the lack of legibility of African Americans in the culture at large, to a suite of paintings dedicated to the exploration of black love, portraits of members of the Cato slave rebellion, and culminating in paintings made during the Obama presidency, which feature a stunning set of portraits of black artists at work in their studios.
Mastry is co-organized by the MCA Chicago, MOCA, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art under the leadership of MOCA Chief Curator, Helen Molesworth. The exhibition catalogue, edited by Molesworth, chronicles Marshall’s career and contains sumptuous color plates of all of the works in the exhibition. Described by MOCA as "the most authoritative book on the artist’s work to date," the catalogue collects all of Marshall’s published writings for the first time and presents them alongside contributions by Molesworth, MOCA Assistant Curator Lanka Tattersall, and others.
MOCA is presenting a full slate of programs related to Mastry, including Kerry James Marshall and Helen Molesworth in Conversation on Thursday, March 30. Admission is free, with priority entry available to MOCA members.
MOCA Grand Avenue is located at 250 S. Grand Ave. in Downtown Los Angeles. For admission and hours, visit the MOCA website.
Kerry James Marshall: Mastry is organized by The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
The exhibition was co-curated by Helen Molesworth, Chief Curator, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Ian Alteveer, Associate Curator, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; and Dieter Roelstraete, Guest Curator for the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.