Kerry James Marshall is one of the most decorated contemporary African-American artists working today. His flatalmost two-dimensionaleerily utopian paintings have earned him entry into the Whitney Biennial, Documenta and the Venice Biennale; a solo exhibition at the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago; and most notably, a MacArthur genius grant, and yet relatively little attention from the mainstream press.
In this BOMB Magazine interview, conducted in 1998, the same year Marshall won the MacArthur, the artist talks to Calvin Reid about growing up in Alabama and California and his lifelong commitment to making art. According to Marshall, his artistic practice is dedicated to the tireless pursuit of technical and material mastery and is not about cultivating fame or fortune. Ive never been that anxious to show work, he says. Im always focused on making it. I know a lot of people who took their work around and beat the pavement and had horrible experiences. But I didnt want anything from anybody.
Though Marshall has never prioritized wooing the art establishment, he nonetheless acknowledges the great, national black arts community that made it possible for him become a professional artistthe community that nurtured the artistic aspirations of Alison Saar, David Hammons, and John Outterbridge, among others.
Calvin Reid: You grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. Was art a part of your life then? And what kind of influence did your family have on you as an artist?
Kerry James Marshall: Thats a complicated question to answer. In a lot of ways I was one of those fortunate people who consciously knew that being an artist was what I wanted to do with my life. I didnt know at the time that it was called being an artist!
CR: Thats fascinating that you recognized it so early.
KJM: Yeah, Ive been single-minded since then. So when it comes to my familys support, on one level, it really didnt matter. Not that they discouraged me, but my decision to go to art school was my decision. At the same time, it seemed like there were signposts all over the place saying, Artists this way Everywhere I went I met the perfect person to get me to the next level.
CR: For instance?
KJM: Well, my family moved from Birmingham to California in 1963, and my teacher, Mrs. Foley, was in charge of all the holiday art decorations. She enlisted my aid, and I would stay after school and help her, and in between the turkeys and pumpkins she would show me technical thingshow to paint flower petals, how to hold the brush. Stuff I really needed to know. And I used to watch this television program, Jon Gnagys Learn to Draw, which was also highly influential in my development. Gnagy was interested in more than just superficial forms of representation. He started with fundamentals, with the notion that everything you see is made up of three basic components: circles, squares and triangles; and once you learn to break things down and then put those shapes in perspective, you can draw anything. He showed me how to build forms, not just copy forms. Watching that program was the foundation for my search for the formal foundations of making art. And then there was Mrs. Clark, who was the head of the junior high school art department, she had competitions among the kids to see whose drawings got in the showcases.
CR: So youve been showing since a very early age. (laughter)
KJM: The irony was that there were lots of kids who were more talented than I was, in terms of copying things, like Marvel Comics images
CR: Sure, I certainly did that.
KJM: Yeah, Marvel Comics was the godsend. My images tended to get overworked really fast, and had a lot of lines, erasures and scratches. I didnt get a drawing into the case that often.
CR: Its interesting, you almost seem to be hinting toward some of the techniques that you use now in the floral patterns. Reworking and reworking
KJM: In a way. I latched on to process as an integral part of the overall appearance of the piece. Seeing that was just as important as having the piece look finished and slick. Maybe falling back on process was a way to compensate for my inability to be slick.
CR: What was the Otis Art Institute in L.A. like?
KJM: It was 1977 when I went to school fulltime, but I had been hanging around there from the time I was fourteen, taking summer classes in drawing and painting. I took a painting class with Sam Clayberger. And then a figure-drawing class with Charles White in the evening after school.
CR: What was it like taking a class with Charles White?
KJM: I was fifteen and I was scared of him. He was somebody in a book, and for a kid, if youre in a book
CR: Youre a godlike figure
KJM: Yeah. I had a little notepad, and I snuck into the room and hid way back in the corner, trying to be inconspicuous. He saw me and came over and said, You cant see anything from the back, get your chair and come up front! So he took my stool and sat me in the front row and told me to draw. He talked to me, and showed me some demonstrations on how to draw heads, how to get the right proportions, and then he told me I could come back anytime I wanted to. That actually was the beginning of what became a long friendship.
Read the full interview from BOMB Magazine Issue 62, Winter 1998.
Used with permission. All rights reserved. BOMB Magazine, New Art Publications, and its Contributors.
Kerry James Marshall on Art 21
Kerry James Marshall at Jack Shainman Gallery