File Note 09: Kerry James Marshall - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Helen Molesworth



Kerry James Marshall Images References Quote Biography Credits

Kerry James Marshall

It is a current phenomenon in art schools that a young artist, during the process called a ‘crit’, (the moment when a teacher, critic, or curator visits an artist in their studio to discuss his or her work in progress) will inevitably say “my work is about…” or “the ideas behind my work are…” or “I’m interested in …”. These utterances confound and (truth be told) irritate me. I don’t think art work is ‘about’ something. It is a thing. Art is not only, or even primarily, a metaphor, it is also an actuality, a thing in itself. In this vein, I often think that the most important idea behind the work is the wall. Then there is the category of ‘interest’. On the face of it, this shouldn’t be as egregious as the other two comments — after all, to be interested in things is a hallmark of intellectual and aesthetic life. It means the life force of curiosity is running through one’s veins. And yet there is something slightly ‘less than’ about it as an aesthetic formulation. Can you imagine, for instance, Kerry James Marshall saying that he is ‘interested in’ the legacy and history of the American Civil Rights Movement? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that Marshall’s paintings contribute to the very shaping of what that history is and what it might mean?

I’ve written about Marshall’s work on two occasions before this one, which, I suppose, could be construed as an indication of my ‘interest’ in his work and my commitment to him as an artist. But what really compels me about Marshall’s work is the way I think it avoids (maybe even tramples) the art school language of ‘interest’, and instead performs the more existential problematic of having a project. In Being and Nothingness Jean-Paul Sartre sets forth the notion of the project as a choice about how one lives one’s life, a mode of being that has as both its expression and its goal a future end. This futurity is only possible through a steady reflective engagement with the past. As Sartre writes: “I always have the possibility of positing my immediate past as an object,” and hence “consciousness posits its own past as an object; that is it evaluates its past and takes its bearings in relation to it.1 

It is within this framework that I want to suggest that Kerry James Marshall is not ‘interested’ in identity or race politics. Nor do I think his work is ‘about’ being Black. Rather, I think Kerry James Marshall’s paintings, through their objectifying of the immediate past, permit not simply a consciousness of it in a weak sense (the civil rights movement ‘happened’), but they also instantiate the struggle for civic and public discourse in a self-conscious and reflective manner in the present. At no other juncture in the history of the United States did the people speak truth to power more thoroughly and completely than during the Civil Rights Movement. By demanding the human liberties already written into the bill of ri hts, the movement objectified the past of the country in order to demand from it a just present. In doing so the leaders and the people involved in this struggle participated in and reshaped the continual project of civic justice and public freedom. More than being merely ‘interested’ in this phenomenon of history, I think that that whenever one looks at, or talks, or writes about Marshall’s work one is pulled into an engagement with this larger project.

There are other works of art like this. Kerry James Marshall’s paintings could be compared to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Robert Rauschenberg’s Combines, John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, and Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial: all of these great works of art are instances of the extraordinary quest for freedom, perseverance in the face of impossibility. The freedom at stake in these works of art is decidedly not of the jingoistic version of freedom currently being offered by the war-mongering Bush administration. The freedom at issue in Marshall’s project is not born of bad faith (another idea of Sartre’s currently being polished to perfection inside the Bush White House). Rather Marshall’s project is bound up with the necessity to continually reinvent models of freedom, by staging it in the present in ways that allow us to apprehend it as an as of yet unrealised project, perhaps even to see it as a forever unattainable goal.

This is why one can see a trajectory in his oeuvre from the paintings that pay homage to the integrationist fantasies of the Civil Rights Movement to the images of Black Power and quasi-romantic fantasies of ‘back to Africa’, to depictions of everyday life in African American neighbourhoods in Chicago. The paintings partake in the transformation and changing ideals of the intertwined ideas of integration and history, self-actualisation and freedom. They are not offered as a progression (from better to best or from idealistic to realistic); rather they are instances of the very mutability of the ideas that cohere to the concept and reality of blackness.

So too we can see in Marshall’s oeuvre a restlessness that manifests itself in a wide use of medium, such that a slogan such as ‘Black is Beautiful’ is transformed into an Oldenburg-like sculpture of a mammoth rubber stamp. Freedom rendered bureaucratic changes both freedom and bureaucracy. To see freedom as ever mutating and impossible is to see it as part of a self-conscious engagement with the present, which is partly what we are doing when we look at Marshall’s ‘epic’ video projection of a Chicago back yard party, ever evocative of Renoir’s The Luncheon of the Boating Party (1881), in which we simply watch normal people of colour at an utterly non-exotic social gathering. During a time when the powers that be pretend that truth is an immutable fact, when the word freedom is used in increasingly Orwellian terms, and when the perpetuation of inequality and oppression is maintained by the enforcement of economic poverty on the one hand, and war on the other, Marshall’s work stands out, exemplary to its core, generously allowing us to become part of its larger project.


1 Jean-Paul Sartre Being and Nothingness (1956), Trans. Hazel E. Barnes (New York: The Citadel Press, 1966 edition) p. 443

Tales of 1001 Nights Sir Richard Burton, Modern Library (1997) ISBN 0679602356 

Masks Adam Lively, Chatto & Windus 1998 ISBN 0701162449 

Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance Huston Baker A, Jr, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989 ISBN 0226035255

Wild Seed Octavia E. Bulter, Aspect 1991 ISBN 0446606723

Notebook of a Return to a Native Land Aimé Césaire, Wesleyan University Press (2001) ISBN 0819564524

The Prince Niccolo Machiavelli, Bedford/St. Martin’s (2004) ISBN 0312149786

Les Chants de Maldoror Conte de Lautréamont, Distribooks (1999) ISBN 2877142280

The Subject of Semiotics Kaja Silverman, Oxford University Press, 1984  ISBN 0195031784

The Devil Finds Work James Baldwin, Delta (2000) ISBN 0385334605

Actors Revenge dir. Kon Ichikawa (1962)

Dragon Slayer dir. Matthew Robbins (1981)

The Chinese Connection dir. Wei Lo (1972) 

Nothing But A Man dir. Michael Roemer (1964)

Dolemite II: The Human Tornado dir. Cliff Roquemore (1976) 

Sweet Smell of Success dir. Alexander Mackendrick (1957)

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song dir. Mario Van Peebles (1964)

Black Orpheus dir. Marcel Camus, (1959)

Breaking the Waves dir. Lars von Trier (1996) 

Alien dir. Ridley Scott (1979) 

Aliens dir. James Cameron (1986)

Xala dir. Ousmane Sembene (1975)

I do not play no rock-n-roll Mississippi Fred McDowell Capital Records (1969)

Chester Burnett AKA Howlin Wolf, Chess Records

Terrorists Threat Ice Cube, Westside Connection, Capitol (2004)

Doggy Style Snoop Doggy Dogg, Death Row (2001)

God Is Not Dead Dan Smith, Biograph Records (1971)

The Dark Side of the Moon Pink Floyd, Capitol (1990)

Band of Gypsies Jimmy Hendrix, Capitol (1970)

Lousiana Blues Robert Pete Williams, Takoma (1959)

This Bitter Earth Dinah Washington (1959)

'I am constantly looking, examining how images work; how they are received and the function they perform in the evolution of contemporary art history.’ Kerry James Marshall, 2005


Kerry James Marshall (born 1955, Birmingham, Alabama) graduated from Otis Art Institute, Los Angeles (1978) from where he received an Honorary Doctorate (1999). Since the 1980s he has lived and worked in Chicago. Though his work is held in many public museum and gallery collections throughout the US, this is his first solo exhibition in Europe. 

His numerous solo exhibitions in the USA include the touring shows One True Thing, Meditations on Black Aesthetics curated by Elizabeth Smith (Baltimore Museum of Art; Birmingham Museum of Art and Studio Museum Harlem, New York, 2003–5) and Mementos organised by The Renaissance Society, University of Chicago (Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn; San Francisco Museum of Art; Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston; Santa Monica Museum of Art and Boise Museum of Art, 1998).


Helen Molesworth is Chief Curator of Exhibitions at Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio, USA.

Supported by Bloomberg, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and The Elephant Trust.