An interview with artist Kerry James Marshall at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Kerry James Marshall is one of the leading contemporary painters of his generation. Over the span of his career, he has become internationally known for monumental images of African American history and culture.
KERRY JAMES MARSHALL: Cornel West had a phrase that I was really struck by when I first read it. He said, "There are things that you cannot not know." When it comes to history, and in particular to the history of African Americans, or Africans in America, there are things that you cannot not know.
Really, in order to have a complete understanding of where you are situated in your own present moment, you have to locate yourself in relationship to some parts of history. That's a lot of what this picture is kind of about.
If you came to my house and looked through my library, you would see my wife and I have a huge concentration of books that are on African history, African-American history, American history, African culture. All of those different aspects of the history of Black people from around the world. If you look through the titles of the books, you'll see that the range of subjects that they cover relative to Black history, culture, and also the kinds of stories that Black people tell is really broad.
A part of the reason some of those titles are there is to introduce some of those authors and some of those books to the art viewing public. The painting is as much an invitation to also come to know as it is demonstration of the kind of conflicts in knowledge that somebody who has already arrived at this knowledge might experience.
Our conception of what constitutes the best that can be done in artwork still revolves around those paintings that are the foundation of art history, and those paintings all have a European origin. Our concept of what's beautiful and what's important operates within that realm, as well. For me, as an African American or a Black person going to the museum and looking at those works, even though I like a lot of things I might be looking at, there really is a limit to your ability to appreciate things that don't include you as a fundamental part of their value system.
For me, the only way to really come to terms with that is to introduce images that contain Black figures and not Black figures they were marginal in terms of their position in the narrative but central to the narrative. I committed myself to only making Black figures in my paintings because there are not enough paintings in museums anywhere, really, that have black figures as the central subject of those pictures.
One of the devices artists use to encourage people to think again about the importance of a thing is to change the scale of the object. If you have things that we're used to seeing in a really small format, if you double that size or increase it exponentially, then all the sudden it assumes a lot more importance than it would have if it remained at the scale that we commonly experience those things at.
I did make the frame. It's a way of kind of locating it amongst the kind of common, popular, vernacular approach. It seems like something that’s more familiar to people who often think of museums and artworks as really, really distant from their experiences. If you come up to a thing that has got this really ornate, gold frame and you look at the picture inside and you don't like it, then that becomes that thing where people say, “Well, I just must not be smart enough.” Those people don't come back to the museum, more times than not.
A part of what I was trying to do was to create a garment that didn't have a place in time—that couldn't be located as a kind of ‘70s fashion, or ‘80s fashion, or ‘50s fashion because there's nothing like that that has ever existed. It becomes a curious artifact of the picture. It's sort of this ambivalent zone, too, so you can't quite place it. You don't quite know what it is. It's odd, and it's sort of intriguing in a way. So that's a part of what I was trying to do. This is early on in the process. I had never really sewn a thing before in my life.
I wanted to try to convey, or at least give people access to, was a certain level of ambivalence in what the character or the figure was thinking after having read through and gone through some of those books. The thought balloons there and the phrase, “SOB, SOB,” those two sounds. Yes, it's, on the one hand, a kind of sad recognition of some sort of painful insight, maybe. But on the other side of it, it's a fairly powerful rebuke of some of the things you might have come to learn in history. I think that ambivalence, that place in between where you experience both a certain sadness and also a certain kind of anger about the things that you've discovered. This is really a part of what the picture is about. Then the question becomes after you began to know those things that one cannot not know, then what do you do with that information? What do you do with it? What do you do about it?
The most important achievement I can make, on the one hand, is to first have this work have arrived at the Smithsonian. The fact that it's here is a great achievement. Anybody who walks through the building can look at it or not look at it, but if it wasn't there, then they wouldn't have that option. Then by the extension from there, it becomes as much a part of the narrative what has value in art history as anything that had already been there. Those two things are more important for me than anything else that accompanies what people call success in the art world. That matters the most.
When I hear from some young person that they saw a picture of mine and that it had an impact on them, I feel that, well, I guess it's a good day and it's all been worthwhile.
Kerry James Marshall is a contemporary American artist whose distinctive body of work engages audiences on issues of black identity. A recipient of the MacArthur Foundation's "genius grant," he has exhibited extensively at prestigious institutions around the globe and held numerous solo exhibitions. In his talk, Seen and Not Heard Marshall poses the question, "Are artists truth-telling visionaries, decorators, or entertainers?"
This annual series is made possible by the generosity of Clarice Smith.