“Mastry” Comes to MOCA! Kerry James Marshall’s Landmark Exhibition Makes Its Final Stop in Los Angeles

Artwork: Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (Studio), 2014, acrylic on PVC panel 83 1⁄2 x 118 7/8 in., lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Foundation Gift, Acquisitions Fund and The Metropolitan Museum of Art Multicultrual Audience Development Initiative Gift, 2015, photo courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, London.

Kerry James Marshall: Mastry makes the final stop on its three-city tour at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, this March after debuting at the MCA Chicago and traveling to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Named the best exhibition of 2016 by The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, The Telegraph, Hyperallergic, and Crave, Mastry presents a 35-year retrospective of the work of Kerry James Marshall, one of the greatest living painters of our time.

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Marshall’s life traces the course of American history over the second half of the twentieth century. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1955, Marshall spent his earliest years deep in the heart of Dixie where Jim Crow laws were enforced with a vengeance. In 1963, his family moved to South Central Los Angeles, where the Watts riots would pop off just two years later.

Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (Painter), 2009, acrylic on PVC, 44 5/8 x 43 1/8 x 3 7/8 in., collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, gift of Katherine S. Schamberg by exchange, photo by Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

While the Civil Rights and Black Power movements took hold of national consciousness, Marshall focused his talents of the depiction of African American identity, experience, and consciousness. As a young artist, Marshall committed himself to painting black figures exclusively, seeking to redress their absence from the canon of Western art. Deftly translating the unique space that Black America holds, Marshall is driven by passion to render what has been erased visible. In doing so, he sets the record straight, restoring to not only America but the to the world what had been taken from it.

In recognition of his singular achievement in contemporary art, Mastry, first major museum retrospective of his work, will be on view at MOCA from March 12–July 2, 2017. The exhibition focuses on work since 1980, beginning with his seminal statement Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self. Organized chronologically, the exhibition presents 80 paintings and drawings that illustrate the dominant themes of Marshall’s work including history painting, landscape, portraiture, the nude, religion, and abstraction, taking us on a whirlwind tour through the canon of Western art history.

Kerry James Marshall, Slow Dance, 1992-93, mixed media and acrylic on canvas, unframed: 75-1/4 x 74-1/4 in., lent by the David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago; Purchase, Smart Family Foundation Fund for Contemporary Art, and Paul and Miriam Kirkley Fund for Acquisitions, photograph ©2015 courtesy of The David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago

The exhibition charts our nation’s evolving ideas and attitudes towards race, beginning with a 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, to 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.

“You can’t…grow up in South Central 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 reveals. His unequivocal pursuit of black beauty is evident in the pigment he selects for the flesh, the riches, most luxurious black that painting allows. It is hue strong, unbowed, and unapologetic for that which nature has designed in the DNA of the oldest human race to grace the planet.

Kerry James Marshall, Portrait of a Curator (In Memory of Beryl Wright), 2009, acrylic on PVC, 30 7/8 x 24 7/8 x 1 7/8 in., Penny Pritzker and Bryan Traubert Collection, © Kerry James Marshall, courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

The joy of Marshall’s work is its depth, power, and accessibility, its complex sphere of ideas, experiences, and emotions that come from the black community. The portraits are exquisite, the landscapes are lush, the interiors reverberate with the joys of everyday life. By simple virtue of being, Marshall subverts the expectations of Western art, reminding us that inclusion and authenticity are the hallmarks of truth.

Marshall reminds us of the power of representation and the way in which it can transform understanding through factual accuracy. What’s more, his work speaks to the need for a diverse array of images that go far beyond the narrow and stereotypical images already in play. What Marshall brings forth in its place is a vital, vibrant, resonant portrait of Black America at the turn of the new millennium.

Kerry James Marshall, De Style, 1993, acrylic and collage on canvas 104 x 122 in., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by Ruth and Jacob Bloom, purchased with funds provided by Ruth and Jacob Bloom, digital Image © 2015 Museum Associates / LACMA, licensed by Art Resource, NY

In ART21, Marshall observes, “I’ve been interested in Black history for a long time, and I still am. If you’re constantly being reminded of the ways in which your history and your narrative as a people were rooted in loss and decay, then you’re in deep trouble. Once you make a certain kind of peace with the past, then you should be completely oriented towards speculation about the future.”

It is this vision that Marshall brings forth, one befitting the top art museums across the country. In Marshall’s paintings we enter a world revealing itself in every aspect of the landscape and restores it to the people who made its fortune possible. And in doing so he remind us of this with a black so deep and strong it mesmerizes. Marshall reveals, “I tend to think having that extreme of color, that kind of black, is amazingly beautiful…and powerful. What I was thinking to do with my image was to reclaim the image of blackness as an emblem of power.”

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.