Recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in figurative painting. Among those who have contributed the most to this renewed appreciation is Chicago-based artist Kerry James Marshall. “I’ve always wanted to be a history painter on the grand scale of Giotto and Géricault,” he once said.1 Indeed, over the past decade he has created numerous mural-sized canvases interweaving heroic and everyday aspects of recent African American history. At the same time, like other artists he greatly admires—in particular, Leonardo da Vinci and Marcel Duchamp—Marshall embraces the freedom to depart from figurative painting as his inspiration dictates, exploring a wide variety of practices that include photography, sculpture, comics, installation, and printmaking.
Throughout his career, Marshall has commemorated individuals and ideas associated with the 1960s Civil Rights and Black Liberation movements. “When you talk about this obligation to articulate some socially relevant issue,” he said in a 1998 interview, “a lot of that has to do with where I come from. You can’t be born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1955 and not feel like you’ve got some kind of social responsibility. You can’t move to Watts in ’63 and grow up in South Central near the Black Panther headquarters and see the kinds of things I saw in my developmental years and not be motivated to speak about it.”2 This series of prints depicts well-known slogans that the artist has referred to as “rallying cries to celebration and defiance.”3 In tone, they range from positive, constructive sentiments such as “Black Is Beautiful” and “We Shall Overcome” to confrontational exhortations such as “Black Power” and “By Any Means Necessary.” When first exhibited, this series was accompanied by a matching set of five large-scale rubber stamps, the same ones used to make the prints themselves, along with large-scale ink pads holding red, green, and black inks, the colors symbolic of black nationalism.
Gulf Stream (2003) is a reimagining of the American artist Winslow Homer’s well-known oil painting The Gulf Stream (1899). It belongs to a series of recent works in which Marshall has interpreted various iconic paintings from a contemporary African American perspective. Homer’s original shows a black seaman alone on a broken vessel and adrift in a limitless, stormy ocean, surrounded by sharks that gnash their teeth in anticipation. Marshall’s version of this theme presents a more serene and hopeful view. Here, a group of modern-day black companions relax as their sleek yacht sails over a placid sea. A dark cloud looms but at a comfortable distance, and there isn’t a shark in sight. A pelican perched on a nearby mooring signals that the safety of shore is close at hand. The entire image is contained within a glittery decorative border in the form of a nautical rope and anchor. Uniting man and nature in harmony, the overall mood of the picture is one of meditative calm. By reinventing an iconic image of an African American subject, Marshall subtly critiques and transforms our inherited perceptions of race and class.
Kerry James Marshall, letter to Arthur Jafa, in Judith Russi Kirshner, Gregory Knight, and Ursula Prinz, eds., Correspondences: Fourteen Artists from Berlin and Chicago (Berlin: Berlinische Galerie; Chicago: Chicago Cultural Center, 1994), 95. ↩
Kerry James Marshall in interview with Calvin Reid, “Kerry James Marshall,” Bomb 62 (Winter 1998): 45. ↩
Artist’s statement, August 2, 1999 (Walker Art Center Archives). ↩