...a majestic ode to the job of
the artist, the history of the medium, and the multiplicity
of possibilities that still pump through the heart of painting..."
This spectacular work was the first by Kerry James Marshall (born 1955) to enter The Met's collection. It crowns an extraordinary career of painting African American subjects and history in a manner that both reveres and revises the Old Masters. Born in Birmingham before the Civil Rights Act and having witnessed the Watts rebellion in Los Angeles in 1965, Marshall has long chronicled the African American experience. His large narrative paintings feature only black figures–defiant and celebratory assertions of blackness in a medium in which those subjects have too often been invisible–and his exploration of art history stretches from the Renaissance to twentieth-century abstraction and beyond. The result is a visually stunning body of work, both intimate and monumental.
Marshall is well known for a powerful group of pictures from the mid-1990s, the Garden Project. Each painting in the series depicts a different housing project from Marshall's childhood home of Los Angeles or adopted city of Chicago (he moved there permanently in 1988), each with the promising word "Garden" in its name. In Marshall's paintings, black residents occupy spaces that are full of bloom and sunlight–a bucolic look that references the utopian positivism that spurred the development of these sites and also contradicts contemporary associations of despair and destitution they so often carry. Marshall's works in subsequent years have dealt with commemorations of the Civil Rights era, the Middle Passage, and, recently, the image of the black artist and other heroes to create a new pantheon for the walls of the museum.
Marshall often relates the story of an early experience at Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, where he was awarded a scholarship to a summer drawing class after the seventh grade. His instructor brought the class upstairs to see the workspace of one of Marshall's childhood idols, Charles White (1918–1979). Enthralled by all of the studio materials and partially finished work, the young artist realized that making pictures is something he, too, could do. In part about that discovery of a black artist's workshop–a place of labor where an allegorical catalogue of all the modes of artmaking is on display–Untitled (Studio) is a majestic ode to the job of the artist, the history of the medium, and the multiplicity of possibilities that still pump through the heart of painting.
Department of Modern and Contemporary Art