Portrait: Painting History

Kerry James Marshall
 A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self , 1980 Egg tempera on paper, 20 x 16.5 cm  © Kerry James Marshall. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York 

Kerry James Marshall has been producing large-format portrait paintings of mostly black subjects for over thirty years. Recently his work has found acclaim among collectors and institutions world-wide, finally getting the recognition it deserves. But is Marshall’s visibility a singular case, or has his success had a larger impact on the history and current trajectory of art by black artists? And what does his work tell us about the turbulent and violent 2010s?

There is a permanent cultural anxiety in the art world. It is an anxiety about definitions: how does art – its producers, consumers, and critics – define itself within and outside the bounds of identity categories? Layered into this anxiety are histories of colonialism, white supremacy, and global capitalism that have in related ways grouped individuals into categories that fail to account for the complexities of people in their historic moment. Conversations defining black art, for instance, have morphed as discourses and practices have been altered, ever so slightly, to account for these complexities. As a result, we have reached a point where we are looking outside of ourselves in order to solve the riddle of assessment and marketability surrounding what some wrongly suggest is a moment of discovery; or worse, an entirely new phenomenon.... 

– This text appears in Spike #62. You can buy it in our online shop –