As a youngster, Kerry James Marshall spent hours in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art looking at the Old Master paintings, wondering what it would be like to make pictures worthy of hanging beside them.
But as an African-American child from a modest household in South Central, he had few role models. There were no black artists on the museum's walls or in the art history books he pored over in the city's public libraries.
One day he came across James A. Porter's landmark 1943 book, The Negro Artist, the first comprehensive study of African-American art. It was a revelation: Here was a rich tradition of artmaking he hadn't known existed -- of black artists creating works for and about black people, their hopes, joys and sorrows.
Marshall decided that he, too, would one day create paintings that would hang on museum walls.
How well he succeeded can be seen in One True Thing: Meditations on Black Aesthetics, the much-anticipated touring exhibition that opens next Sunday at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
The show represents the culmination of decades of steady effort that have brought Marshall, at 49, a level of success few artists achieve. His works are collected by major museums such as the Art Institute of Chicago, Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn. He's been the recipient of numerous honors, including a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in 1991 and, in 1997, the prestigious MacArthur Foundation "genius" award. And since 1993, he has taught art at the University of Illinois, Chicago.
Yet for all his accomplishments, Marshall remains deeply dissatisfied with the way African-American art and artists are viewed by the cultural establishment.
"One has to be identified with innovation in order to be considered historically significant, in the sense that what you do changes the way everybody else is able to think about what can be done next," he says. "But you probably can't name a black person in the history of American art who's done work that anybody would say was significant.
"We already know what it's like to see successful African-American artists at this level," Marshall adds. "What we haven't seen is African-American artists who set the agenda for generations of all artists."
Organizing show here
Marshall was in town recently to visit Frank Smith's South Baltimore studio in preparation for an exhibition Marshall is curating for Artscape 2004, the city's annual outdoor festival of the arts.
Smith showed his visitor around, pointing out works he hoped would be included in the show. Marshall, tall and handsome with a bit of stubbly, graying beard and alert, smiling eyes, stopped in front of a large, free-form, textile-based work whose bold patterns and bright colors recalled African-American quilting.
The studio visit is one of several that Marshall will make while organizing the Artscape show, which opens at the Maryland Institute College of Art on June 20 (the same day as the BMA show). Called The Baltimore / Chicago Show, it will include six artists from each city. As he goes from studio to studio, Marshall is searching for works of visual sophistication that wrestle with the complexities of identity. "Something that seemed fresh, challenging and that I thought had presence," he says.
He might also be describing his own work. In the large-scale paintings on unstretched canvas that have been his signature since the mid-1980s, the artist often overlays classical motifs with early modernism, gestural abstraction, folk art and pop culture to limn the complexity of the black experience in America.
"The melding of the conceptual and the aesthetic is the whole idea of his project," says Tricia Van Eck of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, where Marshall's show originated.
"His idea was to go back to the idea of black aesthetics, a movement of the 1960s that came out of the black power movement, and to talk about it now in an era when civil rights have eroded and also when a lot of younger artists feel they don't need to deal with these issues of race and civil rights. Kerry is saying, 'This is something we still need to deal with, because black aesthetics was also a political tool in a political struggle, and that struggle isn't over.' "
The complex interplay of the visual and conceptual give Marshall's work a disturbing, disorienting character even when it depicts familiar, commonplace situations that we feel we already understand.
"The only thing that really shakes up the field is when something arrives on the scene that challenges those notions, that doesn't behave well, and then aims to completely disrupt the comfortable pattern we've arrived at of what kinds of things should be in the museum and what kinds of things qualify as works of art," he says. "That is my intent."