Kerry James Marshall photo by Jean Goldsmith

History of Painting sounds like a bold name for an exhibition of contemporary art. But it neatly describes the preoccupations of Kerry James Marshall, worked out on canvas over four decades, in ambitious, large-scale depictions of African-American life.

“I’m not trying to dismantle the canon, the museum or any of that,” he insists. “On some level, the goal is to match the brilliance and …the complexity of things that are already there, [which] caused you to want to be an artist in the first place. It’s less about changing the narrative than it is about participating, being a part of it.”

Marshall is certainly participating. We meet at David Zwirner gallery in London, where his show of new work opens today. Mastry, his stunning retrospective which travelled from Chicago’s MCA to the Metropolitan Museum in New York then to MOCA in Los Angeles, confirmed his status as one of our most important living artists. In May, his painting “Past Times” (1997) was sold to Sean Combs, or P Diddy, for $21.1m at Sotheby’s, making Marshall the most expensive living African-American artist. Despite what he says, he is changing the narrative.

Now 62, when he was starting out figurative painting was out of fashion. No matter. The question for him was, who dictates fashion? “To me, there really [was] a necessity to see more images of black figures in paintings that find their way into museums,” he explains. “And that’s completely independent of some small segment of the art world that feels like they have exhausted all these possibilities.”

Marshall is a generous conversationalist, expansive yet precise. This scrupulousness is characteristic both of his painting — its intricate compositions and smooth, deft brushwork — and his approach to painting. As a young man, he was a voracious reader, “driven by this need to know what it was the artists I was looking at in our history books knew”. Studying their work, he experimented with — and mastered — not one but many styles of painting. Even now, his practice is unusually broad for an artist of his age and status: this summer, his public sculpture “A Monumental Journey”, honouring the African-American founders of National Bar Association, set up at a time when other legal bodies refused them membership, was unveiled in Des Moines.

“If you allow somebody else to limit your possibilities,” he says, “we’re right back at a status that allows for black people to ultimately be enslaved.” Unlike the European slavers, the Africans hadn’t spent “a whole lot of time engineering weapons of war”, he notes drily. “That put you at a disadvantage. And when it came time to compete, they were unable to compete.” Marshall made sure he could compete — and offer a new way of seeing.

Kerry James Marshall's 'Untitled (Underpainting)' (2018)
Kerry James Marshall's 'Untitled (Underpainting)' (2018) © David Zwirner

He was raised in Birmingham, Alabama amid civil rights unrest, then in Los Angeles, first in Watts during the riots, then in South Central in the shadow of the Black Panther headquarters: violence and police brutality were the backdrop to daily life. But these are not themes that appear explicitly in his paintings. Instead, several new works show African-Americans doing everyday things: dressing, drinking coffee, walking the dog. Is he countering a pernicious narrative of black life that’s defined by crime and violence? “There are things that I don’t do,” he agrees. “You don’t see images of black people in trauma in my work; you don’t see images of black people who are abject in my work.

“If you look at those figures,” he continues, referring to his paintings of hair salons, families, lovers, “they seem to be self-possessed. That matters a lot to me.” In the history of painting, “white people seem to like themselves”. He laughs. “They like what they look like, they like what they do and they like seeing themselves with each other.” He stops laughing. There is no equivalent genre for black people, he says, because of the history of conquer and slavery. So beauty and pleasure come to be seen as an exclusively white entitlement. “We don’t think of black people and joy.”

Marshall’s paintings are unashamedly beautiful. They are large, drawing on the tradition of history painting and the “sense of grandeur that comes with monumental images. You have to say, ‘is that available to you, too?’”

But one of the most striking aspects of his work he did not learn from past masters: his use of black pigments to render skin. His figures are literally black. Defying painterly “taboo”, he tried to “figure out a way to make black chromatic too”. What he discovered — using carbon black, iron oxide black, ivory black — is that it contains warm and cool tones, like any other colour.

Though lauded for years (he won a MacArthur “genius” grant in 1997), Marshall’s work has found a wider audience at a time when blackness is in the spotlight, politically and culturally. He is one of a cohort of African-American artists that now occupy the top of the market, including Mark Bradford, Julie Mehretu, Glenn Ligon, Theaster Gates, Njideka Akunyili Crosby and Kehinde Wiley. I ask Marshall what he makes of the celebration of black excellence more broadly, of stars such as Donald Glover and Beyoncé. “If you focus too much attention on people who seem exceptional,” he warns, “vast numbers of people get left behind. Really, transformation takes place at the level of the ordinary.”

Kerry James Marshall's 'Untitled (Large Colours)' (2018)
Kerry James Marshall's 'Untitled (Large Colours)' (2018) © David Zwirner

Does the job of painting get easier as he gets older? “No,” he replies firmly. “I think it gets harder.” This is partly owing to his success — “the more work you do, the more impossible it gets to do other work, because the space for doing things that really are worthwhile just gets smaller and smaller” — and partly to his sense of responsibility. He refuses to “pump out” paintings simply to satisfy demand. He thinks hard about the images of black life he’s putting out into the world. “I’m not just going to put anything out just because I can.”

The challenge, then, for an artist at Marshall’s level is how to keep evolving. History of Painting answers that question in a surprising way. It is made up of three broad groups of work, two of which are markedly different in style from his figurative work. One group looks abstract — although he rejects the term — defined by bright swatches of colour; the other is a series of Warhol-like compositions of the kind of flyers that advertise US supermarket products but here display auction results.

Kerry James Marshall's 'History of Painting (May 16, 2007)' (2018)
Kerry James Marshall's 'History of Painting (May 16, 2007)' (2018) © David Zwirner

He explains that the exhibition is organised around three ideas. First, the essentials of art, as in the pattern of reds and yellows shot through with dynamic green strokes in “Untitled (Large Colours)”. Second, how we learn to evaluate art, represented by the brilliantly tricksy “Untitled (Underpainting)” which, in his more familiar figurative style, shows schoolchildren in a museum. And finally, how this determines art’s commercial value: hence the series advertising auction results.

So Marshall is commenting not only on art history but on the contemporary market: the way works accrue meaning and ultimately value. It’s a pointed statement to make at a major London gallery during Frieze Week. And it’s some of the best contemporary art on show. Marshall continues to shake things up — quietly, and from the inside.

To November 10,

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