Kerry James Marshall: In the Tower

One of the shows that is currently up at the National Gallery of Art in DC is Kerry James Marshall: In the Tower. I remember learning about his work in more than one art history class throughout the years.

Great America

Great America, 1994, acrylic and collage on canvas

Here’s one of the opening lines of the pamphlet that accompanies the exhibit:

“Drawing upon the artist’s prodigious knowledge of art history and African diasporic culture, his paintings combine figurative and abstract styles and multiple allusions. In Marshall’s art, the past is never truly past. History exerts a constant, often unconscious pressure on the living”

I love that Marshall’s pieces are so packed with references, symbolism and history and yet, is so very current. The issues of race that he deals with in his paintings are deeply based in historical events, but as this quote points out, that past has never really gone away. It affects the present in so many ways, we see remnants of that past in the our lives and in the news every day. Another very intriguing aspect of Marshall’s paintings is that they may come off as simple upon first glance, but the more you keep looking, the more you realize how complex they are.


Plunge, 1992, acrylic and collage on canvas

Here’s another quote from the pamphlet, this time from an interview by James Meyer, the associate curator of modern art at the National Gallery of Art:

“JM: We’ve included two works from your Housing series. Many of those paintings depict public housing projects, including Nickerson Gardens in Watts, Los Angeles, where you grew up. In Bang, and Our Town, however, you depict middle-class children in neighborhoods of white houses and picket fences. The theme of water enters those works, too.

KJM: Water was the locus of the trauma. The ocean is the vast incomprehensible, what appears to be nothingness. If you ever find yourself on a boat in the middle of the ocean you look around in every direction and don’t see anything. That’s a terrifying experience. Water still has significance relative to this idea of the Middle Passage. It enters into the suburban environment, through the pools in Plunge and Our Town and the water hose in Bang.


Bang, 1994, acrylic and collage on canvas

JM: The water hose is like a big black snake circling around the girl.

KJM: It circles around and it’s aimed. It alludes in an indirect way to the events in Birmingham in 1963, when children were water-hosed by the fire department. The theme of the picture and the title are about this duality, this ambivalence.

Gulf Stream

Gulf Stream, 2003, acrylic, glitter on canvas

JM: A duality of past and present, of trauma and desire.

KFM: For black Americans it’s always all those things all the time: a consciousness that oscilates between these things. It never seems to matter how patriotic black American s hav ebeen over the centuries. Because however much patriotism you displayed you were sitll cubjrect to the same kinds of disfranchisement as somebody who might not have been patriotic in any way at all. Arriving into the middle class didn’t make you immune form any of those victimizations. All of the promises of democracy and the trappings of success were not armor enough to make African Americans immune from the ways in which the overwhelming power of the dominant white group could take advantage of or abuse them.”

Our Town

Our Town, 1995, acrylic and collage on canvas

Here’s one last quote, Marshall on democracy in museums:

“When you walk through the museum you don’t have a sense that the variety of different people who made up the nation as a whole have many any real meaningful contributions to the development of this country in the ways that people talk about its greatness. And I think to finally start to bring into a place like the National Gallery somebody who does work like mine that is not always celebratory of American ideals, that has an ambivalent and at times critical relationship to the overall story, to finally start to allow that work to be seen and those narratives to be articulated, starts to fulfill the promises that the idea of the country and the founding documents set out to guide us.”

Side note, I love shows that include some of the background work, and Kerry James Marshall: In the Tower had a great collection of preparatory drawings that accompanied the work:

Study for Plunge Study for Gulf Stream


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