Kerry James Marshall
SFAI Lecture Series
September 26, 2007 7:30 p.m.

I attended a lecture tonight at the San Francisco Art Institute. Tonight’s speaker was Kerry James Marshall. Here’s a brief paper on the talk.

Kerry James Marshall is an incredibly charming and powerful speaker. I walked out of that lecture feeling more confident about my own choices about school and in my future as an artist. The one idea he kept hammering on all night was that youâ??ve got to know where you are trying to get to in the art world. There is no chance, there is only choice. Youâ??ve got to play to win. These were the ideas he both opened and closed his lecture with, and ones that will stick with me.

Marshall has spent his life in an open dialog with art history as it relates to his own work. His paintings, photos, and sculptures examine contemporary African-American life by utilizing and referencing tools from art historyâ??s past. He believes in DaVinciâ??s philosophy that youâ??ve got to find a great master and learn his ways in order to find your own way. There is a rich history or artists struggling with and solving issues in art both contextually and formally and you would be a fool not to take advantage of that knowledge.

During the introduction to the Kerry James Marshall lecture, a comparison was made with his work and the Manet painting of Olympia, but not of the way Manet chose to challenge the idea of the nude, Marshall was interested in the way he depicted the African-American servant behind her. Thierry de Duve believes that in order to find new paths in Modernist painting, one has to go back to a turning point in history. It could be said that Kerry James Marshall picked the same turning point as Jeff Wall, but his path is decidedly different than Wall and others before him. Marshall has made it his personal agenda to insert dialog about Black America into Art History. He believes in order to play the game; youâ??ve got to have a solid understanding of the rules. However, this doesnâ??t mean you have to defer to those rules. Using a similar language as the â??greatsâ? of art history, he plans on leaving the art world no choice but to insert him firmly into the art historical conversation.

Someone in the audience challenged Kerry on the point of his wanting to join an institution whose ideologies he was opposed to. Kerry stated that it was not his role to worry about the ideologies; it was his role to enter into the conversation and start the ball rolling. Kerry compared his situation to the great boxer Jack Johnson. Johnson understood that in order for a African-American man to get the chance to box with white men, he not only had to be good, he had to be the best. Johnson not only continually publicly challenged James Jeffries, the current (white) heavy-weight champion, when Jeffries retired in order to avoid the fight, he continued to call him out until Jeffries had no choice but to accept Johnsonâ??s challenge. Johnson was finally able to prove to the world he belonged in the ring with whites. This was the beginning of a sea change in sports for African-Americans. Kerry James Marshall is fighting for the same thing in the art world.