Kerry James Marshall at MOCA

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Kerry James Marshall, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self,” 1980
Egg tempera on paper, 8 x 6.5 inches
Photo by Matthew Fried, © MCA Chicago

Kerry James Marshall began by disappearing. In 1980, he painted "A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self," a black background surrounding the face of a black man so that the white of his eyes and teeth are with the barely visible. Inspired by the book The Invisible Man — written by the black author Ralph Waldo Ellison — this was the beginning of Marshall's career-long exploration of that which was all but invisible in museums and art history books: the representation of black people.

More than three decades later, Marshall is a critically and financially successful artist, a 1997 MacArthur Fellow and the subject of a retrospective concluding its three-city tour here at MOCA on Grand Avenue. In many ways, walking through the exhibition is watching an artist disappear to himself and reappear by literally painting himself, his experiences, his ideas back into the pictures.

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Kerry James Marshall, “Untitled (Painter),” 2009
Acrylic on PVC, 44 5/8 x 43 1/8 x 3 7/8 inches
Photo by Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

It is significant that Marshall chose painting as his way of making this statement because he was relating to centuries of art lining the walls of museums here and in Europe. By using the traditional medium of painting, he was squaring off with the masters, a battle that he had to take on with himself at the same time. The exhibition, arranged chronologically for the most part, reveals that he did so on his own terms. Portraits, landscapes, scenes of domesticity and historic events are painted with black experience front and center but from a passionately personal perspective. As he paints from the heart, so can they be received by us as viewers.

Marshall, born in 1955 in Birmingham, Alabama, moved with his family to Watts in 1963. His first museum experience was a visit was to LACMA. As a student at Otis Art Institute (now Otis College of Art and Design), where he graduated in 1979, he was encouraged by the black realist Charles White and by Betye Saar, who was exploring black history and identity in her assemblage. Both influences are apparent in Marshall's earliest paintings. After moving to New York and then Chicago, where he still lives, Marshall produced the Garden Project, mid-1990s paintings of public housing projects in Chicago and LA.

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Kerry James Marshall, “Watts 1963,” 1995
Acrylic and collage on unstretched canvas, 115 3/8 x 135 7/8 inches

One large gallery includes the huge unstretched canvases attached directly to the wall, his response to pastoral views of nature especially popular in the increasingly urbanized 19th century. His adolescent years register in the sumptuous painting of Nickerson Gardens. On a flowered green lawn stretching out before stucco block buildings, below a rising sun, palm trees and blue birds, three black children are playing. One is curled up on the lawn above the text and title, "Watts 1963," two years before the riots. Marshall conflates his memories with subtle references to the larger history and what is to come. More poem than lecture, the painting reminisces of an innocent time before tragedy.

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Kerry James Marshall, “Untitled (Mirror Girl),” 2014
Acrylic on PVC panel, 83 ¾ x 59 ¾ inches
Photo by Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

Finding delight in the everyday resonates everywhere in Marshall's art. Paintings of courtship, romantic entanglements and yearning are set in scenes of decorative abandon with items of clothing, furniture, pictures in frames, even banners of glitter and curlicues.

In the last decade, Marshall has explored the fundamental subject of any painter: the studio. Black artists, men and women, hold outsized palettes as they gaze out at us, watching them at work. In another series, Marshall renders figures from black history like Harriet Tubman as though reinvigorating them for a present time.

There are also large abstract paintings, departures from his interest in representing the figure but not from his awareness of the complexities of how art is received. Black monochromes and colors squeegeed as Blots question ideas about the neutrality of non-objective painting.

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Kerry James Marshall, “Untitled (Blot),” 2014
Acrylic on PVC panel, 84 x 119 5/8 x 3 3/8 inches

There is only one thing missing from this show. When I saw it at the Met Breuer in New York last fall, the venerable Metropolitan asked Marshall to curate an adjacent gallery of art from their collection. He selected Ingre's "Odalisque in Grisaille" (ca. 1824-34), a later rendition of his well-known blushing pink nude, rendered in tones of charcoal gray. A "black" odalisque. He chose a painting by Ad Reinhardt, best known for his monochromes of black paint but represented there by a 1950 Abstract Painting-"Grey," square-ish brushstrokes covering the entire surface. European masters were hung next to tribal art from Africa. Every piece offered a window into the artist's perspective and sensibility.

It isn't possible for such a gallery to exist at MOCA. However, the show aptly organized by curator Helen Molesworth offers plenty of proof of Marshall's ever evolving "mastry." It is on view through July 3.