From south central LA to Sothebys: the record-breaking rise of Kerry James Marshall

According to reports, the $21.1 m sale of the paint Past Times was a record for a black artist and a crucial next step in a fascinating career

In 1997, African American artist Kerry James Marshall painted Past Times, an artwork illustrating a black household in high-class leisure- playing golf, playing cricket, as well as water skiing and driving a motorboat across a lagoon. It’s a take over a pastoral scene typically filled with European aristocratic kinds yet instead filled with black figures.

Last week at Sotheby’s, it sold for $21.1 m, violating a new world record, constructing Marshall, according to reports, the highest-paid African American artist.

” My ambition was never to make a lot of money ,” the Chicago-based artist told the Guardian in 2017.” I was truly just struggling to induce the best images I could make .”

The buyer of Marshall’s painting was Sean Combs, AKA Diddy, the founder of Bad Boy Entertainment and Harlem rapper who, in the same year this paint was built, debuted his album No Way Outat number one on the Billboard chart.

Jack Shainman, Marshall’s gallerist, told Combs was the right art collector” with purpose and an eye toward preserving legacy “.

Marshall has always felt like he had a social responsibility, growing up in South Central Los Angeles during the peak of the civil rights battle. Having lived near the headquarters of the Black Panthers, his art reflects current realities of many working-class African Americans, painting scenes of his neighborhood community, housing projects to boisterous group meets and intimate moments that range from romantic interludes to pensive solitude.

Over his 40 -year career, Marshall has exhibited at the Tate Modern and the Museum of Modern Art and counts Michelle Obama as a fan. One of his prime motivatings has always been to work against the whitewashing of art history.” If no one is out there working to produce paintings with a racially different define of figures , non-white people will always be in difficulty ,” he said in 2016.” That is why I maintain inducing images that aim to make their way into museums .”

Past Times, 1997. Photograph: Nathan Keay,( c) MCA Chicago /( c) Kerry James Marshall

However, with ongoing police barbarism as well as a string of recent, publicised incidents of racial discrimination, such as two black men arrested for sitting in a Starbucks in Philadelphia, Marshall’s work feels especially relevant now.

” His deep exploration of black identity and visibility, especially at a few moments when black people are under assault for getting coffee, golfing, napping, barbecuing and shopping, is relevant ,” told Steven Nelson, the director of the Africa Studies Center at the University of California.” His run takes its cues from the history of western paint and expands how we can conceive of figurative painting .”

Marshall has been a major artist for decades, but his career trajectory has come into the spotlight following retrospectives in 2004 and 2016.” Aligned with a decade of Marshall’s growing prominence and the fanfare surrounding his recent retrospective, it’s not surprising to see this paint break records at auction ,” said Nelson.

To Nyugen Smith, an artist based in Jersey City, this art marketing signifies something that has been brewing all along.” All of his work has positioned him to receive the acclaim that he is receiving at this moment, just as black people have been fighting against combating racism and injustice while confirming our self-worth since we were brought to the Americas ,” told Smith.” This run affirms our humanity and it celebrates its own history, culture, ideas, beauty, our genius, our natural mystic and legacy .”

While the price tag is putting the artist in the spotlight, it’s a byproduct of what’s really important for this historic moment.” If market value is a sign of worth- appreciation, expressed appreciation for artistry, skill, imagination, imagination- this development is good ,” told Jacqueline Francis, writer of Making Race: Modernism and “Racial Art” in America.” It’s good for painting as a practice, and it’s also an opportunity to explain Marshall’s work to the public because it needs it; I’ll do cartwheels when as many people, black people, are talking about this painting as[ Childish Gambino’s] This is America .”

The artist’s trajectory is hope for elder artists, too, as Marshall is now a 62 -year-old art star in an industry that is preoccupied with young starrings, or the Jean-Michel Basquiat fetish.” The interest in Marshall’s work has greater relevance today, as museums expand the traditional canons of art history to embracing a more diverse approach ,” said Julian Zugazagoitia, director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, which owns an early work by Marshall.” Personally, I have enjoyed witnessing how the attention to a contemporary artist like Kerry James Marshall has opened the door to fresh consideration of older artists .”

While Past Times will be put in Combs’ private collection, it’s paramount that Marshall continues to have a major presence in museums around the world.

After all, being on public display is all part of the artist’s mission.” When most people go to a big museum like the Louvre, it reaffirms their idea of what real art is supposed to look like ,” Marshall told the Guardian.” If you don’t see black people in those scenes, then you don’t think black people belong in those various kinds of images … people need to start thinking that these pictures belong in those places, too .”

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