Kerry James Marshall: ‘As an artist, everything should be a challenge’

Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Kerry James Marshall taught himself to draw and made his first paintings in Harlem YMCA. As a major retrospective opens in LA, he talks about taking on the Old Masters

The day before the crowds get in to his critically praised retrospective, Kerry James Marshall is walking around the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, taking in 30 years of his work. Wearing a casual green T-shirt and slacks and with his visitor badge still attached, he looks more like a tourist who has wandered into the wrong exhibition than one of Americas most revered contemporary artists. Although his work is known for its challenging nature, you get the impression hes content with his lot. I see myself as having fulfilled a lot of my ambition, says Marshall. All the things I dreamed of achieving, Ive achieved for the most part.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Marshall moved with his family to Los Angeles and grew up in Watts and South Central during the 1960s. He enrolled in drawing lessons, cribbed from art shows on TV and copied the work of various people including Charles White, who would become his teacher at the Otis Art Institute in LA. He moved to New York in the 80s after being awarded an artist-in-residence fellowship at the Studio Museum in Harlem. It was there, while staying in the same YMCA that Malcolm X checked into decades earlier, that Marshall began painting his large-scale figurative works.

Vignette, 2003. Photograph: Adam Reich/MCA Chicago

He created abstract ink-blot paintings, photography, and started his own sprawling comic-book series, Rythm Mastr, in 1999 after a lifelong fascination with superheroes. He also worked as a production designer on Julie Dashs Daughters of the Dust in 1991 alongside his wife Cheryl Lynn Bruce, who played Viola in the film. But Marshall is best known for work that places black figures in paintings which take their cue from the European masters. His subjects arent just dark skinned, but pitch black. Noticeably, unavoidably, purposefully black, standing out as a direct challenge to the art world status quo. Set in housing projects, backyards and apartments, these paintings tell a story of working-class African American life.

Marshall, now 61, is a believer in Marcel Duchamps idea of the studio as a laboratory: a place to test hypotheses and solve problems. This huge retrospective, called Mastry and taking up more than half of MOCA, is something that comes with the territory rather than being an end goal. My ambition was never to make a lot of money, he says. It wasnt to travel around the world. I was really just struggling to make the best pictures I could make.

Untitled (Club Couple), 2014. Photograph: MCA Chicago

The price tags and pomp of todays art world were unknown when he started out. When I was in school, there wasnt any conversation about making a living off the work you were doing. That wasnt the frame of reference you had. You looked at artists who had historical significance and you understood that something about their success didnt have anything to do with their success in the market place.

Look at the insane auction prices. It wasnt like that in the early 80s and late 70s. But now, people who look at what it means to be an artist thats all they see. People paying $15-20m for Jeff Koons. Gerhard Richter paintings selling for $35-40m at auction, Basquiat for $50-70m, Warhol for $150m. Marshalls own work has itself become increasingly sought after, with one painting, Plunge, recently selling for $2.1m. His work sits in the permanent collection of New Yorks MoMA, alongside Jackson Pollock and Ellsworth Kelly.

It makes being an artist look like a glamorous life. Youre in Venice, Berlin, Rome, youre here, youre there. They got these great big giant studio spaces, theyve got these great big estates. Theyre hanging out with princes and investment bankers.

Marshall is keen to point out the perils of art school, too, institutions hes called crack dens in the past because of the dependencies he says that they breed. Theyre not there to decide what kind of things youre supposed to do. Theyre supposed to teach you how to do all kinds of things. Its not enough to be among people who give you strokes because they want to be supportive. I think the only value of being in school is that everything you do should be a problem that needs to be solved. Everything should be a challenge.

Challenging the art world Kerry James Marshall. Photograph: Brad Torchia for the Guardian

That mistrust may stem from the fact that when he was experimenting with neo-expressionism in the 70s, some teachers told him that painting was finished. If people keep telling you you cant do a thing, then you need to find a really good reason to continue, he says. If someone tells you you cant do something, how will you know? If someone tells you something is impossible, how will you know?

Marshall has spent his career pushing at what is seen to be appropriate for the walls of the worlds biggest galleries, a struggle that now looks startlingly prescient. During the course of his retrospective, which began its tour last April at the Museum of Contemporary Art in his adopted home of Chicago, an argument has been brewing about how best to deal with declining attendances at places that house the old masters, such as the Met in New York.

So does he, as an artist whose work challenges the very notion of who and what the masters are, think their time is up? Tate Britain is not going to close, theyre not going to throw that stuff out, he deadpans. The Louvre is not going to close. None of those history museums people travel round the world to see none of those museums are going to close and theyre not going to get rid of any of that stuff.

De Style, 1993. Photograph: MCA Chicago

But when most people go to a big museum like the Louvre, it reaffirms their idea of what real art is supposed to look like. And if you keep going to the Louvre and Tate Britain and you dont see black people in those pictures, then you dont think black people belong in those kind of pictures, which belong in a place like that. People need to start thinking that these pictures belong in those places, too.

A Portrait of the Artist As a Shadow of His Former Self, 1980. Photograph: Rose Fried/MCA Chicago

Looking at the work of Kehinde Wiley who uses classical poses and situations to recast urban men as, say, noblemen on horseback you can see touches of Marshall. His shadow lurks in the dark silhouettes of Kara Walker and the black portraiture of Toyin Ojih Odultola and Njideka Akunyili Crosby. Marshalls legacy seems secure. So does he feel his work has changed perceptions of what belongs in a gallery?

If you have a work that can do that to a younger artist, who then wants to make more work, I think youve really achieved something. Thats been one of the most important consequences of getting work of mine into major museums. Its that, yes, a young person has said, When I saw that picture, I realised I could do this.

Mastry is at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, until 3 July.

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