Kerry James Marshall’s Black Birds Take Flight in a New Series
About 10 years ago, the artist Kerry James Marshall caught a crow with his bare hands.
The crow was cornered awkwardly near Marshall’s home on the South Side of Chicago, and curiosity got the better of him. “I’ve always been impressed by that kind of bird,” he recalled the other day.
Marshall, widely acknowledged as one of the best painters working today, wanted to photograph and take a video of the crow, since he often used such documentation as the basis for his work (he prefers props now). So he grabbed it and took it home.
“At first he screamed like he was being murdered,” Marshall said. “The minute I put him by my side, he got quiet.”
On his second-floor deck, Marshall tied a cord to the crow’s leg, and provided a meal of mulberries “so he wouldn’t starve.” He showed the crow to his wife and documented the bird as planned. The next day, he let the bird go.
Some days later, he again saw the crow being menaced by a cat. Marshall recalled: “So I picked up a rock and threw it at the cat. And I swear to God, that same bird, he stood there just looking at me. And I said, ‘You better keep your butt off the ground because I’m not going to be around to save you the next time.’”
The crow meeting, which started out as research, somehow edged into a metaphysical encounter with deeper meanings, and it now informs Marshall’s newest series of paintings. His first two canvases officially debut Thursday in an online show, Studio: Kerry James Marshall, at David Zwirner Gallery.
As he has for decades, Marshall, 64, has harnessed history, especially the history of painting, in these new canvases: They are his reimagining of John James Audubon’s landmark series, “Birds of America,” the painstakingly rendered 435 watercolours made in the first half of the 19th century, significant achievements in the fields of both ornithology and art.
In one image, “Black and part Black Birds in America: (Crow, Goldfinch),” a large crow dominates the canvas, clearly too large for the birdhouses depicted behind it. There are glorious leaves, flowers and a small goldfinch in the bottom left corner. In the other picture, finished just last week, Black and part Black Birds in America: (Grackle, Cardinal & Rose-breasted Grosbeak), a grackle is the protagonist with a dainty birdhouse and brightly coloured flowers. The cardinal and grosbeak are both flying in different directions, giving them a sense of being at cross purposes with the grackle.
“There’s a disconnect between the house that’s built and the birds,” Marshall said of the crow and grackle. “It’s not designed for them, you know?” The scene considers, he said, “the pecking order.”
The series itself has been brewing in Marshall’s mind for eight or nine years, he said, and he began painting the works just before transmissions of the coronavirus accelerated in the United States in March.
A casual bird enthusiast who has been fascinated by Audubon’s draughtsmanship since he was a child, Marshall has long put Black protagonists at the center of his complex, richly layered compositions. Many Mansions (1994), one of his large-scale depictions of housing projects, features three Black men gardening — and, not incidentally, there are two bluebirds holding up a banner, too. The pointed inclusion of Black figures is part of what he has called a “counter-archive” to the familiar, white-centred story of Western art.
For the new series, the images hinge on Audubon’s own racial heritage: Many people believe he was, as Marshall’s title suggests, “part Black” — born in what is now Haiti, as Jean Rabin, to a white, plantation-owning father and a Creole chambermaid who may have been of racially-mixed descent. But, the theory goes, he was able to pass as white.
Not everyone agrees on this narrative. The biographer Richard Rhodes, author of John James Audubon: The Making of an American, said that Audubon’s biological mother was a white French chambermaid who died months after childbirth. “I know Audubon has been an inspiration to many people of colour,” Rhodes said, adding that he felt “terrible” about not being able to support the theory.
But for Marshall, what he called the “mystery” of Audubon’s parentage has fueled his imagination since 1976 when he saw the Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibition “Two Centuries of Black American Art: 1750-1950.” Organized by the curator and scholar David C. Driskell, the show included Audubon’s work, a surprise to many at the time.
“I didn’t know what to make of it, honestly,” said Marshall, who was a student at what is now the Otis College of Art and Design. “If somebody did the research and put it in a book, then maybe it must be true. And I never forgot that assertion was made.”
He referenced the notorious “one-drop rule” — that someone with one drop of Black blood made the person Black.
“That’s the key to the whole thing,” Marshall said of his new series, noting that in “Black and part Black” he included a goldfinch, a bird that also has black markings but is named for its yellow colour. “And it dovetails with this mystery about whether or not Audubon himself was Black.”
Helen Molesworth, who was a co-organizer of a 2016-17 retrospective of Marshall’s work, Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, when she was chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, said that his foregrounding of birds was significant.
“He’s known as a figurative painter, but in these, he has left the human figure out,” said Molesworth, who has seen photographs of the new paintings.
“His paintings have been filled with birds all along,” she added. “If you wanted to go birding in a Kerry James Marshall show, you could. People were paying so much attention to the human figure in his work, the birds may have gone unexamined.”
Examples include They Know That I Know (1992), Bang (1994) and 7 am Sunday Morning (2003), all depicting birds as supporting players.
Molesworth, a birder herself, said the new works were evidence that Marshall is a “polymath, deeply interested in a lot of things. He thinks the world is filled with knowledge, and all of it is available to him.”
His deep dives started early. Born in Birmingham, Ala., in 1955, Marshall moved to the South Central area of Los Angeles when he was a child, and the public library on Central Avenue was a primary destination as of age 8 or 9.
“I’d pick out books by the stack,” he said. “You had a limit of 10, so I would get 10 every time I went.”
Books depicting reptiles, birds and insects were first, and soon after came Audubon’s images. “They appealed to me for two reasons,” he said. “One, the way he set up the images and tableaus to create some drama, they were beautifully done — and they were hand-drawn.”
The Belgian painter Luc Tuymans, a friend of Marshall’s, noted that he is an intensely “deliberate” painter and that Audubon’s obsessive meticulousness would naturally have appealed.
James Rondeau, the director of the Art Institute of Chicago, hadn’t seen the new series yet, but as someone who knows Marshall well, he said it was typical of the artist to attempt to highlight “not only the Black experience but Black expertise,” referring to painting as well as ornithology.
Marshall was well underway with his series when, in May, Christian Cooper, a director of New York City Audubon, who is Black, was birding in Central Park, and he asked a white woman to leash her dog. She threatened to call the police and tell them “an African-American man is threatening my life.” The collision exposed a deep vein of racial bias and was a blatant example of the routine humiliations in the daily life of African-Americans.
Marshall’s reaction to news of the incident did not dwell on the conflict. Rather, he said he felt some kind of kinship to Cooper — who was in the park pursuing a field he knows well and had memorized “The Birds of North America” when he was 11 — and related to expertise that transcends race.
“There are assumptions about the kinds of things that Black people do and are interested in,” he said, adding that he wanted to push back on the idea that “all Black people’s lives are consumed by trauma. I’m not thinking about trauma all day.”
What consumes this artist is paint itself.
Marshall can talk about colour theory for hours. The crow and the grackle in the “Black and part Black” pictures are particularly nuanced.
“I have to be able to show that it’s not just a silhouette; it has volume, it breathes,” he said. “And so I had to figure out how to make that happen but not diminish the fundamental blackness of the thing.”
To do that, Marshall painstakingly adjusts both the chroma (the warmth or coolness) and the value (the amount of light or dark) by mixing colours like raw sienna, chrome green, cobalt blue, and violet with black pigments.
It’s among the things that Tuymans noticed first in the 1990s when he got to know Marshall and his work. He called Marshall’s attention to Blackness, at a time when it was a more radical move, “decisive and unapologetic.”
True, but in painting, bravery only makes a difference if the artist has the tools, and the focus, to get the message across.
“The picture plane is the site of every action,” Marshall said. He seemed to be speaking not only about the painting process but also how he conducts his whole life — after all, this is a man who captured a live crow to get to know it better. “How things occupy that space,” he added, “matters more than anything.”
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