Kerry James Marshall’s “Mastry” is Masterful

Photos and text By Ryan Anderson

Sunday morning November 13, 2016, with the furor of the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States still raging in the street, on the airwaves and across the internet, I retreated to a calmer atmosphere —the Met Breuer on Madison Ave. in NYC and the Kerry James Marshall’s “Mastry” exhibition.

Marshall has been painting for over 35 years, and “Mastry” is his largest exhibition to date, covering two floors filled with more than 80 works including 72 paintings. Using a wide variety pictorial traditions the Wall street journal wrote that Kerry gives “visibility to a vastly under-represented group in the history of Western painting. …. his blunt reference to “black” as a descriptor of African-Americans is a measure of the power and strange, stiff elegance of his art.”

The exhibition begins on the 3rd floor where most of Marshall’s early and pivotal work is displayed. Mostly acrylic paintings such as “Lost Boys: AKA Lil Bit” (1993), “Stigma Stigmata” (1992), and “So This is What You Want” (1992) are among the detailed paintings that deliver an intense impact to the viewer.

“Chalk Up Another One” (1992) is a portrait of a black male with what seems to be a bullet hole is the center of his head — Marshall’s interpretation of the struggles of the African American male to survive in America. Paintings of historic figures such as Nat Turner and the Bamana Peoples of West Africa give visitors brief history lessons.

As the exhibition proceeds, there is a section where African American romance is embraced. Filled with life, color, and perhaps lust, Marshall explores the ideals of African American physical beauty and love. The exhibition displays various cases of Civil Rights injustices, African American culture, and everything else from African American barbershops, nudity, playing children, and awesome historic photos.

“Rythm Mastr” may be the most interesting and most unexpected portion of the exhibition for me. “Rhythm Mastr” is a comic illustration portraying modern life in the African American community. Marshall aimed to fill a void in comic art where few African American heroes are depicted. The comic strip followed two teenagers who fight crime and seek revenge for wrong doings in Chicago. The illustrations display people reacting to breaking news reflecting gang violence, poverty, and touches on the community’s daily life.

Marshall was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1955 and grew up in Los Angeles. He holds a BFA (1978) and honorary doctorate (1999) from the Otis College of Art and Design. Marshall works in Chicago, where he has lived since the late 1980s.

Though I’m no art connoisseur, I thoroughly enjoyed “Mastry.” It is a spectacular exhibition that should be on everyone’s bucket list to see before it concludes on January 29, 2017. It brings something to the table for everyone and is an art aficionado’s dream exhibition.

The exhibition is featured on The Met website, as well as on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter via the hashtags #KerryJamesMarshall and #MetBreuer.


A concurrent exhibition, Kerry James Marshall Selects, curated by the artist contains about 40 works from The Met collection, ranging from the Northern Renaissance to French post-Impressionism, and from African masks to American photography of the 1950s and ‘60s, underscoring the global and historical nature of the influences that are predominant in his practice.

Main featured photo courtesy of Chicago Magazine: DAWOUD BEY

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