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Kerry James Marshall (b. 1955)

Knowledge and Wonder

Kerry James Marshall (b. 1955)
Knowledge and Wonder
acrylic and collage on canvas
116 x 275 in. (294.6 x 698.5 cm.)
Executed in 1995.
Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner, 1995
J. Prigoff and R. Dunitz, Walls of Heritage, Walls of Pride: African American Murals, San Francisco, 2000, p. 242.
M. L. Gray, A Guide to Chicago’s Murals, Chicago and London, 2001, pp. 110-111 (illustrated in color).
A. Neumer, "Art All Around You," Chicago Tribune, 9 May 2003, p. 23.
Chicago Cultural Center, 35 Years of Public Art, February-May 2014.
Sale Room Notice
This Lot is Withdrawn.

Brought to you by

Ana Maria Celis
Ana Maria Celis

Lot Essay

The City of Chicago requests Knowledge and Wonder for future public exhibitions in the city, at a venue or venues to be determined in partnership with Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.

Measuring nearly 23-feet-across, Kerry James Marshall’s monumental Knowledge and Wonder is one of the largest and most expansive paintings in the artist’s oeuvre. It is also one of his most powerful; combining themes and motifs from art history with a contemporary social and political discourse it is a modern-day history painting. Across its vast dimensions, Marshall corrals a collection of unique and recurring motifs from giant books to delicate birds, the vastness of the universe to the natural inquisitiveness of a small child, the artist’s evocative forms, drippy, gestural lines and planes of expansive white, present a gripping and encyclopedic narrative. Painted in 1995, the themes and motifs that appear in Knowledge and Wonder recur in some of the artist’s most celebrated works from this important period of his career including Our Town (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville); Better Homes, Better Gardens (Denver Art Museum); and Watts (St. Louis Art Museum).

Knowledge and Wonder is an epic undertaking. Collaged directly onto the surface of an industrial tarpaulin, Marshall depicts a community of people so often missing from art history as more than a dozen African American children and adults are shown looking up in awe at a collection of large, oversized books. They are dressed in their "Sunday best," and standing with their backs to the viewer they appear anonymous, yet each remains a highly individual and dignified figure, their unique personalities reflected in their pretty dresses, braided hair, and smart, preppy shirts. The subject of their gaze is a tableau of evocative imagery; large oversized books (their colorful covers offering up a clue to their contents); orbiting planets, comets, microscopic creatures, a dragon’s head, and a bright red Northern Cardinal bird sheltering in a large symbolic tree. The compositional journey ends with a ladder depicted on the extreme right of the composition reaching up to the sky, suggesting a better world is accessible through the pursuit of knowledge.

The epic scale and rich imagery contained within the expanse of this painting have turned Knowledge and Wonder into a modern-day history painting of sorts, a heroic canvas with didactic overtones. It is also a painting about looking; like the varied display of objects in Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors, each item represents more than just an object, they are emblematic of a wider vocabulary of understanding. Many of the motifs present in Knowledge and Wonder also appear in other important examples of the artist’s work from the period: the checkerboard flooring dominates almost the entire lower half of the composition of his 1993 painting The Lost Boys, and is replicated in the picnic blanket in Past Times; the ghostly "tree of life" that appears in the center of the painting is one of the artist’s most popular themes, and features prominently in The Lost Boys, Our Town, Past Times, and Campfire Girls; finally, the elliptical "surf board" form appears in a number of Garden Project works including Better Homes, Better Gardens, and also the artist’s 1995 painting Our Town.

As such, this painting becomes a celebration of knowledge and the importance of learning in building human potential. Marshall celebrates books as a source of mystery and wonder as children and adults gaze upon giant sized books which offer up the answers to a universe of questions. The books suggests that an entire world of information is within reach, and the inclusion of a ladder in the far right of the composition suggests that life can be greatly improved and elevated by accessing this vast array of information. Marshall’s cultural critique and strong sense of social justice have made him one of the leading American artists working today, and his figurative paintings depicting the modern African American experience have become some of the most powerful images in a generation. Marshall has said that it was his intent to “create a visual field of mystery and spectacular. I tried to express the many common and amazing things that could be found in books, the kind of things that young minds think and dream of; Outer Space, Monsters and Heroes, and THE LIFE PROCESS” (Artist’s Statement).

The figures in Marshall’s works are rendered in the artist’s signature flat, deep black style, a manner of painting that only allows for vaguely discernible facial features and piercing eyes to be seen. This stylized depiction is not for any sake of realism, but rather an effort to break from the picture plane and jolt the viewer into really taking note of the subjects. “Marshall’s uncanny, intense blackness has both a personal derivation and a conceptual underpinning. His figures are not faithful depictions of black individuals. They’re signs, and they channel and frustrate a centuries-long history of representations of blackness as...inferior, or simply absent—before then, gloriously, asserting the prestige afforded to those representations as Marshall’s rightful inheritance” (J. Farago, “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry exhibition review—A sumptuous symphony in black,” The Guardian, October 28, 2016). Drawing upon the various representations of black figures throughout history (both positive and overtly negative), Marshall has synthesized his own composite that brings up issues of racial difference without reinforcing negative stereotypes from the past.

Despite his contemporary subject matter, Marshall’s paintings are also deeply rooted in art history. A nod to his extensive knowledge of—and reverence for—the art historical canon, in scale and scope Marshall’s composition evokes many epic paintings. From the majesty of grand Renaissance frescos, to Gaugin’s Where Do We Come From, 1897-1898, (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), to the more politically focused murals of the Mexican Muralists, Kerry James Marshall fully understands the nature of scale and how to use its extensive proportions to achieve full impact. Working on such a grand scale, he also places his work in this tradition of history painting and in the process, gives a voice to those who have often gone unheard. “I think it’s important for a black artist to create black figure paintings in the grand tradition,” the artist has said. “Artworks you encounter in museums by black people are often modest in scale. They don’t immediately call attention to themselves. I started out using history painting as a model because I wanted to claim the right to operate at that level” (K. J. Marshall, quoted in K. Lund, Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Chicago, 2016, p. 116). While the narrative might be modern, Marshall’s use of the different compositional elements serves to compound several artistic eras into one composition, a tactic that negates an easy reading of the work as merely representational and instead invites a deeper investigation.

Born in 1955 in Birmingham, Alabama, Marshall spent his formative years in South Central Los Angeles, which at that time was embroiled in the often-violent struggle of the Civil Rights Movement. It is against this backdrop that he began to shape his worldview, which naturally leads him to produce work that reflects the social and political reality of black Americans. “You can’t be born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1955 and not feel like you’ve got some kind of social responsibility” Marshall has explained, “You can’t move to Watts [in Los Angeles] in 1963 and grow up in South Central near the Black Panthers’ headquarters and see the kinds of things I saw in my developmental years and not speak about it” (K. J. Marshall, Interview with D. Smith, in Along the Way, Kerry James Marshall, exh. cat., London, 2005, p. 17). Since 1987 the artist has called Chiacago home, and has become a driving force of the city's artistic renaissance. He has been an influenial teacher, from 1993 to 2006 teaching at the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois, inspiring a new generation of young artists to epxress themselves and find their own voice through the power of art.

Knowledge and Wonder speaks to the very heart of Kerry James Marshall’s artistic practice. Within its monumental proportions, the artist uses the grand scale to impress a simple idea—that knowledge is a vital tool in improving social mobility and effecting social change; as Andrew Carnegie once said, “A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never-failing spring in the desert” (A. Carnegie, quoted in L. Zhou, “Building Libraries along Fibre-Optic Lines in Sub-Saharan Africa, Smithsonian Magazine, February 23, 2015, via www.smithsonian.com). One of the most respected artists working today, Marshall gives a voice to those excluded from the traditional art historical narrative, and in the process creates some of the most rich and powerful paintings of any artist working today.

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