Offered on 15 November at Christie’s in New York, this monumental painting by one of the leading American artists working today highlights his aim to reposition the black figure in Western art history — and will be sold to benefit the City of Chicago’s Public Art and Libraries Programs
Commissioned by the City of Chicago in 1995, Kerry James Marshall’s monumental Knowledge and Wonder is one of the largest and most expansive paintings in the artist’s oeuvre. From the same key period of his career that produced the Garden Project paintings — a series that saw Marshall examining self-portraiture, history painting, genre scenes, landscape and abstraction all at once, Knowledge and Wonder speaks to the artist’s cultural and art-historical narrative.
The painting depicts a group of African-American children and adults gazing into a galaxy, out of which the mysteries of the universe emerge. Astronomy, mythology, science and nature are illustrated with orbiting planets, an eclipse of the sun, a Chinese dragon and gods which celebrate the importance of learning in building human potential. There are also references to Chicago — in the red cardinal of Illinois and an American flag. But not everything is as benign as first appears: some of the black figures standing on the checker-board ballroom floor, dressed in preppy attire, are focusing on a superhuman blue fist that seems to be punching through the painting like a destructive demon.
In the far right of the picture is a ladder, a metaphysical symbol of upward mobility, class and social status, but also suggesting that life can be elevated and transformed by accessing knowledge. Many of the motifs in the picture have become part of his signature style, and are central to several of Marshall’s most celebrated works — tall surfboard-shaped shadows, drips of paint, children, a tree of life, script and symbols.
Measuring nearly 10 feet in height by over 23 feet in length, Marshall’s monumental masterpiece take its place in a long tradition of history painting, referencing everything from the Italian Renaissance to 17th-century Dutch painting through to the 20th-century abstraction of Kline, de Kooning, Motherwell and Pollock, while also embracing the bold graphics of comic books.
The work also forms a significant chapter in the story of mural painting in Chicago, one that dates back to the 1967 Wall of Respect commemorating African-American heroes. Its skilful execution and ambitious proportions, meanwhile, bring to mind the large-scale figurative work of French Post-Impressionist masters such as Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse, as well as the oversized murals of Diego Rivera.
Born in 1955 in Birmingham, Alabama, Marshall spent his formative years in South Central Los Angeles, witnessing the violent clashes between the police and the Black Panthers. Much of his art is intrinsically related to this tumultuous time. ‘You can’t be born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1955 and not feel like you’ve got some kind of social responsibility,’ Marshall has stated. ‘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.’
It was in early artworks such as the career-making The Lost Boys (1993) and Our Town (1995) that Kerry James Marshall introduced a rhetoric of blackness, using traditional white culture and applying it to the black experience. In The Lost Boys, the artist took the story of Peter Pan and its elegy to lost innocence, and used it to illustrate the tragic events surrounding a little boy in Los Angeles who was killed by the police because he was holding a toy gun. In a similar manner, Our Town, which subverts Thornton Wilder’s small-town America, depicts two black kids riding their bikes through a typically aspirational white suburbia. In Knowledge and Wonder, from the same mid-1990s period, African-American children — a recurring focus within Marshall’s oeuvre — are again the primary focus.
Quite simply, Kerry James Marshall has confronted an art world in which black people have no authority and steadfastly painted his way into it. ‘People are familiar that I’m on a kind of mission,’ he has said. ‘At some point you have to confront the fact that people that look like me are not represented in the great paintings of history except as peripheral or exceptional. For me I want to see black people central to the story, and not just occasionally, I want to see them all the time.’
‘I think it’s important for a black artist to create black figure paintings in the grand tradition’ – Kerry James Marshall
Today, the black activist artist and educator is one of the most highly regarded painters in the United States. In May, founder of Bad Boy Entertainment and Harlem rapper Sean Combs bought the monumental artwork Past Times for $21,114,500, quadrupling the artist’s auction record. The picture, depicting a black family playing golf and water-skiing — high-class leisure activities more often associated with rich white people — elevated Marshall to being the most expensive living African-American artist.
This was no surprise to those who had seen the artist’s acclaimed 2004 exhibition and his 2016 mid-career survey in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Marshall has always said he paints for the museum, not the home, and the exhibition revealed his ambitious aesthetic philosophy in vibrant technicolour: the history of the black experience, incorporating assassinated politicians, gang warfare, mothers, daughters, angels and rappers, sometimes painted against unapologetic Rococo backgrounds, executed with the sharp clarity of a Canaletto.
Knowledge and Wonder has been exhibited at Chicago’s Legler Branch Library since 1995, and its sale will enrich the future of its original home for generations to come. Proceeds will be used to expand the Legler Library from a branch location to a West Side regional library, with major upgrades in capabilities akin to current regional libraries, and to augment the public art fund for the acquisition and development of new work, underscoring the City’s commitment to future generations of Chicago citizens by ensuring their access to lifelong learning and the art of their time.
It is a sentiment that is paralleled by Kerry James Marshall’s enduring dedication to Chicago, his chosen city of more than three decades. The influence of the 62-year-old artist and educator, who taught at the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois, can be seen throughout the city, perhaps most notably at the Chicago Cultural Center, where in 2017 Marshall unveiled his 132 by 100-foot mural, Rushmore, which honours 20 women who have shaped the city’s cultural landscape. Marshall described the $1 commission fee as an act of ‘civic obligation’.
‘Kerry James Marshall’s iconic works are part and parcel of Chicago’s public art portfolio,’ said Rahm Emanuel, Mayor of Chicago, ‘and we will always honour the home that Knowledge and Wonder had on the West Side. I want to thank Christie’s auction house for handling the sale of this remarkable piece of contemporary art, which will in turn help transform the lives of thousands of residents across Chicago.’
Alexis Klein, Senior Specialist in Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie’s, paid tribute to Marshall as ‘an artist whose long-term investment in his chosen city sees no bounds. In this seminal masterpiece, the artist opens up the art-historical canon to a new generation, promoting knowledge and learning as the tools necessary for social change. It is truly a painting for our time.’
Knowledge and Wonder will be a centrepiece of the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 15 November at Christie’s in New York.