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 bird was cornered awkwardly near Mr. 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.

Mr. Marshall, widely acknowledged as one of the best painters working today, wanted to photograph and take 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,” Mr. Marshall said. “The minute I put him by my side, he got quiet.”

On his second-floor deck, Mr. 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 saw the crow being menaced by a cat. Mr. 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 Mr. 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 through Aug. 30.

As he has for decades, Mr. 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 watercolors 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 colored 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,” Mr. 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 Mr. 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, Mr. 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-centered story of Western art.

For the new series, the images hinge on Audubon’s own racial heritage: Many people believe he was, as Mr. 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 color,” Mr. Rhodes said, adding that he felt “terrible” about not being able to support the theory.

But for Mr. 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 Mr. 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.”

What consumes this artist is paint itself.

Mr. Marshall can talk about color 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, Mr. Marshall painstakingly adjusts both the chroma (the warmth or coolness) and the value (the amount of light or dark) by mixing colors like raw sienna, chrome green, cobalt blue, and violet with black pigments.

It’s among the things that Mr. Tuymans noticed first in the 1990s, when he got to know Mr. Marshall and his work. He called Mr. 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,” Mr. 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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