The atmosphere in Sotheby’s New York auction room the evening of May 16th was one of heady excitement. One of the contemporary works on the block was Past Times, a 1997 work by Chicago artist, Kerry James Marshall. The pre-auction estimate had it selling for between $8 to 12 million. When the auctioneer’s gavel came down, the winning bid was an astounding $21.1 million, a record sum for Marshall and the highest for any African American artist.
Past Times depicts a pastoral scene of a family enjoying a picnic, playing golf and water skiing. Just one thing is out of the ordinary—all the figures are black. Black is the identifying signature in all Marshall’s work.
Overnight, Marshall became a hot art property. Though he had been painting for nearly 40 years, Marshall was little-known outside the art world until his 2016 show, Mastry, opened at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art and then traveled to The Met Breuer in New York.
Mastry’s impact was electric. Coming in the wake of the riots in Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement, the artist and the moment fused.
Once it is pointed out, it seems obvious that Euro-American art has historically been an activity by and for white people. Marshall pushes hard against that notion by giving blackness a literal presence and visibility in paint, absent for far too long.
“My introduction to art history was like everybody else’s,” Marshall told one interviewer, “You see an art history book that has works by Rembrandt, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo. Yes, these things are great. But I don’t see a reflection of myself in any of these things I’m looking at.”
Those who know him say that Marshall is highly ambitious and wants nothing more than to be mentioned among the ranks of major art figures. He implied as much speaking with The Guardian in 2017. “My ambition was never to make a lot of money. I was just really struggling to make the best pictures I could make.”
His work now garners consistently high praise. Last year, Artforum called Marshall’s Garden Project (1994-95), featuring public housing projects in Chicago and Los Angeles, “one of the great painting cycles of our period.”
Marshall was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1955 but moved with his family to Los Angeles as a youngster. He grew up in the very rough Watts neighborhood which gave rise to the Black Power movement.
He received his BFA degree from Otis College of Art and Design where he studied with artist Charles White (currently featured in an exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago). Acknowledging his great debt to White, Marshall’s two other influences were artist Norman Lewis and Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man. Marshall relocated to Chicago in 1987.
Besides establishing black’s chromatic value, Marshall also has been instrumental for reestablishing painting during a period when minimalism and photography were dominant along with bringing the figure back into art practice.
Elizabeth Smith met Marshall when both lived in Los Angeles. When she became chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, she offered him a show in 2003. She is now executive director of the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation in New York and remains a supporter of his work.
“I think Kerry will be considered historically important for several reasons,” says Smith. “For using black people as major protagonists, using the tradition of grand painting as a starting point for his own work, and his use of everyday scenes that establish his protagonists as heroes.”
Past Times has a new home. Its new owner is Sean Combs, AKA Puff Daddy. Marshall has said he’s happy the work has found the right collector.
And what do we know about the seller? It was the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, also known as the McCormick Convention Center. The painting was part of their little-known art collection of 100 pieces which, in 1997, was curated by local art adviser Joel Straus.
Straus first met Marshall in the early ‘90s when the artist was working as an art handler for the Richard Gray Gallery. He recalls that when he presented the painting to the M.P.E.A’s board of trustees, it provoked questions and “a lot of pushback” before the trustees agreed to buy it for $25,000.
There won’t be any pushback in 2018. What seemed like a possibly poor investment in 1997 has reaped a Midas-size windfall.
Tom Mullaney is managing editor of The New Art Examiner which covers Chicago’s gallery and museum scene.