On October 27, 2013, Kerry James Marshall discusses his painting Great America (1994), acquired by the National Gallery of Art in 2011 as a gift of the Collectors Committee, and the inspiration for the Gallery’s exhibition In the Tower: Kerry James Marshall, on view June 28 through December 8, 2013.
One of the most celebrated painters currently working in the United States, Marshall explores through his work the experiences of African Americans and the narratives of American history that have often excluded black people. In Great America, Marshall represents the Middle Passage as a haunted theme park ride, indirectly suggesting instead of specifically depicting the slave trade. The Middle Passage was the middle leg of the triangular trade of manufactured goods, crops, and human cargo between Europe, Africa, and the Americas during the colonial era through the 1850s.
Drawing upon the artist’s prodigious knowledge of art history and the African diaspora, Marshall’s paintings combine figurative and abstract styles and multiple allusions, from both “high” and “low” sources. In Marshall’s art the past is never truly past: history exerts a constant, often unconscious pressure on the living. This interview followed Marshall’s participation in a panel discussion titled Making It: Race and Class in Contemporary America, held on the occasion of the artist’s In the Tower exhibition.