A presidential paradox at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art


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Artist Kerry James Marshall is taking on two of the most celebrated U.S. presidents on a grandiose scale.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art commissioned Marshall to create two murals — colorful, psychic landscapes of Mount Vernon and Monticello — which will be on display beginning this week. The murals, which measure 27 feet by 32 feet, are painted on diagonal suspended walls of the Haas Atrium.
Marshall based the style of the murals, on view through May 2010, on the form of a children’s activity coloring book, filled with bright primary colors, mazes and hidden images along the trees and water.


Although he holds both George Washington (born on this date in 1732) and Thomas Jefferson in high regard, he challenges their legacy by toying with optical illusions within both landscapes. Figures of slaves are hidden within the murals because Marshall believes they have been concealed in popular accounts of these forefathers of American history.

“George Washington was the leader in America’s first struggle for freedom and Thomas Jefferson authored the Declaration of Independence, which states ‘All men are created equal,’ yet both were slave owners,” said Marshall. “That’s a contradiction that I find hard to ignore. One that I think should always be a part of their narrative.”

Based in Chicago and born in Birmingham, Ala., Marshall was raised in South Central L.A. and graduated from the Otis College of Art and Design. He is well known for large-scale paintings, sculptures and other artwork that focuses on African American life and history. He also created “Rythm Mastr,” a superhero comic book based on African mythology.

“It’s interesting for us to be engaging with an artist that does history painting,” said John Zarobell, assistant curator of painting and sculpture at the museum known for its contemporary pieces. “This is really about a kind of expansion of our base into public art domain within the community.”

Happy birthday, Mr. W.

— Liesl Bradner

Top: ‘Visible Means of Support: Mount Vernon’; bottom: ‘Visible Means of Support: Monticello.’ Credit: © Kerry James Marshall /San Francisco Museum of Modern Art