The turning point of Kerry James Marshall’s prolific career came in 1980 with “A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self.” Painted on paper in egg tempera, the work depicts a nearly invisible black man, dressed in black, over a black background.
Marshall created the tiny painting — only 8 by 6½ inches — when he was 25, and it marked a major transition from mixed-media abstract collages to paintings of black figures in everyday life.
In 1984 Steven Lebowitz, then a fledgling art collector, bought the painting for $850 at the Koplin gallery in Culver City. When he first displayed the work in the bar at his home, some guests found it offensive. So Lebowitz moved the painting to his bathroom, where it stayed for more than 25 years.
This month the painting will come into view again.
Lebowitz and his wife, Deborah, gifted “A Portrait of the Artist” to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the museum will announce Friday. The work will be on view Saturday through Sept. 15 in “Life Model: Charles White and His Students,” an exhibition at LACMA’s satellite gallery at Charles White Elementary School exploring White’s impact on a generation of L.A. artists, including Marshall.
Marshall rendered “A Portrait of the Artist” almost completely in shades of black, and from a distance all that’s visible are the few blips of white. But close in and details begin to emerge. The white — teeth of a haunting and mischievous smile, the eyes, an undershirt. Move closer and the figure takes shape: his black hat, black jacket, black skin, the pink of his gums. Lean in even closer (a little too close for a museum), and the richness of the black begins to emerge.
“It’s a pretty dramatic experience,” LACMA director Michael Govan said.
Born in 1955 in Birmingham, Ala., Marshall grew up in Watts and graduated in 1978 from what is now the Otis College of Art and Design before eventually settling in Chicago. “A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self” was a departure for Marshall, “really trying to establish his own voice within figure representation,” said Ian White, Charles’ son and co-curator of the LACMA exhibition.
Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel exploring the harsh indignities of being a black in America, “Invisible Man,” influenced the artist. Marshall was inspired by the concept of being present yet absent at the same time, and so he painted the black figure on a black background.
The work is also an investigation into the color black, White said. Marshall established “his own practice of black as a color, not as a black hole, but as viable as primary colors, secondary colors, tertiary colors.” For Marshall, black was not an absence; it was as chromatically rich as every other color on the spectrum.
The work, which was included in a Marshall retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 2017, set off a career painting black life and experience and spoke to Marshall’s goal of rectifying the lack of black representation in museums.
It’s important to view the painting in context of Marshall’s entire body of work, White said. The painting is confrontational. And it’s clear why some might make an immediate connection between “Portrait of the Artist” and blackface, the racist practice of nonblack performers dating to minstrel shows of the mid-19th century.
“I don’t think Kerry’s intent was to speak about blackface,” White said. “It’s almost another investigation again of the color black. Sometimes it’s as simple as that.”
Added White: “That’s a hard painting, but if I see it next to Kerry’s work ... this little teeny painting impacts his sensibilities and his trajectory.”
“It’s one of those things that is as current as it was when it was made,” White said. “That also speaks to Kerry’s sensibilities.”