Throughout the past three decades, artist Kerry James Marshall has built a name for himself as one of the most impactful artists in the contemporary art world. A testament to being resilient and emphasizing quality narrative-driven work, this year became monumental for both his legacy and the history books alike.
Back in May 2018, Sotheby's, the first international auction house and the largest art business with global sales in the billions, hosted an auction in New York. During the event, which netted $394.9 million from 72 different buyers, Marshall's 1997 work Past Times went for a colossal $21.1 million. The boundary-shattering sale, believed to be near the maximum paid for a living artist, marked an 844 percent gain from when the piece was first acquired for $25,000 the same year it was created by McCormick Place. The purchase was conducted as part of an acquisition project aimed at bringing art to Chicago's main convention center, where it hung for years.
Additionally, the sale set an explosive new personal record for Marshall, whose 2015 painting Still Life with Wedding Portrait went for $5 million this past November at an auction hosted by Christie's and was previously his highest valued work.
Following the historic and career-elevating sale, it was revealed by Marshall's New York dealer, Jack Shainman, that none other than music mogul and REVOLT TV Chairman Sean "Diddy" Combs was the collector who purchased the piece.
"I know that this work has found a home in a collection with purpose and an eye toward preserving legacy — that of Sean Combs, and that means a lot," Shainman said during an interview with The New York Times confirming the news.
It was also reported that Mr. Combs was first introduced to Marshall's work by producer and frequent collaborator Swizz Beatz, who actively advocates on behalf of artists across mediums and is an enthusiastic, forward-thinking art collector and owner of the Dean Collection.
Much like Combs and Swizz, Marshall has dedicated his life, and subsequently his art, to telling authentic stories of the black experience, each using their respective platforms to drive culture forward and preserve the history and fight against injustices. Themes found throughout Marshall's bold and distinctive pieces include challenging racial stereotypes, representing people of color and exploring the complex effects of the Civil Rights movement. Some of his paintings, such as La Venus Negra and Voyager, combine African influence and western ideals, highlighting the search for a black identity that includes ancestral history and current modern life.
Of the driving force behind his work, Marshall commented that he had never seen "a grand, epic narrative painting with black figures in it, and that's the kind of painting I became interested in making—pictures in the grand manner," adding his Past Times painting "marks the decisive moment at which the artist confronts the canon upon its own rigorous terms."
While his career as a visionary artist continues to evolve, Marshall's role in the art world is an integral one. From pushing expressive boundaries to commenting on political and personal content alike, Kerry James Marshall's successes and victories are one for the culture at large to celebrate too.
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