Celebrated Painter Peter Williams, NA, Explores Themes of Racial Animosity

BEARING WITNESS | Article by Ann Manser | Photos by Evan Krape

UD Professor Peter Williams, NA works in his studio in suburban Wilmington, Delaware.

UD Professor Peter Williams, NA works in his studio in suburban Wilmington, Delaware.

Peter Williams’ long and acclaimed career as an artist and an educator — recognized recently with his induction into the prestigious National Academy of Design — almost ended before it began.

One night in the early 1970s, as an undergraduate art student at the University of New Mexico, a car in which Williams was a passenger plunged off a cliff from a steep, twisting road. He would spend most of the next year in the hospital, unable for months to use his hands or to see, while slowly recovering from injuries that included the amputation of his right leg.

Now a professor of painting at the University of Delaware, Williams went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine arts and to teach for 17 years at Wayne State University, where he was described as a mainstay of the Detroit arts community.

Peter Williams, NA fills in the outlines he’s drawn for a piece titled “Once We Built Pyramids,” referring to the ancient Nubian Dynasty in Africa. He uses thousands of brightly colored dots, creating a different look from the traditional pointillist painting technique pioneered by 19th century artists such as Georges Seurat.

Peter Williams, NA fills in the outlines he’s drawn for a piece titled “Once We Built Pyramids,” referring to the ancient Nubian Dynasty in Africa. He uses thousands of brightly colored dots, creating a different look from the traditional pointillist painting technique pioneered by 19th century artists such as Georges Seurat.

He joined UD’s Department of Art and Design as a full professor in 2004 and continues to teach painting and, occasionally, drawing classes.

His own work has won numerous awards over the years and has always included themes of cultural identity and representations of African Americans. He has often inserted black characters and race-based imagery into his work, he said.

“I’ve always believed in the idea of bearing witness to the times in which you live,” Williams said recently. “I’ve always been involved with the underdog and with global diversity, but up until about five years ago, I had been all over the place in my art.”

Peter Williams uses different methods and tools for creating his art.

Peter Williams uses different methods and tools for creating his art.

That changed, he said, with the onset of the Black Lives Matter movement and other social-media-inspired attention being paid to the deaths of African Americans in police custody. At the same time, a growing awareness of racist incidents and policies, past and present, motivated him to do research into lesser-known aspects of American history, including lynching.

“I became aware that the world hadn’t changed that much,” he said, explaining why his work has become more focused on systemic racism. “African Americans are still being brutalized and killed.”

In his use of narrative and story-telling in his art, Williams invented a superhero called “The N-Word” who saves the lives of African Americans as they engage with police. His recent work has also become much more directly connected to such social-justice issues as mass incarceration.

Peter Williams, NA was inducted in November as a National Academician in the National Academy of Design, considered one of the highest honors in American art and architecture.

Peter Williams, NA was inducted in November as a National Academician in the National Academy of Design, considered one of the highest honors in American art and architecture.

“Thinking about the history of this country, learning more about it, made me crazy and angry,” he said. “I wondered: How could people know about these things and still let them go on?”

Williams said that, even though galleries sometimes “don’t know what to do with” his work and some urge him to tone down his depictions of racial cruelty, he hopes that most people are intrigued and moved by the powerful images he is painting.

His work features bold colors and cartoonish caricatures that challenge viewers to think more deeply about the dark themes they represent.

"I know that it can be painful for people to see, but I do think many people are enthusiastic because no one else is doing work that’s so blunt,” he said.

More about Peter Williams

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Williams was inducted in November as a National Academician in the National Academy of Design, considered one of the highest honors in American art and architecture.

National Academicians are chosen by their peers and serve as ambassadors for the arts in America. Williams’ art will be included in the National Academy Museum's collection of more than 7,700 works spanning nearly 200 years. 

His work is often featured in exhibitions, including the prestigious EXPO Chicago 2018, held Sept. 19-22, and his first solo show in Los Angeles, “River of Styx,” which opened in October and ran through Dec. 15 in the Luis De Jesus Gallery.

Williams will be part of the upcoming exhibition “Men of Steel, Women of Wonder,” at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, from Feb. 9 to April 22.

Another recent exhibition, at the CUE Art Foundation in Manhattan, drew critical acclaim. “Peter Williams: With So Little to be Sure Of” was reviewed in the online arts magazine Hyperallergic by noted critic John Yau in March 2018.

“Williams uses caricature to invite viewers — whatever their political persuasion — to reflect upon how they see people of a race different from their own, as well as underscore the intolerance, distrust, and fear running throughout our everyday lives,” Yau wrote.

Williams has won numerous awards, including the Whitney Biennial in 2002, Djerassi Resident Artists Program in 2018, Joan Mitchell Award in 2004 and 2007, a Ford Foundation Fellowship in 1985-87 and the Wynn Newhouse Award in 2012.

His work is included in such permanent collections as the Detroit Institute of Arts, Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Whitney Museum of American Art, Delaware Art Museum and Howard University.

The World Within the World: Simon Dinnerstein, NA, on His Mysterious, Beloved ‘Fulbright Triptych’

Simon Dinnerstein, NA,  The Fulbright Triptych , 1971–74, oil on wood panels, 79 ½ x 168 in., framed and separated. Click to enlarge.  COLLECTION OF THE PALMER MUSEUM OF ART, PENNSYLVANIA STATE UNIVERSITY

Simon Dinnerstein, NA, The Fulbright Triptych, 1971–74, oil on wood panels, 79 ½ x 168 in., framed and separated. Click to enlarge.

COLLECTION OF THE PALMER MUSEUM OF ART, PENNSYLVANIA STATE UNIVERSITY

It’s all there in Proust—all mankind!” Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer once told an interviewer. Breyer explained, “Proust is a universal author: he can touch anyone, for different reasons; each of us can find some piece of himself in Proust, at different ages.”

Those comments came to my mind this summer while I was at the Arnot Art Museum in Elmira, New York, standing in front of The Fulbright Triptych, a sprawling, astonishingly detailed painting that the Brooklyn-based artist Simon Dinnerstein worked on unceasingly between 1971 and 1974. Like In Search of Lost Time, it is a sui generis masterpiece, a world onto itself—and one that has earned a devoted following even though it has spent much of its life in storage.

Detail of Simon Dinnerstein’s  The Fulbright Triptych , 1971–74.  COLLECTION OF THE PALMER MUSEUM OF ART, PENNSYLVANIA STATE UNIVERSITY

Detail of Simon Dinnerstein’s The Fulbright Triptych, 1971–74.

COLLECTION OF THE PALMER MUSEUM OF ART, PENNSYLVANIA STATE UNIVERSITY

The work’s subject sounds simple enough: a view of the artist’s studio outside of Kassel, Germany, where he was living in the early 1970s with his wife, Renee, and studying printmaking on a Fulbright grant. The tools of his trade sit on a large black table beneath windows that look out onto modest homes, a tranquil, Ferdinand Hodler-like landscape behind them.

But Dinnerstein painted each element of the room—its roughed-up floor, its drab pegboard walls—with such humble care that the work stands as a kind of monument to close looking. It exemplifies how making, and even viewing, art can be a meditative act.

The 14-foot-wide and roughly 6-and-a-half-foot-tall work is, among many other things, a self-portrait and a family portrait. Dinnerstein appears in one side panel, stone-faced, with a big beard, about 30 years old, while Renee appears in the other, also deadpan, holding their young daughter, Simone, who was born in Brooklyn while her father was midway through work on the piece.

Dozens of little images and texts that line the walls of the scene are the work’s coup de grâce. They include Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s portrait of the beguiling Comtesse d’Haussonville from circa 1845, a classic black-and-white Larry Clark photo of a couple making out in the back of a car, an ancient Assyrian stone relief, and Jan van Eyck’s mysterious Baudoin de Lannoy (from around 1437) peering out from behind a quotidian houseplant. Still more artifacts include charming children’s drawings (one depicting the Dinnerstein family) and a famous snippet of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Altogether, they show Dinnerstein studying and celebrating his influences—everything that made him the artist and person he had become. He assembled his own personal museum in a single artwork, and it teems with connections between pictures, panels, and epochs. The longer I looked at it, the richer and stranger it seemed.

Detail of Simon Dinnerstein’s  The Fulbright Triptych , 1971–74.  COLLECTION OF THE PALMER MUSEUM OF ART, PENNSYLVANIA STATE UNIVERSITY

Detail of Simon Dinnerstein’s The Fulbright Triptych, 1971–74.

COLLECTION OF THE PALMER MUSEUM OF ART, PENNSYLVANIA STATE UNIVERSITY

Dinnerstein, now 75, told me in a phone interview last year that he hadn’t made a painting in years back when he began work on The Fulbright Triptych, and recalled the moment when inspiration came to him in his German studio. “I don’t know why, but I moved back and sat back about 8 feet,” he said. “I looked at the scene and it was quite striking and quite appealing. I saw it as a painting.”

“In retrospect, one wonders how you could actually do this,” he said of his ambitious project, which involved meticulously copying so many famed works from across the ages, experimenting with disparate styles and techniques. “I had moments of doubt, but I really was so obsessed with working it out that I was OCD—a candidate for a mental hospital.”

Chance had delivered Dinnerstein to that moment. He had originally hoped to win a Fulbright scholarship to Spain, to study with the painter Antonio López García, but instead was awarded support to travel to his second choice, Germany. “We had some really, really genuine mixed feelings about going,” he said, in light of his Jewish heritage. But he and his wife “took a deep breath and decided to go” in 1971.

At the time, the city of Kassel was still recovering from the devastation of World War II. “If the Allies had planes with bombs left over, they dropped them on Kassel,” Dinnerstein said. The triptych can be regarded as a testament to how culture and identity endure through trauma, and how histories and civilizations can be reconstructed through art.

After returning to New York in 1974, Dinnerstein kept at work on the painting, and one day the Manhattan dealer George W. Staempfli saw it and offered to pay him a stipend toward its completion. “It was like the gods sent a messenger, and so I had to do it,” the artist said, sounding wistful. “Every month this money came. I had a job working one evening a week, and every other day all I did was work on this painting.”

Detail of Simon Dinnerstein’s  The Fulbright Triptych , 1971–74.  COLLECTION OF THE PALMER MUSEUM OF ART, PENNSYLVANIA STATE UNIVERSITY

Detail of Simon Dinnerstein’s The Fulbright Triptych, 1971–74.

COLLECTION OF THE PALMER MUSEUM OF ART, PENNSYLVANIA STATE UNIVERSITY

It finally debuted at the Staempfli Gallery in 1975, and earned a rave from John Russell in the New York Times, who proposed that a museum should buy it. But it wasn’t until 1982 that it was acquired by the Palmer Museum of Art at the Pennsylvania State University, where it has sometimes been off view for stretches.

In 2011, though, that changed, with the German Consulate General in New York hosting the triptych in a Dinnerstein exhibition that also featured some of his later works—psychologically loaded paintings and drawings with doses of Magical Realism. In another rave, Roberta Smith lamented that the Metropolitan Museum of Art had not bought the work. That same year, he published The Suspension of Time, an anthology of essays on the work, and the painting has since traveled to shows in Columbia, Missouri, and Elmira, New York, where I saw it. It’s now on view at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno through January 6, before heading across the country for a show of Dinnerstein’s art at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey in Summit, which opens February 22.

Detail of Simon Dinnerstein’s  The Fulbright Triptych , 1971–74.  COLLECTION OF THE PALMER MUSEUM OF ART, PENNSYLVANIA STATE UNIVERSITY

Detail of Simon Dinnerstein’s The Fulbright Triptych, 1971–74.

COLLECTION OF THE PALMER MUSEUM OF ART, PENNSYLVANIA STATE UNIVERSITY

In mind of the newfound attention for his three-panel painting, Dinnerstein cited F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quip that “there are no second acts in American lives,” and continued, “For the last, I would say, seven years, this has been a second act.”

He sounded excited and fulfilled. Still, the work he completed 45 years ago in some ways eludes him, as it has eluded so many others. He spent countless hours making it, and he’s seen it in every show that it has ever been in. “Even after all of that, I can’t take this painting in,” he said. “It’s beyond what I can take in.”


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Donna Dennis, NA: Review of “Ship and Dock/Nights and Days or The Gazer”

Donna Dennis, NA, an internationally exhibited artist known for her architectural installations, created “Ship and Dock/Nights and Days or The Gazer” in 2018.

With its two perched houses and a sky that changes from dawn to star-filled night, it is about time, the transformation of energy, the final journey and our collective journey into the unknown. “Have you ever wanted to walk inside a painting, sit down and experience the work from the inside?...This mixed media assemblage…takes up an entire room and carries psychological power…This is a durational work because beyond the dock the projection of sky above the horizon changes gradually from day to night to day, from painterly sky blues to dark night with brush-stroked stars as a ship changes from white against the night sky to black against the daytime skies in the distance. Thus the elements of engineering and technology that exist here in a three-dimensional space, also includes the fourth dimension of time. And, though that horizon changes, it’s always night for the viewer with the stars shining behind us.” from “Passage” by Annabel Lee, art critical, June, 2018.

PRESS RELEASE

Help Restore An Iconic Sculpture by Garth Evans, NA and Bring It Back to Wales!

A Message From Hannah Firth at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff

We need your help to restore an iconic sculpture and bring it back to Wales.

In 1972 influential British artist Garth Evans, NA created a large-scale sculpture that was sited in Cardiff City Centre for six months as part of the Peter Stuyvesant City Sculpture project, which saw 17 new works placed at the heart of eight cities across England and Wales. The project was a significant chapter in the history of public art and urban space.

Garth chose Cardiff as the location for his work as he had very strong family connections with Wales and his Welsh grandfather’s tales of his time as a miner were hugely influential in the sculpture’s form – evoking both a hammer-like tool and the image of a mine tunnel that was as black as coal.

'I wanted to make something that would impact its location, altering and affecting the space and by its presence, create a new sense of place.' Garth Evans, NA

After the project, the sculpture was relocated to Leicestershire where it has remained hidden, neglected and unseen by the public ever since. The years have taken their toll on this important work and its condition is now rapidly deteriorating.

Your money will help us to save the sculpture by carrying out the specialist restoration that is so desperately needed to prevent any further and irreversible damage. In a truly unique project we will then be able to return the work to its original location in Wales almost 50 years after it was first seen.

Please support us by contributing as much or as little as you can and help us to rescue, restore and relocate this iconic work.

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STUDIO JOSEPH, Founded by Wendy Evans Joseph, NA, Wins 3 AIA New York State Awards!

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Honor Award—Adaptive Reuse
Larry Robbins House: Department of Management & Technology

University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA

This highly efficient 8,500 square-foot building is an adaptive reuse of historic infrastructure at the center of Penn’s historic campus. With emphasis on transparency and light, the design assembles places for students to gather, collaborate and interact with faculty. An elegant new glass and steel north facade provides natural light to public spaces and a seminar room. LEED Gold certification is the result of our emphasis on sustainability in all aspects of the design.

Other recent awards for this project include:
2018 Society of American Registered Architects, New York State Honor Award
2018 Society of American Registered Architects, National Design Award
2018 Chicago Atheneum, Global Architecture Design Award
2018 Architizer, International Competition, Special Recognition


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Design Citation Award
New York at Its Core

Museum of the City of New York, New York, NY

This permanent exhibition installed throughout the entire entry floor is the first-ever comprehensive telling of New York City’s history. The design integrates graphics, media and a wide range of interactive technology to create an immersive experience for all visitors.

Other recent awards for this project include:
2018 American Alliance of Museums, Exhibition of Excellence
2018 American Architecture, Chicago Atheneum, Global Architecture Awards
2017 American Institute of Architects, New York City, Honor Award
2017 Interior Design Magazine, public space, Design Award
2017 Architizer.com A+ Award for Learning and Architecture, Popular Award
2017 American Alliance of Museums, MUSE award
2017 Core 77, Design Award


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Design Citation Award
“Missing Voices” Project for Wilson Marker

Princeton University, Princeton, NJ

As President Woodrow Wilson’s policies of discrimination have come under stronger examination, Princeton sought to capture the complexity of his legacy through the design of an intervention in their central campus at Skudder Plaza. This submission to an invited competition proposes an incremental approach that integrates the voices of those unheard. 

Other recent awards for this project include:
2018  Chicago Atheneum Global Architecture Award
2018  Society of American Registered Architects, New York State Honor Award

Power 100: Artist Kerry James Marshall, NA Ranked No. 2 Most Influential Person in Contemporary Art World

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THE SECOND MOST POWERFUL person in the contemporary art world is Chicago painter Kerry James Marshall, according to Art Review magazine. The London-based publication issues an annual Power 100 list ranking the most influential figures in the contemporary art world. The list includes artists, curators, critics, collectors, and dealers, among others. Marshall is the top ranked artist on the list.

In 2017, Marshall was on the bottom half of the list at No. 68. Then he assumed the mantle of the most expensive living African American artist in May when his monumental painting “Past Times” sold for more than $21 million (including fees) at Sotheby’s New York, an artist record. Advancing all the way up to No. 2 this year, Kerry James Marshall’s ranking is the highest-ever for a black person since the Power 100 list was inaugurated in 2002.

Advancing all the way up to No. 2 this year, Kerry James Marshall’s ranking is the highest-ever for a black person since the Power 100 list was inaugurated in 2002.

Thelma Golden of the Studio Museum in Harlem was ranked No. 8 in 2017, which was the highest ranking at the time and marked the first year a black person had placed in the top 10. This year, three African Americans rank in the top 10—Marshall, Golden, and poet/critic Fred Moten, who is appearing on the list for the first time.

Golden serves as director and chief curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem where construction of a new building designed by architect David Adjaye is expected to be completed in 2021. She oversaw a recent charitable auction at Sotheby’s New York that, thanks to the largess of 42 artists who donated their works, raised more than $20 million for the building project.

Describing his regard, Art Review said: “Moten’s writing is an acknowledged influence on artists including Arthur Jafa, Glenn Ligon, Sondra Perry and Theaster Gates, with whom he shares a need to celebrate the radical traditions and rearticulate the contemporary experience of black Americans.” His trilogy, “consent not to be a single thing” was recently published.

[Fred] Moten’s writing is an acknowledged influence on artists including Arthur Jafa, Glenn Ligon, Sondra Perry and Theaster Gates, with whom he shares a need to celebrate the radical traditions and rearticulate the contemporary experience of black Americans.
Top right, Kerry James Marshall is No. 2 on the Power 100 List. | Photo by Broomberg & Chanarin; Above, Thelma Golden and Fred Moten rank in the top 10. | Photos by Julie Skarratt and Kari Orvik

Top right, Kerry James Marshall is No. 2 on the Power 100 List. | Photo by Broomberg & Chanarin; Above, Thelma Golden and Fred Moten rank in the top 10. | Photos by Julie Skarratt and Kari Orvik

ART REVIEW’S POWER 100 LIST is developed in consultation with an international panel of invited writers, artists, curators and critics. The unnamed experts consider the stature, standing and sway of candidates over the past 12 months. The barometer is “based on their international influence over the production and dissemination of art and ideas in the artworld and beyond.”

Art dealer David Zwirner tops the list occupying the No. 1 slot. With locations in New York and Hong Kong, his gallery represents Marshall and just announced the addition of Njideka Akunyili Crosby to its roster, which also includes Stan Douglas, Chris Ofili, and the estate of Roy DeCarava, among more than 75 artists.

The No. 3 spot on the list is held by the #metoo movement. Established a year ago, the phenomena appears on the list for the first time. The “viral international movement denouncing sexual harassment and the abuse of women,” is a unique selection on a list that ordinarily features individuals.

In addition to Moten, collector/philanthropist Pamela Joyner (No. 36), curator and critic Simon Njami (65), and artists Adrian Piper (49) and John Akomfrah (94), are also new entrants on the list.

Joyner is board chair at the Tate Americas Foundation and also serves on the board of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Her extensive art collection forms the traveling exhibition “Solidary & Solitary: The Joyner/Giuffrida Collection” which is being presented at the Snite Museum of Art at the University of Notre Dame through Dec. 15.

Njami has greatly influenced the lens through which the world sees contemporary African Art. He curated the 2017 and 2018 Dak’Art biennials in Senegal and is editor-in-chief of Revue Noire, a French magazine devoted to African art.

A conceptual artist and philosopher, Piper was born in New York City. Her half-century survey exhibition is on view at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles in partnership with the Institute of Contemporary Art Los Angeles (through Jan. 6, 2019). She moved to Berlin in 2005 and refuses to return to the United States because, according to her reconstructed Facebook page, she is “listed as a ‘Suspicious Traveler’ on the U.S. Transportation Security Administration Watch List.” Piper received the Golden Lion Award for Best Artist at the 56th Venice Biennale (2015) and Germany’s Käthe Kollwitz Prize (2018).

The Institute of Contemporary Art Boston just announced Akomfrah will present the 2019 Watershed installation. “Purple,” his immersive, six-channel installation will make its U.S. debut on May 26, 2019. On view earlier this year at the New Museum in New York, “John Akomfrah: Signs of Empire,” was the Ghanaian-born, British filmmaker’s first American survey exhibition.

Four African American artists return to the list from 2017—David Hammons (14), Theaster Gates (30), Kara Walker (50), and Arthur Jafa (87). Exploring African American identity through contemporary imagery, Jafa’s extraordinary video “Love is the Message, the Message is Death” (2016) is “a testament to [his] profound ability to mine, scrutinize, and reclaim media’s representational modes and strategies.” Compared with last year, Hammons and Walker improved their positions on the list; Gates and Jafa fell several ranks.

New entrants on the Power 100 list include Pamela Joyner, John Akomfrah, and Adrian Piper. | Photos by Linda Nylind, Jack Hems © Smoking Dogs Films, and SN/APA (EPA)/Andrea Merola

New entrants on the Power 100 list include Pamela Joyner, John Akomfrah, and Adrian Piper. | Photos by Linda Nylind, Jack Hems © Smoking Dogs Films, and SN/APA (EPA)/Andrea Merola

MARSHALL HAS CAPTIVATED the art world in recent years. On the heels of his European exhibition “Painting and other Stuff,” when “Mastry,” his 30-year career-spanning survey opened at MCA Chicago in 2016, the show was universally praised and his stature rose significantly. In public conversations and catalog essays, Marshall speaks with authority about his own practice, the work of other artists, and the history of painting.

In the wake of “Mastry,” an increasing number of paintings by Marshall began showing up at the major auction houses carrying higher and higher estimates.

Following the record established by “Past Times,” Christie’s announced “Knowledge and “Wonder” (1995), a painting by Marshall made for a Chicago public library for a fee of $10,000, was set to come to auction with an estimate of $10 million-$15 million. When the artist, and many others, questioned the decision, the city heeded the outcry and reversed itself, pulling the painting from the auction.

“History of Painting,” Marshall’s first exhibition since “Mastry,” was on view at David Zwirner in London and closed yesterday. “Through its formal acuity, Marshall’s work reveals and questions the social constructs of beauty, taste, and power,” the exhibition release said.

Through its formal acuity, Marshall’s work reveals and questions the social constructs of beauty, taste, and power.

“Engaged in an ongoing dialogue with six centuries of representational painting, Marshall has deftly reinterpreted and updated its tropes, compositions, and styles, even pulling talismans from the canvases of his forebearers and recontextualizing them within a modern setting. At the center of his prodigious oeuvre, which also includes drawings and sculpture, is the critical recognition of the conditions of invisibility so long ascribed to black bodies in the Western pictorial tradition, and the creation of what he calls a ‘counter-archive’ that reinscribes these figures within its narrative arc.” CT

VIEW Art Review’s 2018 Power 100 List

FIND MORE about Fred Moten in this recent New Yorker profile

BOOKSHELF
Recently last year by Phaidon, “Kerry James Marshall” is a fully illustrated documentation of the artist’s career and includes a conversation with fellow artist Charles Gaines. “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” a comprehensive, cloth-covered catalog was published to accompany the artist’s 30-year survey. An extensive interview with Marshall is featured in the exhibition catalog “Painting and Other Stuff.” “Kerry James Marshall: Look See” coincided with the artists’s first exhibition with David Zwirner gallery in London in 2014.