Portraits: No Politics, Just Pictures

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery unveiled the official presidential portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama last month. Much of the fun of it was in reading pundit responses to the paintings. I resisted adding to the chatter. But so many people emailed to ask what I thought of the duo, it is simpler to do one post than multiple repetitions. Besides, now that the heat of the moment has cooled is a good time to take a second look at the portraits unfiltered through a political lens.

Predictably, attitudes toward the former First Couple dictated reactions. Mainstream commentary fawned all over both paintings, with the breathiest infatuation going to Wiley’s tour de force. Fashion buffs crooned over Michelle’s savvy haute couture. Much conservative opinion fixated on the racial provocations of Wiley’s work in general. Hardly anyone responded to the stuff in front of their eyes. The idea of the paintings—what the art works supposedly “said”—superseded interest in the paintings as crafted objects.


“Is this ecstatic realism or a total fever dream?” panted Vinson Cunningham at The New Yorker. Jerry Salz salaamed for New York Magazine: “Happily, Wiley rises to the occasion, giving us a troubled, human, pure-of-heart Rock of Gibraltar seated on a hard wooden seat that hints at the bare-bones look of African tribal chairs.”

Holland Cotter put on a tie and went all Gray Lady with:

Mr. Wiley depicts Mr. Obama not as a self-assured, standard-issue bureaucrat, but as an alert and troubled thinker.  .  .  . Mrs. Obama’s great-great grandparents were slaves. And today we’re seeing more and more evidence that the social gains of the civil rights, and Black Power, and Obama eras are, with a vengeance, being rolled back.  .  .  . Mr. Obama sits tensely forward, frowning, elbows on his knees, arms crossed, as if listening hard. No smiles, no Mr. Nice Guy. He’s still troubleshooting, still in the game.

Oh, come on, Holland. Obama’s very presidency was a Janus-faced symbol of both the success of the civil rights movement and the destructive legacy of the Black Power movement plus the allure of radical chic. All the fanciful smoke-blowing disguised chronic refusal to approach either portrait as painting. Instead, what passed for critical commentary was little more than a glimpse of the grand vista from the roof garden of a writers’ own political sensibilities.

If you do not mind, let me talk painting, not politics. At least to the extent that is possible.


As could be expected, both canvases are oversized. Kehinde Wiley likes the visual impact of industrial scale, aggressive bluster carried over from the Abstract Expressionist movement of the 1940s and 1950s. His portrait of Barack runs a bit over 7 feet high. Frédéric Bartholdi, the French sculptor who designed our Statue of Liberty (“Liberty Enlightening the World” is the translation from the French) insisted that the size of any work must always be consonant with the significance of its subject. But his was an age that grasped the measure of things.

Few of Amy Sherald’s previous portraits have extended beyond her standard 54 x 23 inches. It is an appealing size that permits life-sized depiction of a ¾ figure without inflating the subject to a larger-than-life unreality. But this was a larger-than-life commission, one that had to ride in harness with Wiley and his characteristic bombast. Accordingly, her portrait of Michelle is only a tad shorter than Wiley’s Obama, more spectacle than likeness.

I quite like Sherald’s painting. Is it overblown for official depiction of a First Lady, a non-elected accoutrement to the presidency? Yes. Is it better suited to the living room of the Obama’s mansion in D.C.? Yes. But that detracts nothing from the fact that it is beautifully designed. (Paint quality has to be judged in the flesh. Color and desegno are easily seen in a jpg. but not the paint, not the stuff on canvas. I have seen Wiley’s paint, but not Sherald’s. )

Under obligation to please her subject, Sherald had her work cut out for her. Michelle Obama is not a pretty woman. Sherald is an admirable portraitist but any true likeness would have been less flattering than this hi-profile commission demanded. The artist played it safe and concentrated on costume. Michelle’s features are homogenized, softened, as if copied from a promotional head shot by a professional photographer. The head does not look to have been painted from life.

But the dress! What a gorgeous pictorial device! Sherald used it to transfer portraiture’s expressive ability from what Da Vinci called “motions of mind” to the expanse of skirt. In effect, and with pictorial cunning, she produced a portrait of a dress. Or, if you prefer, a still life with a figure inside.

From Runway to Canvas

On the runway model (below), the dress is diaphanous and flowing. Sherald has fixed it into a solid drape that, like the pedestal of a statue, supports the upper part of the subject’s body. A skirted portrait bust! She selects from the patterning what is needed pictorially to keep emphasis on the necessary breadth of the skirt without puncturing its luminous pallor. Well chosen elements of pattern, lozenges of color, indicate the movement of folds on a stylized surface. They bend in direction of the actual dress’ shifting planes.



Michelle Smith’s design for the 2017 Milly collection on a runway model last year.


Size apart, Barack’s portrait surprised me. I anticipated something faux-baronial. Something with the vaunted “brown sauce” background that is popularly associated with historical painting. His 2017 exhibition at Sean Kelly Gallery in NYC set the tone I was expecting. Entitled Trickster, the show was a tongue-in-cheek series of contemporary pop culture personalities in drag, so to speak, as grandees of yesteryear. Would you guess that Hank Willis Thomas, below, is another downtown NYC artist:


Kehinde Wiley. Portrait of Hank Willis Thomas (2017).

Con Artist

Wiley himself is an accomplished trickster. A “factory painter,” he takes the initial photographs, designs a layout, then outsources execution of the product to low-wage assistants in Beijing. Four to ten technicians work under a hired studio manager. How much, if any, of the painting is done by Wiley himself is an open question. Unlike painting from the studios of the masters he appropriates—Titian, Gainsborough, et alia—brushwork is oddly invisible. The end result is a flat, mechanical rendering that mimics the visual rhetoric of Old Master compositions (most plausibly in reproduction on the internet) but minus any mark of a master hand.

A single gay man, Wiley wears a wedding ring when he goes prospecting for young males in Third World places like Morocco, Tunisia, Congo, and Camaroon. That is to put them off their guard—put them at ease—he explained to GQ in 2013. Make of that what you will.

Oscar Wilde was right: A man’s being a poisoner is nothing against his prose. Just so, a man’s being a predator is nothing against his art. Except when it shows. And here it does. For all the teenage boys picked up around the globe, Wiley does not paint individuals. His subjects are interchangeable props in variations on a single theme: a finger in the eye to whitey. The pathos of rent boys is not his subject. The wretched of the earth are played for sight gags.

In short, Wiley’s work is all attitude. But an official presidential portrait has no room for attitude. Necessarily deprived of his essential stimulus, Wiley’s rendering of Obama is curiously vacant. A seated man, in hard-backed chair and facing the viewer, is a time-honored composition. Stripped of nonessentials, it draws the eye to the sitter’s head, hands, and body gesture. These are the focal points from which a psychology insinuates itself, an emotional state is seized and held.


Jean-Baptiste Corot. Portrait of Toussaint Lemaistre (1833).


Pieter Codde. Young Scholar in His Study (1630).


Francois Gerard. Portrait of Alphonse de Lamartine (1831).


Maximilien Luce. Portrait of painter Henri Cross (1898).


Lucian Freud. Portrait of H.H. Thyssen-Bornemisza (1983-5).

Among my favorites of the man-in-a-chair trope is this 1871 caricature of Charles Darwin, one of Vanity Fair‘s series “Men of the Day,” precursor to Time‘s “Man Person of the Year.”


Wiley’s painting of Obama brings it to mind. There is a diminished quality to Obama in the spindly chair. Devoid of Wiley’s characteristic attitudinizing, the air goes out of the Obama portrait. An inadvertent hint of burlesque sneaks in. The ex-president appears oddly deflated. By comparison with traditional prototypes, Wiley’s depiction suggests a man sitting on a commode. Without meaning to, Wiley has created a send-up of the customary dignity attached to official portraiture.

That hovering element of parody is visible to any viewer familiar with the derivations of Wiley’s pictorial shtick: photorealism and the Pattern and Decoration movement. Photorealism emerged in the 1960s. Paintings, based strictly on photographs rather than direct observation, were meant to look like photos. Highly reflective surfaces, an exaggerated chiaroscuro, created an aura of unreality to recognizable subjects. While earlier artists made use of photography (e.g. Manet, Degas), the photo was a way of note taking, a springboard for living depiction, not a stand-in for it.

Al Leslie, below, turned to photorealism in the Sixties. His figures provide a useful contrast with the older portraits above. And they illustrate the provenance of Wiley’s approach to figuration:


Al Leslie. Woman In A Chair (undated).


Pattern painting, with it all-over ornateness, gleefully substituted frou-frou for substance. All frills, all the time, it caught on among feminist artists of the decade. One of the few pattern painters to bring beauty to the movement, and the one whose work continues to delight, is Robert Kushner. Compare his handling of all-over design to Wiley’s. Kushner makes magic; Wiley just fills space on the canvas. The difference between them is the gulf between art and bombast.


Robert Kushner. Spring Scatter (detail).

In the end, the most telling and economical comment on Wiley’s portrait of Obama is wordless. It appeared online at The Daily Gouge:

NOTE: An earlier essay on the politics—identity politics—that fueled the choice of Wiley and Sherald appeared on The Stream, under the title “Portraits & the Politics of Commemoration,” December 17, 2017.