When the Obamas Had the Whole Country Talking About Contemporary Painting
Was the most democratic art world moment of 2018 also its “most extra”?
The official portraits of President and First Lady Obama by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald
When a work of art finds itself on the front page of the New York Times, it’s usually because it’s either been bought for a new record sum or because it’s been stolen. On February 13 of this year, however, the Times led with a picture of two newly unveiled paintings that were newsworthy simply for the fact of their existence. They were portraits of former President and First Lady Obama revealed at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, and standing alongside them in the picture were the artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald and the subjects of the larger-than-life-sized paintings themselves.
Recent presidential portraiture has gone all but unnoticed, both by the art world and the real world. George W. Bush, himself a portrait painter of some note, commissioned his official painting from someone called Robert A. Anderson, who is represented by an agency (rather than a gallery) known as Portraits, Inc. Bill Clinton’s portrait by Nelson Shanks is noteworthy only for the controversy that surrounded what the painter claimed was a hidden representation of Monica Lewinsky. Their uninspired commissions, devoid of style or cultural meaning, were the artistic equivalent of a Johnny Rockets restaurant employee being chosen to launch a NASA spacecraft.
The Obamas’ choice of Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald was a welcome departure from this sad tradition. It was significant not only because Sherald and Wiley are artists engaged in the web of critical and curatorial conversations that we call the art world; not only because they were the first African American artists to ever be chosen for such a commission; not only because the pictures entered the culture one year into the Trump presidency, when it felt like we had not heard from them. They are are significant because they are representations of real people. In their abstraction—President Obama surrounded by a flowering bush and the First Lady floating in a sky blue void—they do what portraiture is supposed to do, what photography cannot do: the portraits present two of the most famous faces in a new and impossible light.
(It’s worth noting that neither portrait is perfect. Wiley’s practice is wrapped up in representations of Baroque power, whereas President Obama is about as rational and idealist as the Enlightenment principles that America is supposed to stand for. For me, they are not a spiritual fit. I prefer Mrs. Obama's regal representation, but others have questioned the grayscale tone of her skin (consistent in Sherald’s work), positioning it as tantamount to erasure.)
The pictures caused a sensation. On one weekend in March, over 45,000 visitors came to see Mrs. Obama’s portrait, inspiring curators to relocate it to a more spacious gallery. The image of a two-year-old girl named Parker Curry admiring the picture went viral, inspiring Mrs. Obama to invite Curry to her office for a Taylor Swift dance party, only to resurface when the Curry dressed as Mrs. Obama for Halloween, Milly dress and all. At the end of the fiscal year in October, the Smithsonian announced that it had doubled its attendance this year thanks to the portraits. There are few moments when art—especially art that is as small-scale as painting—resonates for reasons other than its extraordinary commercial value. How will the Obamas inspire us in 2019?