Amy Sherald, A Golden Afternoon, 2016, Oil on Canvas

Amy Sherald's Color Code: To Sea or Not To Sea

Michelle Obama's portraitist takes us on a virtual tour of her favorite shade of green.

by Thea Ballard
Sep 15 2019, 10:00am

Amy Sherald, A Golden Afternoon, 2016, Oil on Canvas

The painter Amy Sherald’s choice for the latest installment of GARAGE’s Color Code feature is a shade she calls “To Sea or Not to Sea.” As it turns out, her relationship with this beachy pastel has a tenuous history: “It was never one of my favorite colors,” Sherald says. “Green was actually a color that I hated. I never thought it was a great color, all shades of it.” But, stuck in the cardiac care unit of Johns Hopkins for two months waiting on a heart transplant in 2012, she came around. Her wing of the hospital, including her room and the walls and art in the common spaces, had just been renovated in matching seafoam greens. “After sitting with it for two months, I realized that psychologically it was nurturing and healing to have that color in my space,” Sherald recounts. “When I would have to walk around the ward for my little five-minute exercise moments, seeing it was really invigorating. I didn’t go outside for two months, but I never really felt like I was trapped in a space, and I think it was because of that color.”

Sherald, who was born in Columbus, Georgia, and is now based in Baltimore, is known for her vibrant portraits of black subjects—most famously her majestic and thoroughly modern painting of former First Lady Michelle Obama, unveiled in 2018. Such works assume narrative through their poetic titles and vividly detailed poses and clothing (Obama’s graphic Milly dress; a man’s triple askew collars in yellow, lime, and denim in 2016’s Pythagore; the mall-goth striped tunic and leather jacket worn by the young woman from 2015’s Freeing Herself Was One Thing, Taking Ownership of that Freed Self Was Another) but are nearly always painted against a solid background in a contrasting color. To Sea or Not to Sea has become a favorite of Sherald’s for such setting-making. “It’s nature, it’s healing, it’s peaceful, and so because of that, you can bring the outside inside, potentially,” she says.

In a new body of work unveiled at a solo exhibition at Hauser & Wirth New York this month, Sherald expands her eye for detail into her backdrops as well: Two of the paintings, thanks to a new studio with a generously sized door, will be her largest to date, at 10 by 9 feet and 11 by 9 feet, respectively. One, moving forward from her 2015 work The Bathers, is a full-fledged beach scene, with two girls atop the shoulders of two boys against a low horizon line: “A snapshot of a moment in their day,” she explains. The other departs from a Charles C. Ebbets photograph of men working on the construction of the 30 Rockefeller skyscraper, an iconic American scene recreated as a glimpse into Sherald’s own world. The beams on which the subjects perch, greyscale in their original photographic rendering, will here be assigned bright, full-spectrum hues, including To Sea or Not to Sea—which, in this context, begins to recall the oxidized copper surface of the Statue of Liberty. For Sherald, these more complex scenes are a “natural progression” from her individual portraits. “They will always feel the same way: They will be quiet, hopefully still have a sense of timelessness, beautifully captured moments,” she says. “I don’t like busyness and so I don’t like my paintings to be busy either.”

amy sherald
september 15, 2019
color code