Obama’s Choice of Kehinde Wiley Just got Political


Kehinde Wiley Fishermen Upon a Lee-shore, in Squally Weather (Zakary Antoine), 2017 (above) Courtesy Kehinde Wiley and STEPHEN FRIEDMAN GALLERY, London

Barack Obama’s choice, last month, to appoint Kehinde Wiley to paint his portrait to be displayed at Washington’s National Portrait Gallery could hardly be more timely. As in Michelle Obama’s selection of  Amy Sherald as her artist,  Barack’s choice is current, progressive and as of last week, political.


Emma Amos Eva the Babysitter, 1973 (above) Courtesy Emma Amos, The Amos Family and  RYAN LEE GALLERY (Tate Modern)
Barkley L. Hendricks Icon for My Man Superman (Superman never saved any black people — Bobby Seale), 1969. Courtesy JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY


Kehinde Wiley is no Wadsworth Jarrell, Emma Amos (top), or Barkley L. Hendricks (above) whose Civil Rights Movement inspired artwork, mostly from the late 1960s and 1970s, was exhibited recently at London’s Tate Modern’s Soul of a Nation Art in the Age of Black Power. Yet Wiley is influenced by these predecessors and his work remains relevant in a similar way.  Less militant and of a different time, Wiley’s art not only addresses local issues, it also tackles global  tensions relating to predomnantly male identity and acceptance, across China, Brazil, India & Sri Lanka, Lagos & Dakar, and more recently, Israel. This was seen in Kehinde Wiley/The World Stage: Israel in New York’s Jewish Museum in 2012.

Kehinde Wiley Abed Al Ashe and Chaled El Awari (The World Stage: Israel), 2011(© Kehinde Wiley; Courtesy Roberts & Tilton, CA) (above)
Detail from Kehinde Wiley Kalkidan Mashasha (The World Stage: Israel), 2011               (All images courtesy the Jewish Museum.) (above)

Wiley’s portraits, often focusing on the male skin and body as art, are softened by textiles, pattern and a certain vulnerability. Wiley is best known for substituting the elite and often religious subjects of traditional old master paintings with contemporary African-Americans, emphasizing their absence in these historic paintings.  By challenging accepted historic norms, Wiley comments on “the signifiers of power, the implications of the traditional portrait, which are about privilege, power, elitism…..that he was not included in.” (New York Times)

Kehinde Wiley  Leviathan Zodiac, 2011. Courtesy of Roberts & Tilton, California. © Kehinde Wiley.

His work has a contemplative and reflective quality with his current solo show at the Stephen Friedman Gallery in London  (see London’s Evening Standard) depicting everyday real Haitians (with their names in the titles) painted in heroic, maritime poses, as in Fishermen Upon a Lee-shore, in Squally Weather (Zakary Antoine), 2017 (image at top). Lacking the technical complexity of his earlier works, these portraits of migrants or seafarers, fisherman or villagers,  have acquired heightened political status, due to the Department of Homeland Security’s termination, last week, of the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) granted by Barack Obama, to Haitians in the US.

With irony as the main ingredient of Wiley’s art, the timing of the exhibition of his Haitian portraits is not to be underestimated. Due to the secrecy shrouding Barack Obama’s anticipated portrait, it will be interesting to see to what extent Kehinde Wiley will reflect this relevant humanitarian TPS issue.


Much Ado about Harlem…


In an effort to challenge the status quo, to continue this revolution of sorts and give voice to those silenced by administrations such as the current one, Michelle Obama is forging ahead with her own set of rules. It is only fitting that she has chosen Amy Sherald, an emerging artist and heart transplant survivor, to paint her official portrait for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.


It is hard not to be impressed by the boldness, color and use of pattern in Amy Sherald’s work. Having been awarded this somewhat formidable task, Ms Sherald has been cast into the orbit of celebratory artist. Whether that is something she is comfortable with remains to be seen, and yet one can understand the complete confidence that Michelle Obama had in her selection. Obama’s choice is a significant one. She is saluting this emerging artist, for all of those reasons and another very important one: Relevance.

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Sherald is an expert at calmly depicting the struggle and identity of where we are now. In her works The Make Believer (Monet’s Garden), 2016, top, and The Boy With No Past, 2014, above, these images prove irresistible in their vividness. Sherald has captured a spirit that is bold and unapologetic, non-confrontational yet defiant. Her depiction of street smart fashion, of obvious interest to Obama, is deliberate, playful and accessible, far removed from the echelons of exclusivity. Sherald’s choices are original and controlled without being contrived. She  depicts the inner spirit of ordinary people in technicolor honesty, regardless of status. This in itself is simultaneously a humbling and empowering message and this is the message that Michelle Obama wishes to convey. It is up to us now to embrace it.

Whilst checking out Sherald’s work currently displayed in Fictions, at Harlem’s Studio Museum, don’t miss the artistry of her peers. Flanked by the striking graphics of Deborah Roberts’, The Sleepwalkers, 2017, below


and Devan  Shimoyama’s bejeweled Shape Up and a Trim, 2017, below,

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whose works challenge racial and gender stereotypes, a fabulous celebration of restrained flamboyancy is on display. In the chromogenic color prints of Kings and Queens (2017)and Colorblinds (2017) within  Genevieve Gaignard’s installation, a Cindy Sherman style voyeurism is established, with photographic images inserted into vintage styled sets. Gaignard’s  Nevertheless, She Persisted, 2017, with a porcelain figure trapped within a gold birdcage, below, references racial injustices, and possibly Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.


Simultaneously nostalgic and critical, these works are powerful in highlighting taboo subjects such as restrictions of liberties and incarceration.  jumpsuit.jpg

Similarly, in the work of Sherrill Roland, The Jumpsuit Projects, 2016-2017, above, a powerful autobiographical commentary is presented on wrongful imprisonment. Finally in the adjacent gallery, the exhibition Their Own Harlems features the timeless message of migration, depicted by Jacob Lawrence (The Architect, 1959, below), and others, providing historical context and poignant relevance.


If the appointment of Amy Sherald merely increases the exposure of these artists, Michelle Obama has done well. But by introducing this work to a much wider audience, Obama has  not only secured Sherald’s future, but is keeping alive the consciousness of The Studio  Museum in Harlem, as it leads up to the start of its three year construction project, led by David Adjaye. With curator Thelma Golden at its helm, there was never any danger of it “Going Gentle Into That Night” (Dylan Thomas) during its temporary closure, but now there is significantly more reason for it to be defiantly screaming Hamilton’s “Stay Alive” (Lin- Manuel Miranda) with all the backing of this Harlem Renaissance boost.

So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright at MOMA…

….But you can still catch him in Harlem.

By Sarah Balcombe

Despite the epic Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive exhibition closing, last weekend, at MOMA, a glimpse of his social housing plans is still available at the Miriam and Ira D Wallach Gallery at the Lenfest Center for the Arts, 615 West 129th St until December 17th.full_front_Lenfest_building_800px

Not only is this is a chance to glimpse Renzo Piano’s latest landmark addition to Harlem (above), but it is also a chance to explore what could be considered the most interesting aspect of Wright’s career. Less familiar than the already well-documented private homes of Illinois and Pennsylvania, where Kauffman’s “Falling Water” (1937) embraced nature with aplomb, this “Living in America” exhibition focuses on Wright’s lesser known models for a new kind of living, applying a similar formula to rural, suburban and urban areas. It compares and contrasts Wright’s proposals with the Harlem River Houses, the first social housing built in Manhattan, as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Wright would have been aware of Le Corbusier’s radical 1925 Plan Voisin, which projected a block pattern of living, with a central park and dominated by the motor car. At a time when Europe was clambering out of World War I and infatuation with the car was seen as a positive factor of change, Wright developed his American response. His preliminary work, The Disappearing City, first published in 1932, introduced the concept of “organic spirituality”. This manifested itself into his theoretical Broadacre City where he envisioned every citizen owning one acre of land in a path towards “self-improvement”.Image result for broadacre city

Wright’s Broadacre City 12ft x 12ft model of 1935, developed with his fellowship students at Taliesen West, in Arizona, (above) was shown in Rockefeller Center, Manhattan, ironically a bastion of capitalism. A timely scheme, the model proposed a decentralization of the city, with a pattern that Wright sought to replicate across US cities, including industry, farming, six lane highways, school and housing. Radical in scale and ferocity, some of the Utopian aspects of these projects, with areas designated to growing food gardens are still implemented today.

In his biography “Many Masks: A life of Frank Lloyd Wright” Broadacre City, Brendan Gill describes Wright’s vision of “spacious landscaped highways, safe in width and grade. ..Giant roads, themselves great architecture….each citizen of the future will have all forms of production, distribution, self-improvement, enjoyment, within a radius of one hundred and fifty miles of his home now easily and speedily available by means of his car or his plane.”

An important part of the American dream, this was a concept that had begun to resonate and which would increase in momentum in the 1950s. And yet the fervour with which this was proclaimed and the rather shocking scale of the model, led Gill to comment  ” As is the case with most utopians, Wright preached a freedom for the individual that could be achieved only by mass regimentation.”

He continues “At first glance, Broadacre City seems to offer its inhabitants the best of several worlds: the fresh air and sunlight” were seductive images. Ideal proximities to retail and entertainment in a pre-internet and streaming world were also applauded. Yet “At second glance, one perceives that.. Broadacre City threatens to turn the entire country, from coast to coast …..into a single immaculate and homogenous non-city: an incarnation on a monstrous scale of the…suburb..”

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Courtesy Horace Ginsbern Papers, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York   Perspective drawing of the Harlem River Houses, 1935

The  manifestation of these ideals and the scale, is similarly controversial.The Harlem River Houses, built in 1936 for working class African Americans was designed by a consortium of Archibald Manning Brown as chief architect for the project with architects Will Rice Amon, Richard W. Buckley, Frank J. Forster, Charles F. Fuller, Horace Ginsbern, and John Louis Wilson, Jr. one of the first African American architects to be registered in New York State.

Complete with playgrounds, electricity, light, hot water and heating, “the complex stood out as one of the best constructed examples of public housing” and considering that this was in an era of significant racial inequality, the River Houses stood out as “a highly desirable place to live for the African-American community,”  writes Meghan White for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The 9-acre Harlem River Housing (below) was deemed to be the most successful public housing in New York City.


Wikimedia Commons/Beyond My Ken (Megan White)

Lewis Mumford, architectural critic  who is best known for his opposing views on urban planning with Jane Jacobs, praised the Harlem River Houses. He admired, “the equipment for decent living that every modern neighborhood needs: sunlight, air, safety, play space, meeting space, and living space. The families in the Harlem Houses have higher standards of housing, measured in tangible benefits, than most of those on Park Avenue.”

However,  plagued more recently by surrounding high-rise tower blocks, unemployment, lower income residents and maintenance issues, one is reminded of Jane Jacobs’ lament, documented in, Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs, Robert Kanigel‘s 2016 biography. With the destruction of a vast number of businesses and smaller homes, albeit mostly slums, Jacobs claimed that the essence of communities were destroyed, rendering them barren problematic zones. Kanigel writes (p.143), “All told, across East Harlem, the projects had eliminated more than fifteen hundred retail stores, with virtually none built in their place. Pity the poor capitalists? Maybe. But if you took your eyes off their troubles and looked instead at the neighbourhood they served, you’d see not only entrepreneurial livelihoods lost, but social glue weakened- a community, as Jane would put it, replaced by a dormitory.”

Interestingly, Mumford had initially encouraged Jane Jacobs, early in her career, to keep writing about urban issues that were of importance to her. “Keep hammering,” he told her. “Your worst opponents are the old fogies who imagine that Le Corbusier is the last word in urbanism.” Whether Mumford was, in fact, referring to Wright, and his followers, Wright’s essential question remains,  how can utopian ideals be applied successfully to housing?

A trip to the Lenfest exhibition, or to the Harlem River Houses, may well provide the answer and if that triggers an interest in this subject, be sure to check out The Citizen Jane Film Festival next weekend in Bridgeport, CT.

Is Manhattan’s art epicenter shifting?

Despite the Whitney Museum doubling its attendance with its new building and the High Line attracting over four million visitors a year, gentrification in that Meatpacking district has forced many artists and art lovers to look elsewhere. The Met Breuer on the upper seat side in the iconic brutalist Breuer-designed old Whitney building is attempting to shake things up in the age-old Upper East. MOMA is building a stunning new extension with Jean Nouvel‘s skyscraper above, but with prices starting at $3m per apartment (and increasing to $70 million) it is not a real contender for changing the face of the neighborhood.

Midtown was known in the 1950s as the center of Abstract Expressionism, followed by Soho a decade later, then Chelsea with some current re-emergence in the Upper East Side. However none of this is static. According to David Halle and Elisabeth Tiso in their 2014 book New York’s New Edge “When one site loses dominance, galleries do not disperse, but a new dominant center emerges, at least so far.”

What is happening in Harlem is a result of this movement. With Columbia University adding its new 60,000 sq ft Lenfest Center for the Arts building to their Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, and with the Studio Museum, at 144 W125th St, led by Thelma Golden, planning a 82,000 sq ft building project of  $175m at their existing location, it will be interesting to see whether this seismic shift is possible.

Both new institutions promise collaboration and integration with their surrounding communities. Carol Becker, Dean of the School of the Arts describes their goal to create a “welcoming venue” which encourages collaboration between “students, faculty and guest artists”, as well as “fostering connections to the always vibrant art scene in Harlem and beyond.”

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Photo: Thelma Golden (WSJ) Photo: David Adjaye (Alamy in Architectural Digest)

Adjaye Asociates, led by the British Sir David Adjaye OBE, of Ghanaian descent, architect of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History in Washington, D.C.  is planning to display art in the surrounding environment, on the street and terraces, in an attempt to embrace surrounding areas, blurring inside and outside boundaries and encouraging the participation of the public.

Photo: The museum’s rear façade. (Courtesy of the Studio Museum)

Whilst Adjaye, has been a consistent and somewhat familiar figure, coming-of-age as I did, in the 1990s London architecture scene,  I  “discovered” Ms Golden much more recently when browsing through the colorful pages of  “In The Company Of Women” following which I saw her featured in Vogue,  and established her synonymous relationship with the local Harlem and broader international art scene.

With her cosmopolitan dynamism and dress sense (with clothes designed by her fashion designer husband Duru Olowu) , I believe that she has single-handedly assisted with removing the stuffiness from art and reinvigorating it with some much needed visionary aplomb and direction, akin to a revolution-of-sorts. Harlem has gained not only a formidable art force, but “a new cultural leader to the neighborhood”.

The “Harlem-need” factor, described by Glenn D Lowry (director of MOMA) embraces community and diversity and is a welcome antidote to these troubled political times. With the 2021 anticipated launch I predict that a very different Harlem will embrace its opening. West Harlem is ready. Whether this project will have a knock-on effect on East Harlem, where the essence of community was replaced, decades earlier, by looming tower blocks, as recorded in Robert Kangel’s Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs, remains to be seen. I hope that the more western Studio Museum,  can welcome a new era of integration between East and West Harlem,  emphasizing continual progress and creating an exciting future.

“Here comes the new. Look out. There goes the sad stuff. The things-nobody-could-help stuff. The way everybody was then and there. Forget that. History is over, you all, and everything’s ahead at last.” (Toni Morrison: Jazz)

Whether Harlem will once again sing like Toni Morrison’s Jazz novel, providing the pulse to the art world, is not even questionable. It already is.