Kehinde Wiley and Barack Obama unveil Mr. Obama’s portrait February 12, 2018. What struck me about Mr. Wiley’s portrait was actually his suit — a enlarged windowpane plaid, black with white detailing. And I don’t want to talk about Mr. Wiley’s fashion statement per se (the suit even drew comment from Mr. Obama). Rather, I think Kehinde Wiley was making a reference — literally leaving a visual trail for onlookers. It was this detail image, a screen freeze from a NYTimes’ interview with Mr. Wiley, that made the reference click with me. The suit, by the way, is fabulous in its plaid detailing — the ways the white threads break apart, jagged and feathery, barely making themselves legible against the black fabric.
I’m not in a position, being your lowly moderately-educated blogger, to question esteemed art critics in every freekin’ major newspaper in the nation, and internationally. But I think there’s a gap in visual vocabulary — the world of the history of art is far richer, far more interesting than is being discussed.
William H. Johnson’s stunning Portrait of a Man is in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art collection. Painted in 1939 to 1940 on Johnson’s typically make-do surface (this time burlap!, often hardboard, plywood, or cardboard), it’s just breathtaking.
Johnson’s life story is itself stunning and breathtaking, a heartbreaking tour-de-force that ended in crippling mental illness (he died in 1970). Born in South Carolina in 1901, William Johnson was a handsome, muscular man, African American, and without money. He left South Carolina when he was 17 to train as a painter. So the naive, folk style you see here was deliberate — a choice he made for artistic and cultural reasons. He believed he channeled the spirit of what he called “primitive folk”. He traveled widely, lived in Europe for years, married another artist, a Danish woman who specialized in textiles. He was utterly shocked upon returning to the U.S. in 1938 by the overt, blatant racism of both the North and South.
(image from Smithsonian NMAA biography; image provided by Dr. Rick Powell).
I’ve always loved Johnson’s portraits — he favored stark blocks of color for the background — usually difficult colors, like the greenish-black of his Portrait of a Man. And the clothes! His sitters often wear a mixture of realistic clothing (like that knit undershirt) and almost fantastical dress (like the wasp-waisted plaid pants worn by the portrait’s subject). Usually his subjects look straight at the viewer, not really bold, often slightly slumped in with fatigue or concern or defensiveness. But they are all strong, almost super-human African Americans, trapped in a Jim Crow nation.
When I saw Wiley’s 2018 portrait, I admit I couldn’t quite decide what it reminded me of, but 12 hours later it hit me — Johnson’s portrait. Hands crossed, sitting solidly in a straight-backed wood chair; even the slight tilt of the head is the same. Johnson’s solid blocks of color in the background have taken flower in Wiley’s portrait — an altogether different style and reference.
So what does this mean? In art, “copying” isn’t really the issue — art is referential; it works within a historical and visual framework; artwork (despite Dadaism’s efforts) always refers to that which preceded it. In some ways, Wiley’s plaid suit suggests he was well aware of the reference to Johnson’s ouvre of portraiture.
And I think Mr. Obama knew exactly what Wiley was doing. The Obamas made news when they selected an unusual range of art to decorate the White House with. In particular, according to a 2009 Reuters story, they selected three William H. Johnson pieces ( Children Dance, Flower to Teacher, and Folk Family – all from Smithsonian American Art Museum collection). The Obamas’ choices of American art work was met with approval by art critics, since they selected strong thematic works ranging from the 1700s to the 2000s, they brought in artists well-known and obscure, and they lived with these marvels of American art for eight years.