Geneva Anderson digs into art

The Obama Portraits at the de Young—so much better in person, fascinating symbolism—through August 14

Installation view of “The Obama Portraits Tour,” de Young Museum, San Francisco, 2022. Photo: Gary Sexton, courtesy FAMSF.  Left, “Barack Obama” by Kehinde Wiley, oil on canvas, 2018. Right, “Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama” by Amy Sherald, oil on linen, 2018.  Both: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

There’s just no substitute for seeing art in person and letting the experience hit you full force.  The official portraits of President Barak Obama and Mrs. Michelle Obama by artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald at the de Young Museum are stopping people in their tracks—it’s not the usual quick selfie and move on type of viewing.  Commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. and unveiled in February 2018, these presidential likenesses are strong and stunning, each in their own way.  They speak to what each of us holds in our hearts and memories of the Obama’s and their era and challenge us to dig deeper.  As presidential portraits go, they are highly unorthodox and have broadened discussion on portraiture, challenging staid conventions of representing political leaders, and influencing how Black American identity is shaped in the public realm. Wiley and Sherald were chosen by the Obamas and are the first African-American artists to paint portraits of the president and first lady, our first African American first family, for the National Portrait Gallery.  The Obama Portraits Tour  has been traveling since June 2021 and the two paintings leave the de Young on August 14 for their seventh and final stop, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and then return to their permanent home at the National Portrait Gallery. It’s estimated that 4 million people have already seen them on this tour.

“I am struck by their magnificence,” said an impassioned Timothy Anglin Burgard, Distinguished Senior Curator and Curator-in-Charge of American Art at FAMSF.  “They really have been become secular pilgrimage objects.   I’m inclined to remove the word secular;  they’ve got a spiritual aspect…The Obamas represent the realization of the American dream and that’s entangled in our perception of these artworks.”

Three years after their unveiling, nearly every stylistic detail in these portraits has been researched and and there’s a hook for almost everyone.  They are displayed side by side and several feet apart within the gallery. Your first take is how dramatically different the two portraits are from each other stylistically, speaking completely different languages, and then you notice the differences in their size and scale.  At 7 feet tall, Barack Obama’s portrait is a foot taller than Michelle Obama’s and he is painted roughly 10 percent larger than life-size; whereas she is slightly smaller than life-size.  This is highly unconventional for husband and wife portraits, but attests that each portrait was created independently.   

Kehinde Wiley’s Barack Obama

“Barack Obama” by Kehinde Wiley, oil on canvas, 84.1 in x 58 in x 1.3 in, 2018. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. On the back of the canvas, Wiley signed his name and handwrote “The greatest president in history.”

The vibrant flower power struck a strong chord with me: the entire painting is teaming with vegetation.  Obama sits surrounded by a mass of verdant foliage which threatens to engulf his chair and him, wrapping around his feet, creeping over his shoulder.  A respectable power-affirming setting has long been the norm for presidential portraits, setting a tone of honor and remembrance.  A garden portrait like this is beyond rebellious but well within Kehinde Wiley’s oeuvre.  Wiley, 42, attended San Francisco Art Institute. He grabbed the attention of the art world and media almost immediately after earning his MFA from Yale in 2001. He employs the power of images to address the historic invisibility of blacks in art and has created series of works that inject black people, usually men, into old-master European royal portraits. He tends to foreground his subjects in colorful and highly intricate all-encompassing patterning.  His iconic 2005 portrait of rapper LL Cool J, also at the National Portrait Gallery, employs an almost florescent intricately repeating ornamental backdrop.  As Wiley remarked at the unveiling, “There is a fight going on between he (Obama) in the foreground, and the plants that are trying to announce themselves at his feet. Who gets to be the star of the show?”

The flowers each symbolize an aspect of Obama’s personal history. The purple African lily symbolizes Obama’s Kenyan heritage (Wiley’s father is Nigerian); the white jasmine represents his Hawaiian birthplace and time spent in Indonesia; the multicolored chrysanthemum signifies Chicago, the city where Obama grew up and eventually became a state senator.  The three red rosebuds, the official flower of Washington D.C., represent new beginnings.  The overall message is the flowering or dawning of a new era in a nation that finally has its first Black President.  But these exquisite flowers are also all struggling to emerge, a metaphor for Obama’s own struggle to emerge from obstacle after obstacle.  

There’s also the idea of camouflage. Obama had to be very careful about both concealing and revealing himself. Often, he was often seen as black man before he was seen as president.  Certain moments in his presidency— in 2012, when he spoke at the interfaith prayer vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook massacre; in 2013, when Trayvon Martin was shot, when he said that could have been his own son; in 2015, when he sang “Amazing Grace” during the eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who was killed in a shooting at a Charleston church—the walls came down and he spoke as a  father, as a man mourning and we had an inkling of the great difficulty he had navigating race relations which were so central to his presidency.

Obama himself is depicted in a serious pose, seated with arms crossed, looking straight ahead, wearing a dark suit with an open-collar shirt and no tie.  He wears his gold wedding band and a Rolex Cellini reference 50509, with a white gold case.

 “Abraham Lincoln,” by George P.A. Healy, 1869. (National Portrait Gallery/Smithsonian Institution)

In part, the portrait seems inspired by George P.A. Healy’s 1869 portrait of Abraham Lincoln—the carved wooden antique chair, the alert forward pose, and thoughtful expression.  But instead of the austere darkness that threatens to engulf Lincoln, Wiley substituted plants infused with light and energy.  Lincoln is one of Obama’s heroes, a role model, so much so that Obama launched his first presidential campaign in Lincoln’s hometown, Springfield, Illinois, and cited the 16th president numerous times during his two terms in office. Obama even requested that Wiley’s portrait of him be unveiled on February 12, Lincoln’s birthday.  Paul Stati, the Washington Post art critic, wrote in his February 13, 2018 review, “(Wiley) is not just channeling Healy, he’s linking the Obama presidency to Lincoln’s — painting Obama as the rich fulfillment of the promise of Lincoln’s abolition of slavery.” 

When you look at the armchair Wiley painted, the assumption is made that it is resting on an unseen bed of soil but the bottoms of Obama’s shoes are not touching solid ground, his left foot which tilts slightly upwards.  “He seems to be weightless and defying gravity, possibly levitating,” suggested Timothy Burgard.  “It’s fascinating that both artists arrived independently at visual solutions that suggest or create an aurora of spirituality or even religiosity.”  

Amy Sherald’s Michelle Obama

Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama” by Amy Sherald, oil on linen, 72.1 in x 60.1 in x 2.8 in, 2018. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

The former First Lady’s striking portrait also defies convention.  Executed in flat neutral grayed-out tones, a bare-armed Mrs Obama is set against a solid light blue background and gazes directly at, or right through the viewer, giving the impression her thoughts directed inwards. Her hair falls in loose curls just beyond her shoulders, framing her angular face with its strong jawline.  It’s abstracted, more impression than detail. Her seated posture is relaxed, with legs crossed. She’s resting her chin on her hand, elegantly depicted with long slender fingers.  She’s wearing a black and white maxi dress with a billowing skirt that spreads to the bottom of the portrait.

New Jersey-based Amy Sherald, 49, stayed true to her distinctive style of portraiture: paintings of self-assured, black people in stylish clothes against colored backdrops that contrast with their faces, which are uniformly grisaille.  When Sherald got the Obama commission, she was just beginning to move into the national spotlight after putting her career on hold for four years as she navigated family health issues and her own heart transplant. She’d had a few solo shows and was known within the contemporary art world but needed national exposure to boost her name recognition.  The Obama portrait did just that. She got her first first full-fledged New York solo show, “The Heart of the Matter” at Hauser & Wirth, in September 2019 which New York Times art critic Roberta Smith called “magnificent, stirring” (9.16.2019 review). She has since gone to several museum shows and made the news in December 2020 when her portrait, “The Bathers” (2015), sold for $4.2 million at Phillips, over 20 times its estimated sale price.  The portrait offered a counter-representation to the genre of European paintings whose white subjects, relaxing near bodies of water and wearing bathing suits or in the nude, are described as bathers.

Sherald has said many times that she uses gray-toned skin to take race out of her portraits and force viewers to look deeper. Those neutral gray tones also give her subjects, especially Mrs, Obama, a timelessness. The de-emphasis of precise facial features invites the viewer to question who the subject really is, an issue Mrs. Obama must have grappled with continually as she navigated all of her roles, playing a slightly different version of herself to suit the occasion. There’s a strong physicality to the portrait which is unusual in a first lady’s portrait. While many people have commented on Obama’s strong arms in this portrait, I didn’t see the prominent muscular definition in her biceps and forearms which I and so many admire: she works out and it shows but not so much here. 

The dress is the most discussed aspect of the portrait: a bold arm-bearing white halter-style maxi dress with a geometric pattern in pink, red, and chartreuse, designed by Michelle Smith of the label Milly and was based on a look from her Spring 2017 collection.  At the portrait’s unveiling in 2018, artist Amy Sherald said it reminded her of a Gee’s Bend quilt and the colors reminded her of Mondrian.  This dress, so distinctive from the conservatively-styled, solid-colored choices selected for most National Gallery’s presidential portraits, has garnered so much attention and commentary that in 2021 it was displayed along with the portrait at the National Gallery in 2021. It was immortalized further in the Showtime series The First Lady, with Viola Davis as Obama.  It is emblematic of Obama’s fashion-forward style which became bolder the longer she occupied the East Wing.  She championed upstart American designers, was fond of bold colors, and metallics, and wasn’t afraid to show some skin.  At 5’11”, with her body and confidence, she could pull off almost any look.

Michelle Smith remarked in Vogue (February 12, 2018) that, more than being a high-fashion statement, the simple cut cotton dress is “a people’s fabric.  The dress has pockets.  It is easy and comfortable…The halter neck exemplifies Michelle Obama’s confidence to show her arms and shoulders. It is forward thinking and she is comfortable. The dress speaks to her in that she is modern, clean, and forward thinking.”

I’m missing Obama’s infectious empowering smile, wishing that more of her were revealed in this portrait but evoking my individual memories of her is not what this portrait is about. These are the first presidential portraits by African American artists ever to be commissioned for the National Gallery. They are intended to solidify the legacy of our first African President and First Lady who defied all expectations. The portraits are perfect in their unwavering unconventional beauty, a strong public statement of who we are as Americans.


The Obama Portraits Tour closes August 14, 2022. Requires additional timed ticket and a General Admission de Young ticket. The de Young also has a fitting companion experience— Faith Ringgold: American People, covering 50 years of the trailblazing Harlem-born African American artist’s work, the first retrospective celebrating her in almost 40 years (free with General Admission museum ticket through November 27). Pre-purchase tickets online in advance. ars (free with General Admission museum ticket through November 27). Pre-purchase tickets online in advance.

August 2, 2022 Posted by | Art, de Young Museum | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Meet Richard Mayhew–Master of Electric, Eclectic, Majestic Abstraction at MoAD through March 7, 2010

Untitled (Red Bush) 1990's, Oil on Canvas, Collection of Stan and Marguerite Lathan

Now in its final week, “The Art of Richard Mayhew,” at San Francisco’s MoAD (Museum of the African Diaspora) is an important retrospective of the Santa Cruz Aptos-based painter, now 86, who wields color with a language and precision all his own but, sadly, is not widely known.   Standing before Richard Mayhew’s abstract paintings is a deeply moving experience—connecting the soul, poetry, nature, prayer, and memory.   We are made aware of something majestic, mystical.   Rothko evokes this depth of reaction as well, but it’s often an experience filled with heaviness, whereas Mayhew’s abstraction pulses with invigorating life force.  Mayhew has mastered the line between abstraction and representation, creating dreamlike environments that appeal to the senses and evoke nature’s constant rejuvination.   It’s also nice, in this day and age, to see someone who is not afraid of bold color and who knows how to use it to heighten emotional reaction, to touch the holy. 

Many of Mayhew’s early works are clearly landscapes with trees, often clustered together and executed in somber murky hues.  Later, over the course of forty years, the line blurs and the imagery becomes increasingly symbolic, suggesting trees or patterns in nature that seem bioluminescent, a term that means producing and emitting light, originating from the Greek bios for “living” and the Latin lumen for “light.”  Mayhew has painted in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, New England, and California but he rarely paints scenes as they exist.  He takes different things from his imagination and collages them together into a kind of spiritual poem that takes form as an imagined landscape.   

Of African-American and Cherokee and Shinnecock descent, Mayhew was born in 1924 in Amityville on Long Island, where a deep appreciation of nature was instilled in him.  He came of age in New York during the 1950s explosion of Abstract Expressionist art and at 23, he became a medical illustrator and portrait painter in New York.  Several of those early works are on display at MoAD.  

Mayhew’s involvement in the Spiral Group in New York for several years in the 1960’s seems to mark an important turning point in his career and his painting style.  The group of African American artists was diverse in its artistic style and philosophies but was formed in July 1963 to discuss the role of Negro artists in the civil rights struggle.  It had only one exhibition in 1965 and all the works were black and white.  Shortly after the show, Mayhew painted over his black and white landscape and expressed his commitment to color. 

While he was involved with Spiral, his presence in the art world continued to blossom and mature and he began teaching and then won several prestigious awards and began performing as a jazz singer in New York.  He drove across country for the first time in 1964 and influenced by the open space and vivid colors of the West, his palette expanded and he embraced vivid irresistible psychedelic color—greens, yellows, oranges and browns.

 The deep-rooted symbolism of trees is apparent throughout his life’s work.  Forests too, recognized in virtually every culture on earth as the abode of nature–mysterious and constantly changing–a refuge from danger, as well as a home of exotic animals.    He delights in showing the continual rejuvenation of nature and the renewal of life.  His glowing trees evoke strong metaphors such as the Tree of Life or family trees whose sprawling branches depict our ancestral heritage.  In spiritual terms, the tree is the soul of the forest. Kill the tree, kill the forest, kill the culture.  The messages embedded in his works are endless.

Ritual, 2007, Oil on Canvas, Collection of Ilene and Michael Gotts

Many works stand out, but “(Untitled) Red Bush” from the 1990’s is striking–a group of fiery cherry tomato red trees basks in the bright sun against a backdrop of  lavender foliage and a jade green sky.   The tallest tree is larger than life and not contained within upper border of the canvas.   The gorgeous interplay between the red leaves of the trees and the vivid green of the grasses below suggests a careful intake of optical techniques gleaned from the old masters but modernized.   The fiery tree also holds a deep association with God.  In the Bible, Exodus, Chapter 3: 1-15, Moses is tending his sheep near Horeb and is mesmerized by a huge burning bush in the distance that is engulfed in flames but does not burn up.  As he approaches, God reveals himself dramatically to Moses from the midst of this burning bush, and commands Moses to return to Egypt and to deliver the Israelites from oppression.  Having seen and heard the voice of God, Moses obeyed.  

“Ritual” (2007) evokes a moody state—a still blue lake in a molten red field draws the eye upward to a thicket of magenta trees set against a neon orange sky. 

Lumbee, 2009, Oil on Canvas, Courtesy of ZONE: Contemporary Art

In “Lumbee” (2009), there is the sense that the viewer is looking down on tiny earth from above and then soaring right into the line of the horizon.   The patterns are somewhat recognizeable but color moves it away from familiarity to something fresh.  A yellow-lime green curving mass (water?) that spills across the canvas and directs the eye downward and to the right seems like a river but is colored like no river we’ve seen in nature before.  The painting’s title refers to the Lumbee nation of Native Americans based in North Carolina whose migration across the country and into the Massapequa region of New York, where Mayhew was born, pays tribute to Mayhew’s ancestry.

An important and interesting video, offered in a side gallery, shows Mayhew at work in his studio creating landscapes and talking about his life, influences and his artistic process with oil on canvas and watercolor on paper.  He never sketches his ideas in advance but pours paint directly onto paper, flooding the surface with  rich vibrant colors which he then pushes around to suit his taste.  He frequently pours salt on wet areas and uses spritzes of water to create a blended effect.   Important critics and artists provide important context for Mayhew’s oeuvre. 

The exhibition covers his work from the 1950’s to the present and is one of three recent fantastic Bay Area shows featuring Mayhew in various phases of his career.  “The Art of Richard Mayhew: Journey’s End” at The de Saisset Museum at Santa Clara University, September 26-December 4, 2009 focused on Mayhew’s mid-career from 1975 while “The Art of Richard Mayhew: After the Rain” at  The Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz, September 12-November 12, 2009, showcased work produced since his relocation to Santa Cruz county in 2000.

March 1, 2010 Posted by | Art | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment