Portrait of President Obama as prince, royalty or…?

Hosted by

The recent announcement that the official portrait of President Obama will be painted by well-known American artist Kehinde Wiley surprised me. Surprised me in a good way. The artist became known for his eye-catching life-size portraits of young African-American men, presented in a dramatic fashion.

Image Not Available
Kehinde Wiley, “Willem van Heythuysen,” 2005
Virgina Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond
© Kehinde Wiley
Photo: Katherine Wetzel, © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Image courtesy Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

The compositions of these portraits and the figures' postures are borrowed from centuries-old royal portraits by European Masters. But, the very men whom Kehinde Wiley chose as his subjects are cool African-American dudes.

Image Not Available
Kehinde Wiley, “Portrait of Andries Stilte II,” 2006
Image courtesy Roberts & Tilton

And, the background for most of these tongue-in-cheek glamorous portraits is not royal chambers or a dramatic landscape, but bright floral patterns reminiscent of wallpaper or tapestries.

Image Not Available
Installation shot of “Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic”
Brooklyn Museum, 2015
Image courtesy Roberts & Tilton

So, one wonders how adventurous this commissioned portrait of President Obama will be. Is he going to be sitting in the Oval Office? Or, on a horse, like in Wiley's portrait of Michael Jackson?

Image Not Available
Elaine de Kooning, “John F Kennedy,” 1963
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
© 1963 Elaine de Kooning Trust
Image courtesy National Portrait Gallery

All that reminds me of a story of the portrait of John F Kennedy commissioned to the young and relatively unknown Elaine de Kooning in 1963. She had her first exhibition in one of the New York galleries, and the reviews were simply scathing. Elaine was devastated. Years ago, I had the chance to speak with her, and she told me the story of how, a few days after these terrible reviews, she got a call from the White House, asking if she would be interested to make a portrait of President Kennedy. She thought it was a joke, and hung up the phone. But it was not a joke – the White House called back. The President and his advisors chose Elaine de Kooning for the very reason that her exhibition created such uproar. Instead of being politely academic, her purposefully unfinished portrait of JFK bursts with explosive energy and color. And, indeed, as expected, this nontraditional portrait created quite a buzz, exactly what the White House wanted.

Image Not Available
Robert A. Anderson. “George W. Bush,” 2008
Image courtesy National Portrait Gallery

Wouldn't it be fabulous if all official portraits of American Presidents and First Ladies would be done by adventurous contemporary artists? Just take a look at the official portrait of George W. Bush at the National Portrait Gallery. Its traditional craftsmanship is good, but not even the smallest sense of the vitality of contemporary art and culture can be found.

Image Not Available
Amy Sherald, “A Clear Unspoken Granted Magic,” 2017
Image courtesy of the artist

The artist chosen to paint the official portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama is Amy Sherald. Her name is new to me, and after I checked out her website, I found her portraits rather appealing, though without the energy and edge of Kehinde Wiley's work. If the White House would ask me for advice, I would give them my two cents…

Image Not Available
Njideka Akunyili Crosby, “Nyado: The Thing Around Her Neck,” 2011
UCLA Fowler Museum of Art
Photo by Edward Goldman

Why not choose Nigerian-born Los Angeles-based artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby, who recently received the 2017 MacArthur "Genius" Award? I talked about her work last April, in my review of the exhibition African-Print Fashion Now! at UCLA Fowler Museum of Art. Her large-scale mixed-media figurative painting grabbed my attention – a female figure, possibly the artist herself, wrapping her arms around her Euro-American partner. If I knew how to reach Michelle Obama, I would introduce her to the art of Njideka Akunyili Crosby, who would be a more adventurous choice for her official portrait.