What a difference a presidential portrait makes. Two years ago, Amy Sherald’s painting career was slowly if belatedly picking up steam. She was 44 and after a four-year hiatus from art — for family illness and her own heart transplant — had had a handful of solo shows, including a four-day pop-up affair on New York City’s Lower East Side in March 2017.
A few months later, in October, Ms. Sherald’s profile began to rise when the National Portrait Gallery commissioned her to paint a portrait of the former first lady Michelle Obama, setting the artist on the fast track to prominence. And so here we are: Ms. Sherald is having her first full-fledged New York solo in the Chelsea space of the voracious mega-gallery Hauser & Wirth. “Amy Sherald: The Heart of the Matter…” is a magnificent, stirring show.
Startlingly spare, in an enormous space, it shows off to good effect Ms. Sherald’s smoldering yet self-contained brand of portraiture, paintings of confident, black people whose stylish clothes and backdrops contrast with their faces, which are uniformly grisaille.
The neutral grayish tones give Ms. Sherald’s subjects a timelessness — we have always been here, deep in history, they seem to say — and reflects her attraction to old photographs. She also uses grisaille, she has said, because she wants to take race out of her paintings. In addition it conjures the early photographs by which black people, having been largely excluded from painting, joined American visual culture.
Ms. Sherald’s portrait of the former first lady and its complement, Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of former President Barack Obama, were groundbreaking images. The artists were the first African-Americans to be commissioned for presidential portraits, in this case, of the country’s first black president and his wife.
Unlike most presidential portraits, the Obama paintings are also part of what is happening right now in contemporary art. Their makers belong to a varied group of youngish painters — most under 50 — who have broken with, absorbed or simply ignored modernist abstraction. Instead, they work with the figure as a way of reaching broader audiences; dealing with issues of identity, gender and sexuality; and exploring new uses of painting’s rich, mostly figurative history. The many African-American artists working in this vein are also dismantling Western painting’s racial homogeneity, populating it as never before with images of black people.
The new Sherald portraits at Hauser & Wirth all present anonymous young people, each of whom is a composite of Ms. Sherald’s photographs of someone she usually encountered in public, and her imagination. Five of the eight canvases in the show adhere for the most part to Ms. Sherald’s standard approach: modest-size three-quarter length portraits of women or men facing forward, motionless as Egyptian statues before backgrounds of monochrome color.
In reproduction the portraits can seem bland and thinly painted. But in person you see the solidity of Ms. Sherald’s smooth yet subtly built-up paint surfaces, and the particularity of her near life-size scale. It’s also important that the pictures are hung low, so that their eye level is usually close to your own. This creates the impression of meeting face to face, in an experience of mutual evaluation. With the paintings given plenty of room, they invite close, exclusive looking, a kind of communion.
As you look, each portrait breaks down into five parts that leave quite a bit of room for variety: face, hair, body, garments — whose patterns often conjure abstraction — and the monochrome background, which is abstraction in a sense. (Although it is also very much in a tradition that stretches from painters like Barkley L. Hendricks and Alex Katz back to Manet and Goya.) You experience each part autonomously, which is how the artist painted them, and as parts of a puzzle that fit easily together.
The paint on some of the faces is unusually thick, suggesting that the visages are hard-won. This is especially true of “Handsome,” arguably the most perfect painting in the show, with second place going to “The girl next door,” a portrait of a self-possessed woman in a white dress covered with polka dots of red, yellow, blue, green and purple.
The princely young man in “Handsome” wears a fresh pressed short-sleeved shirt of white polka dots on dark blue that hangs like silk, in a single plane. His white jeans are rendered whiter by the cream background. His face communicates a combination of pride, vulnerability and perhaps familiarity with the saying “Handsome is as handsome does,” meaning that good looks are not as important as good deeds. This sentiment is expanded upon in another work with a name that, as with most of Ms. Sherald’s titles, is more or less allegorical. “There is no charm equal to tenderness of heart” is taken from Jane Austen’s “Emma,” and accompanies a portrait of a young woman in a yellow and white striped strapless sheath who vivifies its words.
“A single man in possession of a good fortune” takes its title from the opening sentence of “Pride and Prejudice.” It depicts a slender young man in a sweater decorated with geometric forms of houses, wittily suggesting that his wealth lies in real estate while also insinuating something darker: the tactics that have kept many African-Americans from owning homes.
The remaining two paintings in the show are quite a bit larger and show Ms. Sherald ambitiously expanding her format to include settings and even props. In the wonderfully titled “Precious jewels by the sea,” she may add a few too many: white clouds dotting its blue background, a sandy beach and some ocean, as well as seashells, a picnic basket and a big eye-catching umbrella that threatens to encroach on the figures: two tall young men planted in the sand with two young women sitting on their shoulders who together have the solidity of columns.
Even more monumental, and more resolved, is “If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it,” based on Charles C. Ebbets’s well-known 1932 photograph shows a white man sitting atop the steelwork of the RKO Building in Rockefeller Center at a slightly cross-like juncture of three girders. Here all are painted an unlikely shade of soft green, which, with the bracing blue sky, gives the setting the force of abstraction. The painting’s title comes from the final passage of Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon.”
In the original photograph the city spreads away in the distance. But in Ms. Sherald’s painting the man is completely alone against the sky. He wears gold pants striped white, blue and red, an orange belt, a brilliant white turtleneck and a red knit cap — an elegant ensemble suitable for someone who is perhaps ready to ride the air. His face, which is once again the heart of the matter, is open, grave and knowing. He is here and not here, at a slight remove in time and space. As with all of Ms. Sherald’s complexly layered paintings, this one says many different things. One of them might be “We built this country.”
Amy Sherald: The Heart of the Matter…
Through Oct. 20, Hauser & Wirth, 548 West 22nd Street, (212) -790-3900, hauserwirth.com
By Roberta Smith