The official presidential portrait began with George Washington, who was painted in 1796 by Gilbert Stuart, among the pre-eminent American artists of his time. This tradition, of a painter depicting a president, usually soon after the end of his final term, continued after the advent of photography mostly as a matter of ceremony. For hundreds of years, the presidential portrait was a ho-hum affair, failing to generate headlines or even a worthy anecdote, with the possible exception of Theodore Roosevelt, who was so displeased by Théobald Chartran’s 1902 portrait — he thought it made him look too coy — that he first hid it in a less-trafficked corner of the White House before finally burning it.
Rarely do these commissions make any
kind of larger statement about American art,
but last fall, when Barack Obama selected Kehinde Wiley — a figurative painter who deploys the techniques, poses and patterns of the grand tradition of Baroque European paintings to portray contemporary black and brown men he finds on the street — to paint his official portrait for the Smithsonian, it at least reflected the Obamas’ well-developed connections to the world of culture. The Obamas are connoisseurs — they were the first presidential family to display work by African-American painters like Glenn Ligon and Alma Thomas — and yet their choice stood out, because Wiley is an artist whose stature in the art world comes close to matching Obama’s in politics. When he first started showing his work in the early 2000s, Wiley’s reversals of classical figuration were an outlier at a time when most painters dealt in abstraction. His ascent was swift; he had not one but two shows at the Brooklyn Museum, in 2004 and in 2015. More recently, his works were featured on the hip-hop television series ‘‘Empire’’, a show that also has featured portraits by artists like Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas and Barkley Hendricks. But what might be most important about Wiley’s selection was that it seemed to signal contemporary portraiture’s new relevance, the reconsideration of a mode that had been thought out of fashion, if not downright taboo, for decades. Long confined to historical museums and musty mansions, it seemed like portraiture had suddenly been rushed out of storage.
For centuries, of course, portrait painting was art. But by the second half of the 20th century, it had almost disappeared. By this time, critics routinely announced the death of painting with every new technological and aesthetic innovation. First there was the proliferation of photography, then the ready-made. Then there was the internet, and social media, whose rise seemed to render the medium of painting — not to mention portraiture — completely irrelevant: Why paint someone’s picture in the age of the selfie? Most painters responded by getting weirder, more abstract, more experimental; representational figurative art was anachronistic, inert, crusty — a form of vanity exclusive to the rich.
Kerry James Marshall/ The Metropolitan Museum of Art
"Untitled (Studio)" (2014), by Kerry James Marshall, whose 2016 museum retrospective helped usher in a new era of realist figure painting.
And yet portraiture — in the classic, realist sense — has become increasingly essential (and visible) in the last few years. You saw it at the Baltimore Museum of Art’s autumn 2017 solo show by Njideka Akunyili Crosby, who paints intimate scenes of herself and her husband lounging around their house; at a September 2017 solo show at the Casey Kaplan gallery in New York by Jordan Casteel, whose humanising portraits often depict black men in everyday situations (scrolling through a phone, walking a dog, sitting on the sofa); at the extremely popular Martin Wong show at the Bronx Museum in 2015, where the artist walked a line between playful and gritty in his social realist paintings; at a show organised by the critic Hilton Als at David Zwirner in New York last February, where portraits by Alice Neel, who died in 1984, looked as urgent and as vital as ever, the lonely eyes of her subjects holding a kind of mirror up to life, ‘‘pouring in energy from both sides — the sitter’s and the artist’s,’’ as Als wrote in his essay for the exhibition.
So why is portraiture returning now? For one, there is an institutional urgency to speak to a more diverse audience with painting that depicts the black community, the Asian-American experience, the Latino face, to attract the various people who had been excluded from the museum by remaking the history of figurative painting, this time with color. Not that the trend toward realist portraits is exclusive to artists of colour. It is evident in the rococo renderings of Sam McKinniss, who paints pop culture figures — Prince, Lorde, Flipper — like hallowed aristocrats. It was clear in a series of self-portraits by Justin Vivian Bond — who is best known for experimental cabaret performances — that were displayed at the New Museum last fall, and seemed to casually but definitively announce Bond’s identity as a trans artist. And there is another reason for figurative paintings’ resurgence as well: We live in a time in which reality is almost daily warped in ways that were unimaginable even 18 months ago. We have swiftly entered an era where the very notion of truth, or facts, is considered fungible. As we reassess the various power structures that landed us here, it is stabilising and reassuring to look at the work of an artist who is clearly in control of her craft, who is able to depict a reality that is material and grounded in recognition — of seeing, in the Facebook age, a painting that looks like who it is meant to.
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye/ Jack Shainman Gallery New York
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye's "In Lieu of Keen Virtue" (2017) was included in a survey of the artist at the New Museum last year.
The current generation of figurative paintings owes a debt to Kerry James Marshall, whose 2016 multicity retrospective cemented the artist’s often-stated goal, one that is as straightforward as it is enormous: to put blackness into art history. The painter’s brilliantly simple gambit, one that has allowed for decades of elaboration, was to literalise that blackness. Starting in 1980 with a mischievous little egg-tempera — ‘‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self’’, which features a grin missing a crucial tooth — Marshall has painted his African-American subjects mostly in unmixed black paint. Ever since, these figures have been seen — boldly and yet barely — in a variety of settings: the artist’s studio, the hairdresser’s, parks, bedrooms, outer space. Their blackness makes each inclusion subtly register as an exclusion.
This idea is expanded upon in the work of Amy Sherald, who was Michelle Obama’s choice to paint her official portrait. Sherald uses grisaille — a method of painting in gray monochrome — for her subjects’ skin. Because her gradations slyly allude to the mixed and often unacknowledged backgrounds of African-Americans, Sherald’s paintings make an important statement about our racial history. One 2016 image, ‘‘Listen, You a Wonder. You a City of a Woman. You Got a Geography of Your Own’’, features a woman wearing a skirt dotted with black flowers. As if to underline the point, she is suspending a black purse in front of her belly.
Artists like Marshall and Sherald suggest that in its exclusion of people of colour, the issue of representation in painting is really a matter of misrepresentation. The best portrait painters working today introduce something new into art not through stylistic innovations, but by whom they choose as subjects. Aliza Nisenbaum, who was among the most prominent artists in last year’s Whitney Biennial, looks at undocumented immigrants from Latin America in her work. The artist, who hails from Mexico City, shifted her painting practice from abstract to portraiture around 2010, while working with Cuban artist Tania Bruguera’s Immigrant Movement International, an art project in Queens, which provides social services to the neighbourhood’s large immigrant community. Nisenbaum realised that the portrait process — long, slow, intimate — gave her a way to get to know this community. Additionally, she recognised that painting these people’s pictures would be one way to address their erasure in other areas of life. Nisenbaum has since expanded the project to include portrait-making workshops for the immigrants themselves. As if to complete the circle, the 2017 work ‘‘Wise Elders Portraiture Class at Centro Tyrone Guzman. En Familia hay Fuerza with mural on the history of immigrant farm labor to the United States’’, shows the students holding the portraits they themselves learned to draw.
Aliza Nisenbaum/ Mary Mary, Glasgow
A work by Aliza Nisenbaum, who grew up in Mexico City and often paints undocumented immigrants. In this painting, "Wise Elders Portraiture Class at Centro Tyrone Guzman. En Familia hay Fuerza with mural on the history of immigrant farm labour to the United States" (2017), Nisenbaum captures a group of immigrants with portraits they made themselves.
What’s most surprising about the recent return of classical portraiture is realising how utterly absent it was from the art world for so many years, to such an extent that Andy Warhol — one of the people ostensibly responsible for killing the form
— helped found the New York Academy of Art in 1982 in order to salvage the kind of technical fine arts training (most notably figure drawing) that seemed at the time in danger of becoming extinct. The Neo-Expressionism of the 1980s — led by painters like Julian Schnabel and David Salle — helped popularise abstraction by making it into a desirable commodity, but it also rendered the realism of a painter like Alice Neel passé. But painting, perhaps because it is so old, seems unusually inclined to rebirth, to responding to its time in surprising ways. As the commercialism of the art world expanded in the 2010s, painting became a subset of interior decorating, something that was easy to mass produce and inoffensive to live with: paintings marked by bold colours and forms, sometimes literally depicting flowers (the work of Nate Lowman) or sunsets (Alex Israel). In 2014, at the peak of this stylistic moment, New York’s Museum of Modern Art hung its first survey composed exclusively of contemporary paintings since 1958, ‘‘The Forever Now’’, a show that responded to the current age of distraction, in which contemporaneity was constantly being replaced by something newer. Only the works of Amy Sillman and Nicole Eisenman, who both have portrait-painting practices, hinted at the fact that in our next, emphatically historical moment, something old would be doing the replacing.
Sam Mckinniss/ Team Gallery, New York
On the right, Sam Mckinniss's portrait of Prince.
But an ever-widening chasm exists between 2014 and today. If the news of the world feels every day more like a pulpy political thriller with an unhinged plotline, painters have responded by grounding their work in observable, human reality. Most of this work isn’t overtly political on its surface — there is Henry Taylor’s monumental 2012 portrait of a woman grilling chicken on a barbecue, or Celeste Dupuy-Spencer’s 2016 painting of a man making a playlist on his laptop, a cigarette-filled ashtray in front of him. But they also suggest that, in a time of chaos, there could be nothing more necessary — more defiant — than simply showing life as it’s being lived.
Subscribe to our newsletter