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Obama Drama: Unveiled, Hung and Exiled (with video)

More on this here.

“It’s kind of amazing to think that [the Obama portraits] will be living next to the other portraits [emphasis added] of all of the other presidents and first ladies,” Rujeko Hockley, assistant curator at the Whitney Museum, gushed in an interview with The Nation about the latest presidential commissions by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery.

Sad to say, Ru, Barack Obama is not actually “next to the other portraits” of the U.S. Presidents. As you will see in my video, below, he’s tucked away behind them.

Kehinde Wiley, “Barack Obama,” 2018
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

That surprising placement felt to me like marginalization—an unwelcome (if unintended) evocation of the back-of-the-bus era. The 44th President cannot be seen when you stand in the middle of the last section of the recently renovated America’s Presidents galleries, where all the other recent officeholders affably commingle.

Hung in isolation, with his back towards his predecessors, a tense-looking President Obama is surrounded by aggressive greenery that threatens to engulf him. “There’s a fight going on,” artist Kehinde Wiley said in his remarks at the portrait’s unveiling, over “who gets to be the star of the show”—the sitter or his surroundings.

The painting resides on the backside of the freestanding wall bearing Ronald Reagan‘s portrait. You can’t catch sight of Obama—a faithful but discomfiting likeness, with a grim, almost hostile glare—unless you walk around to the back of the freestanding wall that displays Everett Raymond Kinstler‘s 40th President:

Everett Raymond Kinstler, “Ronald Reagan,” 1991
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

After Monday’s celebratory unveiling (which I attended and videoed), I ran into Wiley standing alone upstairs, in front of the spot where his painting would hang the next morning:

Kehinde Wiley against the backdrop of the wall awaiting his painting
Photo by reporter Menachem Wecker (who caught me unawares)

When I mentioned my astonishment at the placement of his painting, Wiley accented the positive: His work would be the first seen by visitors approaching America’s Presidents from the other end of the installation. That said, most people follow the sequence in chronological order, starting with this icon:

Gilbert Stuart, George Washington (Lansdowne Portrait), 1796
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

At the end of this post is my CultureGrrl Video with my further thoughts about the painting and the recent renovation and reinstallation of the America’s Presidents display (which reopened Sept. 22 after 18 months of reconception and renovation). The refreshed galleries include incisive new labels and wall texts (which my old friend, David Ward, had a hand in), as well as an interactive touchscreen loaded with other images of Presidents and First Ladies from the museum’s extensive collection.

But first, my impressions of the Obama portraits: I got my first glimpse of them from my seat in the press pen at the unveiling ceremony, where I was too far away to see (or photograph) them properly:

L to R: Kim Sajet, director, NPG; artist Kehinde Wiley; Barack Obama; Michelle Obama; artist Amy Sherald; David Skorton, secretary, Smithsonian Institution
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

After the program, the scribe tribe got a chance to approach for a close look:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

This may have been our only chance to see this couple’s portraits together. Barack now resides in the Presidential suite. Michelle’s temporary home is the Recent Acquisitions gallery.

Neither portrait captures what, for me, is the essence of these two warmly compassionate, deeply intelligent, barrier-breaking achievers: Many who have seen the painting or images of Amy Sherald‘s take on Michelle share my view that although it captures her stylishness and poise, it’s not much of a likeness. Wiley’s skillful likeness falls short in other ways.

This screenprint by Mickalene Thomas, also owned by the NPG (an image of which I photographed from the gallery’s touchscreen), is more schematic than Sherald’s work (although with a similar blue background). But it’s more recognizable:

Mickalene Thomas, “Michele Obama,” 2008
Screenshot by Lee Rosenbaum

What’s more, Thomas comes closer to conveying the subject’s personal character, as described in the touchscreen image’s accompanying text: “Michelle Obama [is] here depicted as personable, confident and forthright.”

Sherald’s impassive “Michelle” lacks the sitter’s vivaciousness. Her left arm, famously muscled in the flesh, hangs limp and unmodeled in the painting. This is Michelle as fashion plate. (The mutually chosen dress is from designer Michelle Smith‘s Milly Collection.)

Amy Sherald, “Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama,” 2018
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

As Michelle’s inordinately voluminous dress detracts and distracts from the human element, so do Barack’s improbably lush surroundings draw the viewer’s attention to the artist’s virtuosity and away from the painting’s subject. The President’s look of consternation may owe something to his being somewhat ridiculously perched on an antique chair, incongruously surrounded by all that verdure.

While both of these portraits can be appreciated as fine works on their own terms, a recognizable visage and a solid sense of character count in portrayals of a First Couple for our national museum. Some art critics have praised the portraits for their modernity and audacity in departing from time-worn conventions. But while they may be interesting and provocative, they don’t completely fulfill their essential role as accurate, insightful records of important historical figures.

Enough quibbles. Come join me now for my commentary as we stroll through the America’s Presidents galleries to appreciate a renewed and rethought installation that’s better than ever. Along the way, I’ll note some resonance between Alexander Gardner‘s famous “cracked plate” photograph of Abraham Lincoln and Wiley’s work, wondering whether Kehinde, who visited the America’s Presidents galleries, might have had that image in mind when painting Obama. We’ll end up in the scrum of camera-toting visitors who quickly thronged the Obama portrait at its public debut late Tuesday morning.

At the very end, you’ll hear one of the early visitors (whom I briefly interviewed) marvel at how Wiley had perfectly captured every detail of the presidential physiognomy, down to his nose:

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