Writer Allie Biswas on “Michael Jackson: On the Wall” at the National Portrait Gallery [posted 10/18/18]

“One of the show’s revelations is how knowledgeable Jackson was about art.”

“Michael Jackson: On the Wall”
through October 21, 2018 ***CLOSING SOON***
National Portrait Gallery

Andy Warhol, Michael Jackson, n.d., black-and-white photograph. Copyright © 2018 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by DACS, London.

Michael Jackson has always been important to me, so I was curious to see the show at the National Portrait Gallery. A lot of people can be described as having star quality, but Jackson was a one-off. As the exhibition’s curator has said, you can’t repeat this formula.

In addition to his music, I’ve always loved Jackson’s body. It was slender and long and elegant, a body that moved fluently and looked great in clothes. Even when he was standing completely still, statue-like, as was often part of his stage routine, he was mesmerizing. How many people are interesting to look at when they’re not doing anything at all?

You expect a Michael Jackson exhibition to be based on costumes and memorabilia, but the NPG show isn’t about him in that way. Instead, it looks at the impact that Jackson has had on artists. It’s a novel starting point. Jackson’s influence on music and fashion and choreography is already well known, but the role he played in contemporary art is less well documented. Jeff Koons’s porcelain sculpture of Jackson and his chimpanzee from the late ’80s may be familiar, but what about other artworks?

As it turns out, there are many. Of the 48 artists in the show, including Rita Ackerman, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Michael Craig-Martin, Isa Genzken, Keith Haring, Rashid Johnson, Lorraine O’Grady and Jordan Wolfson, each found in Jackson a source of inspiration.

One room of the exhibition is dedicated to Jackson’s relationship with Andy Warhol. I was familiar with the October 1982 cover of Interview magazine—Warhol’s depiction of a preppy-looking Jackson wearing a blazer and tie—and the portrait Warhol created for the cover of Time’s March 1984 issue marking the release of Thriller. But I wasn’t aware of their longer-term rapport. After Warhol interviewed Jackson about his part in the film The Wiz, in 1977, they met again later that year at Studio 54. It turns out that Michael went there quite a lot. Can you imagine  Michael Jackson clubbing? Warhol mentions Jackson more than two dozen times in his Diaries. And the admiration was mutual: a Warhol “fright wig” self-portrait appears in the video for Jackson’s 1994 single Scream.”

Many of the pieces in the show incorporate images of Jackson that were published in the media. Hank Willis Thomas’s, for instance, Time Can Be a Villain or a Friend (1984/2009), for instance, appropriates a picture, published in a 1984 issue of Ebony, that imagines how Jackson might look in the year 2000. It’s an instance of how integral Jackson’s appearance was to the public perception of him, but also—when one compares the image in Ebony, a magazine about African-American culture, to how Jackson really looked 15 years later—how blackness came to have a neutral meaning to him. That’s interesting, especially in connection to his fluid identity overall.

One of the show’s revelations is how knowledgeable Jackson was about art. The exhibition includes Kehinde Wiley’s painting of Jackson based on Peter Paul Reubens’s Phillip II on Horseback. Jackson commissioned the portrait after seeing Wiley’s retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, suggesting that he reference the Rubens. It made me recall the 1982 Interview feature in which Bob Colacello asks Jackson if he is interested in art and Jackson replies, “When I go on tour and visit museums in Holland, Germany, or England—you know those huge paintings?—I’m just amazed. . . . I can look at a piece of sculpture or a painting and totally lose myself in it.”

There are a few lackluster works here (Maggi Hambling’s portrait is just horrible; Mr. Brainwash’s album artwork doesn’t add anything), but many others are insightful and interesting to look at. Appau Junior Boakye-Yiadom’s installation, P.Y.T. (2009), alludes to Jackson’s dance moves, specifically “the freeze,” in which he balances on his toes: from a bunch of colorful balloons hang a pair of Jackson’s signature black penny loafers. It’s a striking representation of the singer’s relationship to movement.

Catherine Opie’s Bedside Table (2010-11)—one of a series of photographs she shot in Elizabeth Taylor’s Bel-Air home in the last year of the actress’s life—particularly stands out. Taylor kept a photo of Jackson next to her bed, as well as a picture of the two of them together. That comes as a surprise and is strangely poignant. It’s a real testament to their friendship.

The most exciting thing on display, though, isthe only concert footage in the exhibition—a film of Jackson performing in Bucharest in 1992. The day I went, there were about 20 people watching it, all of them glued to the screen. That magic is what people visiting the show really seemed to be looking for.

Allie Biswas is a writer and editor, mainly working on artist interviews. She is the co-editor of an anthology of critical texts relating to the Black Arts Movement, to be published next year.