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amy sherald makes me proud

September 16, 2019
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The party that opened painter Amy Sherald’s first big solo New York exhibit, called “the heart of the matter…”, took place last week on a warm evening at Hauser & Wirth Gallery in Chelsea. And even though it was just paintings on the walls of an otherwise blank white space, the room was electrified. When Sherald sauntered in wearing an elegant black and white jacket and jumpsuit there was an audible gasp from the crowd, and the gravity in the room seemed to shift toward her. That can happen when real stars enter a room and Amy Sherald is now a real star.

Sherald is one of the great portraitists of her time but she became a household name in Black America, after she painted Michelle Obama’s official portrait for the National Portrait Gallery. Because of that, the exhibit’s opening was an event, packed with the line to get in stretching down the block. It seemed clear that a lot of folks in attendance had rarely been to art openings, and there was a palpable excitement in the air. Sherald is a sister who seems like someone you’d have fun hanging out with — have you seen the picture of her smoking a little something something with Tupac? — and she’s doing important things in an exciting field with paintings that celebrate Blackness. Thanks to all of that — and to the light refracted onto her from Michelle Obama’s glorious halo — Sherald has ascended to the level of being one of those Black folks who make us proud. She is now someone Black folks want to succeed because her success is a victory for us all.

(L-R) the author, Amy Sherald and Bryant Gumbel, photographed at Hauser & Wirth, Chelsea, New York, September 2019. (photo: Ronnie Wright)

The work in Sherald’s new show is more of her classic portraiture. In many of the pieces a Black figure stands still in the middle of the painting, seeming poised, placid, and calm. The overall effect on me as a viewer is calming. I feel myself pulled into a meditation of sorts. I think these are Black people who know about self-care. And, critically, they are not performing. Their expressions are generally nonplussed and impassive, not angry, not joyful, just neutral. To me Sherald’s closest analog as a painter is Barkley Hendricks who also gave us realistic portraits of Black people, standing proudly; but where Hendricks’s subjects are proud, bodacious, and badass — and thus performing Black cool — Sherald’s subjects feel like they have nothing to prove. This strikes me as very modern. Sherald’s paintings come at a time when the truly revolutionary and empowering gesture is to not feel as though there is anything to prove to anybody.

For many Black painters, the work can be a place to speak back to white supremacy and racism — for overt examples, think of Jacob Lawrence’s Great Migration series or Kara Walker’s horrific images from slavery. For other Black painters, their work is a place to depict Black joy — think of Romare Bearden’s glorious paintings of raucous Harlem scenes, or Kehinde Wiley’s depictions of Black pride. I love and respect both of those choices. Sherald, to my eye, is doing neither. Her subjects are just being. Of course I believe that everything Black people do is politicized and shaped by race and racism, and so much of the modern Black painterly gesture is inspired by growing up going to museums and rarely seeing Black faces inside the frames. So many Black painters seem to be using their studios to paint us into the museums and into art history — and I love that. But I also love Sherald’s work where there may be a moment of not dealing with racism, but instead a moment of just being. And that’s exciting because dealing with racism is fucking exhausting.

Amy Sherald, “The girl next door” (2019); oil on canvas, 137.2×109.2×6.4cm / 54x43x 2 1/2in; Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth (photo: Joseph Hyde)

The colors in Sherald’s work present a fascinating dichotomy. She uses one specific flat, ashen dark gray to depict the Black skin of all of her subjects, putting aside the vibrant variety of Black skin. But the rest of her paintings give us bright colors that pop. In the new show, a woman wears a dress with brightly colored dots or a man sits on a giant green scaffold or a pair of couples at the beach stand beside a red and white striped umbrella. It’s like these Black people have dull-colored skin yet they live in a boldly colored universe as if the world around them is popping while they are at peace.

Sherald herself is definitely one of those people about whom you’d say that the success couldn’t have happened to a more deserving person. She was a respected painter before Michelle Obama called, but not a star. In her early 30s, she was painting seriously when her career was derailed by a diagnosis of congestive heart failure, and then with having to care for dying relatives. In 2012, at the age of 39, she got a new heart and began moving back to painting. Now she’s got a waiting list of commissions that she told me is longer than her expected life span. I feel pride in Sherald knowing how much she has gone through to get to where she is in life; I feel pride looking at the Black folks in her paintings; and I feel pride knowing this Black woman is helping to inspire a new generation of Black painters who will not grow up saying, “Hey, where are the paintings with Black people in them?” 

The future of Black art was probably standing in line, waiting to see Sherald’s show, and one day I’ll be standing in line waiting to see their show.