Amy Sherald’s New Works Depict Everyday Black Americans In ‘An Opportunity To Reclaim Time’
By Natasha Gural
Amy Sherald elegantly and gallantly walked into America’s collective consciousness when she took the stage alongside Michelle Obama to unveil her monumental portrait of the nation’s first Black First Lady. Sherald exuded confidence, emerging as a towering figure alongside the woman whose presence, power, and poise always complemented, if not rivaled, that of her legendary husband.
The joy that emanated from Sherald on February 12, 2018, at the National Portrait Gallery was palpable. A creative force to be reckoned with, few folks outside of the art world knew Sherald’s work or her story, including how the athletic young woman underwent a heart transplant after collapsing at a pharmacy in 2012, when her heart was pumping just 5 percent of available blood.
Observing Sherald via Zoom on March 18 for an intimate virtual walkthrough of Hauser & Wirth’s Downtown Arts District complex in Los Angeles, to preview her first solo West Coast exhibition debuting new paintings, was an awe-inspiring look through her precise and particular lens. “Amy Sherald. The Great American Fact”, which opens to the public on Saturday, March 20, and will be on view through June 6, explores the process and purpose of her latest work, compelling the viewer to reexamine the American experience.
The commissioned portrait was a departure for Sherald, who regards herself as a painter rather than a portraitist, and looks to everyday folks for inspiration in her new works. Entering the public eye was a departure for the unpresuming artist who swept major headlines again last week with news that her portrait of Breonna Taylor will be jointly acquired by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., and the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky. Neither the Obama portrait nor the Taylor portrait will be on display at Hauser & Wirth.
“I’m pretty grounded and not very impressed (with) myself in general,” Sherald told Franklin Sirmans, director of the Pérez Art Museum Miami, who joined via Zoom for an hour-long live conversation. “But I think the biggest thing that I had to learn how to say is ‘no’. And because there were so many things that I was being asked to do, I was being pulled out of my studio. … I need to be in my studio so that I can make the work, you know, but yeah, I’m not very easily impressed with myself, so I think that helps a little bit of low self esteem.”
Sirmans quickly interjected, with humor and hard-earned praise, to shift her narrative toward her immense accomplishments and the message surrounding her newest works.
“Modesty, modesty, modesty. Yeah, beautiful modesty,” Sirmans declared, subverting Sherald’s self-deprecating humility. “First and foremost, we touch upon the trials and tribulations of the last year, but within that you’ve managed to keep on producing, and this is very different in specific production right here.”
Turning our gaze to the gripping portrait of Taylor, a 26-year-old medical worker who was murdered in her bed on March 13, 2020, by Louisville police officers who broke into the apartment, Sirmans implored Sherald to “Tell us how this painting came into being.”
Sherald was asked to paint Taylor for the cover of “Vanity Fair”’s September 2020 special edition focused on activism and guest edited by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a former national correspondent for “The Atlantic” and author of “The Beautiful Struggle”, “Between the World and Me”, “We Were Eight Years in Power”, and “The Water Dancer”.
“As usual, I got the email and I was a little bit wary about doing it because at that time and it was just like a rush for, you know, these magazines, corporations, and businesses to be in touch with, artists, creative-like people, because what was happening in that moment,” Sherald said frankly. “But then when I found out that Ta-Nehisi Coates was going to be the guest editor, I knew that they were making the right decisions when it came to making this particular issue.”
The mesmerizing shades of Taylor’s dress and the background evoke an outcry of emotion and mood that forces us to look deep into the victim’s eyes in search of justice and empowerment. Just as she “spent a lot of time mixing to get it the right color” for the background of the Obama portrait, Sherald opted to paint Taylor’s dress blue even though the model wore a green one. “Always looking for the color that’s in between the color that we already know, you know,” Sherald said of the first of her two internationally celebrated commissions.
“It’s the first time where I didn’t have the model there to photograph,” Sherald said of Taylor. “So the first thing I did was just try to find as many images of her that I could and I reached out to her mother, Miss Palmer, to see what she could send me (to) get a sense of her style, a sense of her energy, and then I partnered with a Black designer in Atlanta, who sent me some dresses, and she actually made a dress.”
Sherald found a model who resembled Taylor and photographed her in the green dress.
“I spent a lot of time thinking about what colors should be a part of this piece and what colors would represent her and allow us to focus our attention on her,” Sherald said.
The folks depicted in the Hauser & Wirth exhibition aren’t famous. They speak to the American experience, the Black experience, the collective experience of all folks.
“I’m thinking about embracing my own Americanism and what that journey has been like for the past 10 years,” Sherald said. “These images are just everyday moments, everyday American moments, everyday Americans.”
Literary references are woven into the narratives of Sherald’s new works, with names of the paintings borrowed from quotes from a wide array of authors that resonate with her. The title of the exhibition is derived from American author, educator, sociologist, speaker, and Black liberation activist Anna Julia Haywood Cooper’s 1892 essay that said Black people “are the great American fact; the one objective reality on which scholars sharpened their wits, and at which orators and statesmen fired their eloquence.”
Sherald depicts her exploration of “public Blackness” with sitters and subjects in leisure, at peace in their daily lives, so they’re not bound to the social strife that surrounds every Black Americans. Every playful outfit is a twist on something she’s seen or sparks her creativity. Every detail — from a house that compelled her to stop and ask the owner for permission to depict, to a vintage pickup truck — is curated to build the simple, yet layered, scene for her story of the folks she brings to life. Her subjects command close attention, with their intense expressions and Sherald’s use of grisaille to create a singular skin color.
To be an American artist is “an opportunity to offer work to the art historical narrative, that’s a critique,” said Sherald. “It’s an opportunity to reclaim time.”
“If we are going to believe in this American experiment, then when we (must) think about our Americanness,” Sherald said, referencing her new painting of a Black woman wearing a Barbie T-shirt. “When we think about an American girl, many different kinds of women should come into our imagination. … Not just Black women, Asian-American, Mexican-American .. we’re all a part of this pot.”
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Natasha Gural is a multiple award-winning journalist, writer, and editor with 30 years of editorial experience, including executive roles at The Associated Press, Dow Jones, and Markets Media. A student of literature, art history, and studio art, Natasha has learned from leading scholars at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Oxford University, Clark University, and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Natasha has been writing about art since 2002, for multiple publications, including The Associated Press and Forbes. She has traveled extensively to cover major art fairs and events, interviewing a wide array of world-renowned and emerging artists, as well as curators, art historians, collectors, scholars, and aesthetes. Her last contact with the global art world was covering TEFAF Maastricht in 2020. Natasha enjoys observing every level of the creative process, from inception to installation, in studios, galleries, and various spaces. Passionate about the art world, Natasha embraces every opportunity to engage key players to better understand and explain the changing dynamic. She seeks to accurately portray the art ecosystem in an ongoing process that immerses her in the art world. A first-generation American, Natasha was raised bilingual and has always been drawn to the innovators, rebels, and outsiders who break down boundaries and strive to broaden the continuum of art history. Her goal is always to fairly and accurately represent the accomplishments of artists in an effort to collectively celebrate the arts.
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