Above: Napoleon Leading The Army Over The Alps (2005), oil and enamel on canvas; from Wiley’s Rumors of War series inspired by the history of equestrian portraiture.
One of today’s most celebrated artists developed his identity, and his distinct view of the world, while studying at the San Francisco Art Institute. His mentors reflect on the impact he’s left on the school and its students.
Most of us are introduced to the world’s great artists long after their work has become iconic — learning about them in art history classes, or witnessing their infamous pieces in museums, galleries and public spaces. Even modern artists are relatively unknown until they grab a headline. Street artist and activist Shepard Fairey, for example, had a modestly successful career, but captured the nation with his one-word image of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama that delivered a powerful message — “Hope” — and made Fairey a household name.
For those who have the privilege to experience a visionary in the making, there remains a lasting imprint. Kehinde Wiley may be the country’s most talked-about artist since the unveiling of his presidential portrait of former president Barack Obama, which is now drawing crowds at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. Wiley is the first African-American artist to paint a national portrait of the first African-American president, an experience he called, “overwhelming.” Before this very public distinction, however, Wiley spent part of his formative years at the San Francisco Art Institute, graduating with a BFA in 1999 and moving on to receive an MFA from Yale in 2001. Wiley, whose studio is based in Brooklyn, will return to SFAI in May to receive an honorary doctorate and address the graduating class of 2018.
During his time at the Art Institute, Wiley was not only curating his distinct artistic point of view — a lens for modern black Americans set within the frameworks of European masterworks — but also figuring out his personal identity. He wrestled with the same questions most young adults in America do: Who am I? Where did I come from? Where do I belong now? Many of us never figure out the answers, but Wiley was fortunate enough to contend with some of life’s most poignant existential questions while surrounded by other big thinkers, and to learn from a nurturing group of professional artists dedicated to helping young talent succeed in the world.
To get a sense of the mark Wiley left on SFAI, which counts Ansel Adams, Kathryn Bigelow, Angela Davis, Paul Kos and Annie Leibovitz among its alumni, I spoke with two of Wiley’s former professors, Jeremy Morgan and Dewey Crumpler, who have been teaching at the college since the 1980s. It’s been two decades since Wiley spent hours consulting with his mentors, but his teachers remember the time distinctly, and look to Wiley’s success today not as a mark of pride for themselves, but as a sign of hope for the future.
“I’d say he was a combination of a quiet ambition,” recalls Morgan, an associate professor of painting, who first met young Wiley in 1995. The Oxford and Royal Academy- trained Harkness fellow, whose own work focuses on landscapes and the concept of time and space, mentored the student in much of the same discipline. He quickly noticed Wiley’s unique vision. “At that time, I was very interested in the European landscape tradition—dark and brooding—and I felt an affinity to his work, because even though his figures weren’t European, that idea of nature reflecting psychological location as well as a physical space resonated with me. That’s what I remember talking to him about most, how people of different cultures relate to land. The art he was making related to those possibilities.”
Wiley grew up in Los Angeles, gravitating to art studies at a very young age. Central to his pursuit of an artist’s career was his questioning of his roots. At the age of 20, Wiley traveled to Nigeria to meet his father, an experience that informed the work he wanted to create, and the audience he hoped to represent. Wiley’s paintings feature modern African-Americans, everyday models he selects while walking down the street, or meeting strangers in public places, from Senegal to the Bronx. He often calls his work “The World Stage.”
Wiley’s larger-than-life portraits dominate his paintings’ landscape, often a vivid, naturalistic pattern of vines, flowers, or colors and shapes that ebb and flow like the wind, water or sunlight. Many of his paintings are positioned after Old Masters paintings, the types that hang in palaces, state houses, and oligarchs’ estates the world over. Casting African-Americans in these dignified poses does more than just shift the narrative of who can inhabit the subject of fine art; it subverts the very notion of who is projected to have power in the world. Early in his career, Wiley focused on black men from Harlem, and the South Central Los Angeles neighborhood where he grew up. In these paintings, men sporting loose jeans and backwards baseball caps, shirtless and bearing tattoos, inhabit classic Renaissance poses (lounging on a chaise, riding a war horse, or stretching a hand out to the heavens).
Some of Wiley’s most notorious work is also his most overtly political, such as his 2008 Lamentation Over the Dead Christ, which interprets Andrea Mantegna’s 15th-century portrait of a post-Crucifixion Jesus surrounded by mourners, with a young black man posed in the same posthumous pose, except that he’s alone — still wearing his street clothes, and encircled with tangled, black vines. The piece was finished before Black Lives Matter became a political movement, but the commentary is the same. In 2012, Wiley provoked controversy for his Judith and Holofernes, which interpreted Giovanni Baglione’s 1609 painting, which references an Old Testament story of a widow who liberates her city by beheading their oppressor while he sleeps. In Wiley’s painting, the protagonist is a black woman wearing a Givenchy dress and a crown of hair, a righteous and defiant look on her face. She holds a sword in one hand, a white woman’s head in the other.
“If he had never painted the presidential portrait, he’s already made history,” says Crumpler, an associate professor of painting and faculty trustee at SFAI. “He is among those artists, not just African-American artists, for whom you can’t tell an American painting story without him being in it. You can’t tell a story that doesn’t include women and people of color any longer. And that’s the story that I wish I had as a young person, and as a young artist, been able to hear. The world has shifted a bit, and Kehinde is a part of that shifting mechanism, and for that I am inspired.”
Crumpler’s work is featured in the permanent collections of the Oakland Art Museum, The Triton Art Museum in Santa Clara, and the California African American Museum in Los Angeles. He has painted countless murals throughout the Bay Area, and started teaching at SFAI in 1989. When Wiley arrived six years later, the art world — and culture itself — was in flux.
“The energy of the school in the 1990s was, I think, in a transitional mode,” Crumpler observes. “The ways of making and thinking about art began to operate in a more multicentered direction. Plus, the 1980s had ushered in multiculturalism in a really powerful way coming out of the late ’70s. So Kehinde’s generation stepped into a process of dynamic change.”
Crumpler was struck not only by Wiley’s inquisitive nature and commitment to his work, but the kind of work he was intent to create: Art about and for black people.
“This was was not something that was really embraced during my generation or even (in the ’90s),” Crumpler says. “Frequently, when I was a student, we were asked, Do you want to be an artist, or do you want to be a black artist? I asked Kehinde the same question, and he looked at me like, You must be crazy. He didn’t have any limitations to his interests. And that I encouraged. Whatever is in the world belongs to you — that was my point. However you step into it, if you are honest and you take it seriously, it can yield something for you.”
Wiley didn’t invent a new art form, but rather, he demanded that his perspective, a previously quieted one, be seen. His work puts African-Americans on the global stage, cast in images typically reserved for royalty, or people in power, or people of influence (namely, white). It takes a certain kind of talent and bravado to execute an artistic mission that pushes up against the status quo. And Wiley’s teachers saw that in him from the start.
“There was this sort of volition in him. It was almost like a calling,” Morgan says. “Not to get too romantic, but it was clear: This guy is serious. His success is an affirmation for the Institute, certainly. It’s a measure that hopefully what we’re doing is functioning.”
In a statement about his upcoming honor, Wiley echoed his professors’ statements about the critical role art schools play in our culture and society.
“Art schools empower young people, giving a sense of art history as well as the tools to question those histories and reenvision our culture,” he said of the next generation of artists. “I hope my story and work will inspire them to claim the full capacities of their education for powerful communication and social change.”
The significance of black people’s gaining recognition as great contemporary painters, from Wiley to Amy Sherald, who painted Michelle Obama’s portrait, cannot be overstated.
“It means that the world changes, and forces change the world,” Crumpler says. “Part of the change which made it possible for Kehinde to step into the world on his terms, from the point of view of expressing his aesthetic desires, is the development of globalism and how important it is that nations have a sense of eclecticism, and that they are not closed as they were in the 20th century, when the only places in the world that counted were Europe and the United States.”
Wiley emerged, as his generation did, right at the beginning of that change, and he didn’t take it for granted. His platform — which has grown to Hollywood representation and opportunities to direct projects and license his work to a larger audience — gives visibility to a narrative still sadly underrepresented in all art forms. Says Crumpler: “He took seriously the idea of developing himself to the highest degree possible so that he could step into the dynamic world that he’s helped to create. And he has.”