The Most Influential Living African American Artists

Artsy Editors
Feb 25, 2019 8:24PM

In 1926, the historian Carter G. Woodson instituted Negro History Week. The second-ever African American recipient of a Ph.D. from Harvard (after W.E.B. DuBois), Woodson wanted to acknowledge the vibrant cultural achievements of African American individuals that were rippling through the country. At the time, Harlem was brimming with poets such as Langston Hughes and Claude McKay, while Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller were developing Chicago’s jazz scene. In 1976, President Gerald Ford officially transformed Woodson’s initiative into the month-long celebration we honor to this day: Black History Month.

While it’s impossible to capture the full impact of black artists on art history, we asked prominent art historians and curators reflect on 20 living African American artists who are making a mark on painting, photography, performance, and sculpture. Below, with the artists listed alphabetically, are their reflections.

Mark Bradford

B. 1961, Los Angeles. Lives and works in Los Angeles.


From Andrea Karnes, Senior Curator, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth:

Mark Bradford has turned his life experiences into art that, while largely abstract, embeds messages of community, awareness, and social justice. Kingdom Day (2010), in the collection of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, for example, incises a map-like network into a deconstructed and collaged billboard advertising the 1992 Los Angeles Kingdom Day Parade. This absorbing composition celebrates the first time a multi-ethnic committee organized the parade, an annual event honoring Martin Luther King Jr. and his commitment to non-violent change. Yet through its raw and stratified surface, the painting also evokes the brutal violence of the 1992 riots that followed the acquittal of the police officers involved in the Rodney King beating. Like much of Bradford’s art, Kingdom Day offers a multi-layered and nuanced view of black history and the dynamics of urban life.

Nick Cave

B. 1959, Fulton, Missouri. Lives and works in Chicago.

Nick Cave’s multifaceted performance, installation, and sculptural practice has crafted formations of black identity and community in past and present adverse times. “Nick Cave: Rescue,” an exhibition this past year at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts that was organized by curator of contemporary art Jodi Throckmorton, illuminated the dialectics of privilege and servitude surrounding such formations. With sitting dog figurines enthroned on a chaise lounge and barrel chairs throughout the American art collection, Cave upended static relationships of power. Found materials gleamed next to Thomas Eakins’s anatomical studies of dogs, which presided over a salon-style installation including Winslow Homer’s Fox Hunt (1893) and queried works of “oriental fantasy.” While walking through the galleries with Cave, multilayered conversations among the works accumulated, testifying to his sculptural ability to shape urgent communal dialogue.

Charles Gaines

B. 1944, Charleston, South Carolina. Lives and works in Los Angeles.


From Naima J. Keith, Deputy Director of Exhibitions and Programs, California African American Museum:

I had the pleasure of curating Charles Gaines’s critically acclaimed 2014 exhibition “Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974–1989.” It was the first museum survey of his early work; his career now spans four decades. The show included rare and never-before-seen works, some of which were presumed lost. It opened at the Studio Museum in Harlem and later traveled to the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.

As a native Angeleno, I had long admired Gaines’s position as both a leading practitioner of Conceptualism and an influential educator at the California Institute of the Arts. Beginning in the 1970s, he was one of the few African American Conceptual artists to focus on abstraction and aesthetics in order to consider perception, objectivity, and relationships. Working serially in progressive and densely layered bodies of works, Gaines examines the interplay between objectivity and interpretation, the systematic and the poetic. His groundbreaking work serves as a critical bridge between the first-generation Conceptualists of the 1960s and ’70s and those artists of later generations considering the limits of subjectivity and language.

His work and our friendship have had a profound impact on me—both personally and professionally—and I am thrilled to see that his art continues to resonate with new and more diverse audiences internationally.

Theaster Gates

B. 1973, Chicago. Lives and works in Chicago.

Theaster Gates
Vessel, 2020
White Cube
Theaster Gates
Convex Concave, 2017
Heather James Fine Art

From Josef Helfenstein, Director, Kunstmuseum Basel:

The creative practice of Theaster Gates includes urban interventions, performance, and pottery-making. His work aims to bridge the gulf between art and society; establish cultural communities; and initiate social, political, and urban change.

For Gates’s 2018 show at Kunstmuseum Basel, the artist engaged with our encyclopedic museum and its extensive collection—we cover seven centuries of Western (predominantly European and North American) art history. Gates recontextualized artworks and artists that range from Joseph Beuys to Old Master paintings of Madonnas. Expanding the notion of a “museum” or a “public collection,” he challenged our museological practices and principles by transforming several museum spaces into places of production (rather than sites for contemplation or social gathering).

Gates set up a temporary sound studio and a printing workshop. Inside and outside the institution, he created rehearsal and performance spaces for musicians. His own band, The Black Monks of Mississippi, used them, as did local musicians from the nearby jazz school, and gospel choir singers from the local cathedral. The cathedral, a thousand-year-old building, became a part of the project when Gates gave a musical sermon on a Sunday evening.

Gates wanted to connect art and society and use the museum as a platform for social intervention. Meanwhile, he hung posters throughout the city of Basel, based on an extensive archive of fashion photographs featuring black women—that’s how the show got its title, “Black Madonna.” For the Kunstmuseum, this exhibition was an important project that led us to question and reactivate our own core values, working methods, and history.

Sam Gilliam

B. 1933, Tupelo, Mississippi. Lives and works in Washington, D.C.

Sam Gilliam
Untitled, 2020
David Kordansky Gallery
Sam Gilliam
Untitled, 2018
David Kordansky Gallery

From Carrie Dedon, Assistant Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art, Seattle Art Museum:

Sam Gilliam’s long and distinguished career is defined by constant experimentation. He’s pushed the envelope on abstraction and the medium of painting itself. When he moved to Washington, D.C., in 1962, Gilliam diverged the Color Field Painting of the day as he innovated not just with paint and color, but with the materiality of the artwork’s surface. He began to pour paint directly onto unstretched canvases, folding or crumpling them while the paint was still wet, and leaving them to dry on the studio floor. The creases allowed the paint to pool, forming lines and patterns determined by the natural qualities of the materials—the pliability of canvas, the fluidity of paint—and by an element of chance.

The resulting work blurs the line between painted image and three-dimensional object—an effect that was heightened when, in the 1960s, Gilliam took the radical step of draping his canvases on the wall, where they bunched and billowed like tapestries. The painted canvas radically subverts the academic distinctions between the sculptural, environmental, and architectural realms. Gilliam continues to experiment with his work—in the beveled edges of his stretched canvases; in the dense, stucco-like surfaces of the “Black” and “White” paintings; in the insertion of collage elements onto canvas, and in many other ways. He’s opened the door for new conversations about the possibilities of abstract painting.

David Hammons

B. 1943, Springfield, Illinois. Lives and works in New York.

From Elena Filipovic, Director and Chief Curator, Kunsthalle Basel:

Anything written on David Hammons must, perforce, begin with an admission of doubt. Because Hammons, an artist best known to the art world for his refusal to participate in its rites and rules, has made a life work of tactical evasion. Rumours, myth and hearsay about him abound—often, naturally, contradictory. Perhaps fittingly so, since some of his most significant works—Bliz-aard Ball Sale [a 1983 performance in which he sold snowballs on a New York City sidewalk] prime among them—have been unabashedly ephemeral, evanescent and unannounced. How, then, could one possibly speak of his work conclusively or factually? (Excerpt taken from David Hammons: Bliz-aard Ball Sale, 2017, with the curator’s permission.)

Because Hammons knows that to be black in an art world as white as the walls of its museums, and in an America where privilege and presence and whiteness go hand in hand, is to realize that visibility is something to mess with, to disavow. […] From the late 1960s to the present, Hammons has powdered his drawings with Harlem dirt; attached deep-fried chicken wings by fish hooks to a friend’s discarded Persian rug or to cheap costume jewelry; covered stones with “nappy” hair and given them razor-cut hairstyles; lined telephone poles holding up impossibly high basketball hoops with thousands of bottle caps; hung barbecued ribs from wall sculptures made from greasy paper bags; and left upturned empty wine bottles on the branches of trees in vacant Harlem lots. (Excerpt taken from The Artist as Curator: An Anthology, 2017, with the curator’s permission.)

Rashid Johnson

B. 1977, Chicago. Lives and works in New York.

Rashid Johnson
Untitled Stranger, 2017
Hauser & Wirth
Rashid Johnson
Untitled Bust, 2019
Hauser & Wirth

Rashid Johnson’s works inspire slowly unfolding viewer experiences and express personal and complex histories through objects and mark-making, something that was palpable in his 2017 exhibition “Rashid Johnson: Hail We Now Sing Joy” at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. Antoine’s Organ (2016), for example, is a massive sculpture with a network of live potted plants, books, lights, videos, Persian rugs, and mounds of shea butter built up around an upright piano at its core. Its open, modernist, gridlike framework provides accessibility, while its contents imply attention, responsibility, and care.

Johnson’s diasporic matrix evokes ideas about time and history. It’s tactile and textural, deeply personal, and profoundly relevant. The work expands a network of elements related to African and African American identity and history, inspiring an opportunity to contemplate the past in the present moment. Johnson’s art inspires slow, measured reflections from the audience. This aspect of his oeuvre has always resonated with me, one of many important forces offered up in his penetrating body of work—which, among other major themes, addresses art history, literature, cultural identities, and materiality.

From Erin Dziedzic, Director of Curatorial Affairs, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art:

Glenn Ligon

B. 1960, New York. Lives and works in New York.

Glenn Ligon
Aftermath, 2020
Hauser & Wirth
Glenn Ligon
Study for Negro Sunshine II, #36, 2011
Kavi Gupta

From Al Miner, Associate Professor and Founding Director/Chief Curator, Maria & Alberto de la Cruz Art Gallery, Georgetown University:

Glenn Ligon tackles the legacy and endurance of American racism head-on and conveys the murky complexity of African American experience. When Ligon obscures the context of appropriated imagery, as in the darkened background of Grey Hands #2 (currently on view at Georgetown University)—which is from a series of silkscreened paintings depicting the Million Man March—or the legibility of borrowed text, he offers an apt metaphor for what he describes as the “invisibility and simultaneous hypervisibility of black people in America.”

This push-pull is especially evident in his text-based works that feature a delicate balance of prose and politics. To explore a peculiar phrase penned by Gertrude Stein in 1909, “negro sunshine,” Ligon painted the front of a white neon black (Warm Broad Glow, 2005); he also encrusted black oil paint in seductively shimmering coal dust against a white ground to produce his “Study for Negro Sunshine” series.

Ligon has revisited this and other literary quotes in multiple media over the course of his career. Since the late 1990s, he has borrowed text from a 1953 James Baldwin essay, resulting in nearly 200 works to date (the “Stranger” and “Untitled” series). Since 2005, Ligon has created a series of neons that defamiliarize the word “America” by treating it as an object. This sustained engagement affords renewed relevance to singular points of reference as context shifts across time.

Kerry James Marshall

B. 1955, Birmingham, Alabama. Lives and works in Chicago.

From Ian Alteveer, Aaron I. Fleischman Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art:

One of the great pleasures of working on the 2016 exhibition “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry” was visiting the artist’s Chicago studio with my co-curators Helen Molesworth and Dieter Roelstraete. One of these frequent trips entailed a ride down to Bronzeville in the autumn of 2014 to view the paintings that Marshall was finishing for his forthcoming exhibition with David Zwirner in London. Entering his workspace that day, the three of us gasped upon seeing his Untitled (Studio) (2014). It was near completion and resplendent on a large easel against the far wall. We noted immediately how vitally important this work was to the artist’s practice as a whole: both to his reverence for and revision of Old Master paintings, and to his desire to depict the lives of people of color (subjects all too rarely seen on museum walls).

The painting also reminded me of an episode Marshall often recounts. After seventh grade, he was taking a summer course at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, and he visited the studio of his childhood idol, Charles White. It was the first time Marshall had seen an artist’s workspace in person—it was full of unfinished works, paint, and charcoal, as well as endless creative possibilities. He credits that moment as the time he first envisioned himself becoming an artist. Untitled (Studio) is, in part, about that discovery of a black artist’s atelier: a distinguished place of labor where an allegorical catalogue of the many modes of artmaking are on display. The painting is not only a majestic ode to the occupation of the artist, but also a paean to the history and endless potential of the medium.

Senga Nengudi

B. 1943, Chicago. Lives and works in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

From Koyo Kouoh, Founding Artistic Director, RAW Material Company:

Senga Nengudi’s practice has been pivotal in expanding the lexicon of Conceptual art, giving new forms to feminist thought, and navigating ways for African American artists to reclaim their blackness. Her work, emerging in Los Angeles in the 1970s, has often employed materials imbued with geopolitical charge. Throughout her practice, Nengudi reconsiders the social and economic structures that create them.

To make her sculpture R.S.V.P. XI (1977/2004), for example, Nengudi used mass-produced materials: nylons, a tire inner tube, and sand. Their shapes suggest human organs, while their hues connote racial tones. Beyond the work’s formal complexity and pioneering Postminimalist aesthetic, Nengudi chose materials related to violent histories. R.S.V.P. XI unites the global reach of these materials with the forms of denatured human bodies. The work connects gendered and racialized bodies with common consumer goods. For the “R.S.V.P.” series and many other pieces, Nengudi collaborated with dancer Maren Hassinger, who used performance to activate the work.

Nengudi is also a committed educator: She frequently takes her pieces outside the gallery setting, using sculpture and movement to give overlooked environments a new symbolic force. Nengudi is a pioneer of her generation, and recent reiterations of her works underscore the continued relevance and importance of her practice.

Howardena Pindell

B. 1943, Philadelphia. Lives and works in New York.

Howardena Pindell
Songlines: Labyrinth (Versailles), 2017
Victoria Miro

From Naomi Beckwith, Manilow Senior Curator, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago:

Since the 1960s, Howardena Pindell has used unconventional materials such as glitter, talcum powder, and perfume to stretch the boundaries of the rigid custom of the rectangular canvas painting. She has also infused her work with traces of her labor, obsessively affixing dots of pigment and hole-punched paper circles. Despite the effort exerted as she creates these paintings, Pindell’s rich colors and unusual materials give the finished works a sumptuous and ethereal quality.

In 1967, Pindell was the only African American to receive an MFA from Yale’s prestigious painting department. Moving to New York City after graduation, she diligently submitted her portfolio to galleries, eliciting positive responses only to have her work rejected when she was interviewed and “revealed” to be a black woman. As a woman and an African American, Pindell was doubly subjected to a scopic gaze. In her work, she utilizes narrative and performance in the service of understanding her social condition, insisting that the social violence against her black body is coupled inextricably with her subjugation as a woman. An ardent feminist and founding member of the women’s cooperative A.I.R. Gallery, Pindell has organized against racism and advocated for inclusive policies in the art world.

From her earliest works, Pindell has refuted the societal faith in seeing or the visual encounter, posing this question: If a person is socially constructed as a gendered or raced subject, could that invented subject be deconstructed, reconstructed, or recontextualized as an aestheticized object? Pindell’s work deprivileges the very system of seeing, and disrupts our models of how seeing, knowledge, and power operate. In her 1980s “Memory” and “Autobiography” series, she asserts that her personal experiences were neither singular nor particular to her historical moment and condition. Physical pain, existential crises, a sense of uprootedness as a descendant of enslaved people—these are collective memories and collective traumas. Pindell’s forms are to be taken literally as a chronicle of shared experiences.


B. 1955, Newark, New Jersey. Lives and works in Chicago.

From Christopher Y. Lew, Nancy and Fred Poses Curator, Whitney Museum of American Art:

It’s never what you expect—Pope.L’s performances, installations, drawings, and paintings often play in the edge of the absurd to tackle weighty issues in society. In one particular instance, I encountered his work in a restaurant bathroom as a voice from overhead, emanating from the ceiling and intoning that “ignorance is a virtue.” Pope.L’s Whispering Campaign (2016–17) for Documenta 14 wove itself into the fabric of Kassel and Athens with bits of language seeping from air vents, jerry-rigged PA systems, and live performers strolling the streets. His art meets us where it is needed, mixed with the everyday and without separation from life.

Faith Ringgold

B. 1930, New York. Lives and works in La Jolla, California, and Englewood, New Jersey.

From Vida L. Brown, Visual Arts Curator and Program Manager, California African American Museum:

Grounded and well-spoken at the age of 88, Faith Ringgold has an internal flame that is yet to be extinguished. As an artist, activist, author, and educator, Ringgold tells stories via various genres. She captures and displays the history of African Americans who continue to thrive despite years of disparaging characterizations, deplorable physical treatment, and ignored civil rights.

The 1960s was a notable period in Ringgold’s art career. During that time, she commenced painting the “American People Series” (1963–67), which illustrated the Civil Rights Movement from a woman’s perspective. Over the decades, Ringgold continues to demonstrate the marginalization of women of color. Yet her relentless nature also lets viewers rejoice in the documentation of African American history. More importantly, Ringgold continues to pave the way for women artists. Her art is a voice that will not be silenced.

Betye Saar

B. 1926, Los Angeles. Lives and works in Los Angeles.

Betye Saar
Legends in Blue, 2020
Roberts Projects
Betye Saar
The Trickster, 1994
Roberts Projects

From Elvira Dyangani Ose, Director, The Showroom, London:

Betye Saar has contributed significantly to black aesthetics, from the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and ’70s through today. Her trajectory has been marked by a poetic and incisive sense of re-appropriation and agency. Political gesture is visible in all her assemblages. As she transforms everyday objects into artworks, she advocates profound shifts in economic, political, and cultural institutions. Ultimately, she hopes to instigate social change. That strong activist dimension in Saar’s work, her extraordinary freedom to articulate and claim ownership, her celebratory use of ritual and spiritual icons in the production of new epistemologies, and her pioneering approach to so-called black feminist thought are some of the fundamental aspects of an extraordinary oeuvre.

Lorna Simpson

B. 1960, New York. Lives and works in New York.

From Heidi Zuckerman, Nancy and Bob Magoon CEO and Director, Aspen Art Museum:

Lorna Simpson is, without classification, one of the most outstanding humans I have ever encountered. Her extraordinary, early success led me to study her work while I was still an undergraduate (even though she’s not substantially older than I am). So I knew of her practice long before I had the honor of meeting her—and I admit to being intimidated at first! When I joined Simpson in Paris for the opening of her solo show at the Jeu de Paume in 2013, we spent time shopping for clothes and shoes. Our friendship broadened—as did my admiration for her ability to be “both/and,” instead of “either/or.”

In 2012, I invited Simpson to do a residency in Aspen. She made an entirely new body of work and an exhibition (which went on view in 2013) that focused on works on paper that, though essential to her practice, were distinctive and discrete. The “Photo Collage” series (2013–18) and the “Ebony” collage series (2013) explored the complex relationship between photographic archives and processes of self-fashioning. As in Simpson’s earlier works, these new drawings and collages took the African American woman as a point of departure. They continued her long-standing examination of the ways that gender and culture shape experience in our contemporary multiracial society.

In Aspen, we not only hung out together, but also made an extraordinary book. Time to think, be, talk, listen, and be heard and seen is the greatest gift. Simpson and I have encountered similar challenges—professional and personal—and I cannot overstate my gratitude for her continuously inspiring grace.

Henry Taylor

B. 1958, Ventura, California. Lives and works in Los Angeles.

From Tiana Webb Evans, Writer and Founder, ESP Group:

Henry Taylor makes radically human figurative paintings. He’s the whip-smart uncle who has been around the block and seen a few things. He is the embodiment of the African American male experience stretched through a time where the rugged seas of shifting thoughts, ideologies, and realities deposit those who make it to shore with sage-like wisdom. The stories Taylor paints oscillate between glimpses of the mundane and transient moments of our humanity. He shows us both our liberation dreams and what impedes them. The sheer act of painting—choosing to be a painter—is a revolutionary act and represents an unwavering belief in franchisement and a better America.

When Taylor was included in the 2017 Whitney Biennial, it felt like the whole (metaphorical) family showed up at the museum on opening day—activists, intellectuals, musicians, artists, mechanics, nurses, cleaning ladies, doctors, lawyers, and the cousin trying to figure it out—all represented with swift and hopeful brushstrokes. A Happy Day for Us (2017)loomed lovingly on the foreboding museum wall.Taylor paints the poetics of an existence that’s both dynamic and familiar. He provides a grounded response to the angsty fade of the forgone Disney fairytale that America is just and equal. Herein lies the lasting power of his work.

Mickalene Thomas

B. 1971, Camden, New Jersey. Lives and works in New York.

Mickalene Thomas
Interior: Zebra with Two Chairs and Funky Fur, 2014
Kavi Gupta

From Andrea Andersson, The Helis Foundation Chief Curator of Visual Arts, Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans:

In 2010, the Museum of Modern Art commissioned a photograph by Mickalene Thomas (and later exhibited it at MoMA PS1). It was staged in the museum’s sculpture garden and reimagined Édouard Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863). Thomas’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe: Les trois femmes noires (2010) depicts three glamorous black women dressed in high fashion, against the dramatic backdrop of the iconic museum.

Thomas views herself as a painter, but all of her paintings begin with photographs and studies of her subjects—family, friends, former lovers, her partner—often set against stylized backdrops of living-room interiors like those of her childhood. Thomas’s paintings are historical interventions that trace intimate relationships between her practice, the formal radicality of modernism, and its outright plunder of Africa.

In fall 2018, the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto opened its second solo exhibition by a woman of color in the museum’s history, entitled “Mickalene Thomas: Femmes Noires.” At the opening, extra security was called: Visitors to the exhibition, predominantly young black women, were getting too close to the canvases. They were taking selfies, forging identities, and insinuating themselves through photography into Thomas’s history of art.

Kara Walker

B. 1969, Stockton, California. Lives and works in New York.

From Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, Associate Professor and Undergraduate Chair, History of Art, University of Pennsylvania:

African American women artists and intellectuals have always had to fight hard to realize their goals, especially when their work has been politically radical or dissented from cultural norms. Kara Walker’s production over the past 25 years illustrates this challenge. It has been both irreverent and provocative. It has flaunted cultural mores and pushed the limits of community standards. In so doing, Walker has made us reconsider our relationships to and our understanding of the myths and histories that she so deftly explores in her silhouettes, drawings, films, and installations.

Carrie Mae Weems

B. 1953, Portland, Oregon. Lives and works in Syracuse, New York.

Carrie Mae Weems
Untitled (Man reading newspaper), 1990-99
White Cube

From Erin Barnett, Director of Exhibitions and Collections, International Center of Photography:

Carrie Mae Weems has investigated gender, family relationships, cultural identity, sexism, class, political systems, and the relationships between power and representation for over 30 years. In From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried (1995), a multipart photographic project, Weems brackets well-known 19th- and 20th-century photographic representations of African Americans in the United States with two portraits of an African woman who laments what has happened to the African diasporic community. Weems’s accompanying text (“A Negroid Type,” “You Became a Scientific Profile”), which is etched on glass, creates distance from the original photographs, while calling out their racist intent.

The International Center of Photography (ICP) owns four works from the series, which use daguerreotypes of enslaved men and women in Columbia, South Carolina; they are currently on view at the ICP Museum as part of the exhibition “Your Mirror: Portraits from the ICP Collection.”Originally taken in 1850 by Joseph T. Zealy at the behest of Swiss biologist Louis Agassiz (who had emigrated to the United States and became one of the country’s most famous scientists), these daguerreotypes were intended to show the physical differences between African blacks and European whites. Agassiz and other scientists believed that the races evolved separately and that the white race was superior, thus supporting Southern views of slavery. By using these daguerreotype images, Weems calls attention to the role of photography in promoting racism.

Kehinde Wiley

B. 1977, Los Angeles. Lives and works in New York.

Kehinde Wiley
Portrait of Jesenia Pineda, 2020
Kehinde Wiley
Portrait of Glenn Ligon, Hermes, 2017
Sean Kelly Gallery

From Eugenie Tsai, John and Barbara Vogelstein Curator of Contemporary Art, Brooklyn Museum:

Kehinde Wiley’s paintings employ seductive, vivid color and lush ornamentation, so it’s sometimes hard to recognize just how political they are. I’ve regarded his painting Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps (2005) hundreds of times, as it hangs in the Brooklyn Museum’s Rubin Pavilion. I’ve come to see the artist’s oeuvre as a radical transformation of the monumental portraiture tradition—a holdover of the European ruling classes—into a topical political genre that critiques the historical (and current) state of racial and economic inequity in this country and around the world.

In these turbulent times, Wiley’s political engagement has become more pronounced. For a recent show at London’s Stephen Friedman Gallery, he addressed the issue of global migration and displacement by taking on the tradition of maritime painting for the first time. For a recent series exhibited at the Saint Louis Art Museum, based on historical portraits in its collection, he selected models from nearby Ferguson. Wiley is a connoisseur of power, and his paintings reveal his skill at deploying the visual cues and codes through which dominance and privilege are conveyed.

Then there’s his presidential portrait of Barack Obama, a representation of a “man-of-the-people” kind of power, not the absolutism of a Napoleonic emperor. By affirming the continued relevance of painting, mining the political potential of portraiture, and calling out and reassigning power and privilege, Wiley’s practice is totally in step with our times.

From Laurel McLaughlin, Curatorial Assistant, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts:

Artsy Editors

Header and Thumbnail Image: Mark Bradford, Pickett’s Charge (The High-Water Mark) (detail), 2016–17. Photo by Joshua White. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Mark Bradford at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden with details of Pickett’s Charge, 2017. Photo by Cathy Carver. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Portrait of Faith Ringgold by Grace Matthews. Courtesy of ACA Galleries. Portrait of Kara Walker by Ari Marcopoulos. Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

Additional Thumbnail Image: Mark Bradford, Pickett’s Charge (The High-Water Mark) (detail), 2016–17. Photo by Joshua White. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Portrait of Mark Bradford by Sean Shim-Boyle. Courtesy of the artist. Portrait of Kara Walker by Ari Marcopoulos. Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Portrait of Carrie Mae Weems by Jerry Klineberg.

Portrait of Mark Bradford by Carlos Avendano. Courtesy of the artist. Portrait of Nick Cave by James Prinz Photography. Courtesy of Jack Shainman. Portrait of Charles Gaines by Fredrik Nilsen, 2018. © Charles Gaines. Portrait of Theaster Gates by Chen Xiaomei/South China Morning Post via Getty. Portrait of Sam Gilliam by Stephen Frietch. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles. Portrait of David Hammons by Chris Felver. Portrait of Rashid Johnson by Eric Vogel. Portrait of Glenn Ligon by Paul Mpagi Sepuya. Courtesy of Luhring Augustine and the artist. Portrait of Kerry James Marshall by Jason Bell. Courtesy of Jack Shainman. Portrait of Senga Nengudi. Courtesy of Thomas Erben Gallery. Portrait of Howardena Pindell by Nathan Keay, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York. Portrait of Pope.L. © Pope.L. Courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York. Portrait of Faith Ringgold by Grace Matthews. Courtesy of ACA Galleries. Portrait of Betye Saar. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles. Portrait of Lorna Simpson by Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty. Portrait of Henry Taylor by Cassi Gibson. Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo. Portrait of Mickalene Thomas by Lyndsy Welgos. Portrait of Kara Walker by Ari Marcopoulos. Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Portrait of Carrie Mae Weems by Jerry Klineberg. Portrait of Kehinde Wiley by Brad Ogbonna. Courtesy of Sean Kelly, New York.