How Artists Have Grappled with Michael Jackson’s Legacy

Digby Warde-Aldam
Jun 21, 2018 7:31PM

Catherine Opie, 700 Nimes Road, Bedside Table, 2010-11. © Catherine Opie. Courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles.

Kehinde Wiley, Equestrian Portrait of King Philip II (Michael Jackson), 2010. © Kehinde Wiley. Photo by Jeurg Iseler. Courtesy of Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and Sean Kelly Gallery, New York.

That Michael Jackson was a strange, unknowable figure is beyond doubt, yet there are a few things about him that we can take as fact. The King of Pop was one of nine siblings in a working class family from Gary, Indiana, who was thrown into the limelight before he had reached his teens. As a solo artist, he bridged the gap between black and white audiences like no entertainer before him, selling millions of records and becoming the biggest star of the 1980s.

But from there on, things got complicated. His appearance changed beyond recognition, and his public persona, too, took on a new character: His behavior, previously perceived as charmingly eccentric, now looked worryingly, perhaps dangerously odd. Jackson’s fall from grace was complete by the time he was arrested on child molestation charges, and though he was ultimately acquitted, his reputation never recovered. He died—horrifically young—a few years later, disfigured, broke, and discredited.

This is the official story. But the strange thing about Jackson is that, more so than any other star, our perception of him is defined by subjective individual responses. For almost all of us born between the 1960s and the ’90s, there will be at least one specific, emotional memory of the man that transcends the usual parameters of stardom. My own takes us back to the northeast of England in 1996, where, as a Thriller-obsessed seven-year-old, I stayed up late to watch Jackson’s appearance on a live televised awards ceremony. (Remember: Quite apart from appealing to fans from different racial backgrounds, Jackson also bridged the age divide like nobody else.)

Gary Hume, Michael, 2001. © Gary Hume and DACS, London 2018. Courtesy of the artist, Sprüth Magers and Matthew Marks Gallery.

Grayson Perry, Sex and Drugs and Earthenware, 1995. © Grayson Perry. Courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro, London.


The moment he appeared on the screen in silhouette profiled against an enormous projection of the globe was probably the most exciting thing I’d ever seen on TV. But the thrill turned to something else entirely as his performance of “Earth Song” progressed. A child choir emerged from the flanks of the stage and flocked around him, a piece of choreography that had the effect of making Jackson seem like a Christ-like figure straight from a Victorian Sunday school illustration. At seven, I didn’t possess much in the way of critical faculties, but I knew something about this was just a bit weird. At the end of the song, Jackson threw off his black jacket to reveal a set of pearly white robes. The children gathered closer as piercing lights bore down on the scene, a cheap evocation of a celestial glow. It was ridiculous, so bad I didn’t know where to look. Watching the clip now on YouTube, it seems just as preposterously messianic and ill-advised, its absurdity heightened by a bizarre moment at which Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker leaps onto the stage in protest and starts heckling the oblivious singer.

I felt acute disillusionment, and from there on, my relationship with the soi-disant King of Pop came to be defined by sincere pity. I wasn’t alone. In 2001, Jackson travelled to Oxford University to give a halting, if heartfelt, speech, in which he touched on his own tumultuous upbringing. Shortly afterwards, British artist Gary Hume noticed a photograph of his arrival at the college. Jackson looked terrible, his face rigid from surgery, loose hairs streaming across his forehead. Hume had an immediate emotional response to the image, and decided to use it as a reference for a new painting. The resulting work is notable for using a circular framing that creates a sense of unbearable, claustrophobic proximity to the subject, cutting off Jackson’s face at lip level and hiding his upper hairline. The eyes are rendered as olive-green blotches elaborated with slug-like black shapes, and those stray hairs dangle wildly, like contours on a map. Sensitively, Jackson’s nose is represented only by two uneven, comma-shaped black marks. “I tried to be as sympathetic as I could,” Hume said at the time. “I wasn’t in any sense trying to ridicule him. I feel for him.”

Isa Genzken, Wind (Michael / David), 2009. © Isa Genzken, VG-Bild Kunst and DACS,  London 2018. Photo by Jen Ziehe. Courtesy of neugerriemschneider, Berlin.

Hume’s painting is one of 50 works included in “Michael Jackson: On the Wall,” an unusual new exhibition opening at London’s National Portrait Gallery on June 28th. It seeks not to tell us anything new about the singer or his career, but rather to look at how artists have captured him over the years—and what has moved them to do so. “I don’t think there’s anyone else who could be the subject of an exhibition like this,” National Portrait Gallery associate curator Lucy Dahlsen explains. “[Jackson’s] image has been a catalyst for so many artists.” The exhibition includes work from an eclectic array of contemporary artists, from Isa Genzken to Candice Breitz, and—via a dinner jacket envisioned by M.J. himself—his own costume designer, Michael Bush.

One reason for this—which you can’t help feeling—is that strange personal connection Jackson inspired in so many people. For many African-American artists, this is something inescapable. Jackson, of course, was the first African-American musician to rise to this level of worldwide fame, and as such, he takes on a totemic status in some pictures. In the final portrait commissioned during Jackson’s lifetime, Kehinde Wiley sees him as an emperor on horseback in a direct nod to Peter Paul Rubens’s equestrian portrait of Philip II of Spain—a vision of power and dignity.

Yet Jackson’s artistic appeal is broader still. Thinking about these works, it seems that much of the public interest in him stems from his the paradoxes of his media character: On the one hand, he was the innocent and sexless manchild so lacking in guile that he named his ranch “Neverland”; on the other, he was the pouting rock star who seemed to spit out of the radio when he was played, throwing mean street dance moves that appeared beyond human ability.

Andy Warhol, Michael Jackson, 1984. © 2018 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by DACS, London. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.

These paradoxes make him a blank canvas of a character, one onto which we project whatever we want. For artists, the appeal is clear. Whether we’re talking about Andy Warhol’s beaming 1984 portrait of him or Faith Ringgold’s explosively lively “story quilt” Who’s Bad? (1988), every work of art included in the show presents an entirely different character. One moment, he’s prancing invincibly across a field in David LaChapelle’s An Illuminating Path (1988). The next, Keith Haring has him as a forlorn figure enmeshed by his own gorgon-like hair.

Jackson, of course, inspired unprecedentedly zealous devotion amongst his followers, a fact underlined by the crowds of superfans who gathered at his every public appearance, even toward the end of his life. (Watch footage of the crowds shot at the time of his trial in 2005; it is bizarrely moving.) Many works included in the exhibition use the visual language of fandom, drawing on graffiti, homemade memorabilia, or religious imagery. Catherine Opie gives us a photograph of a small personal shrine taken after Jackson’s death; Grayson Perry depicts his face alongside Kurt Cobain’s on one of his signature pots, a kind of post-punk reliquary.

This devotional aspect comes into the most famous example of Jackson-related art, and the only truly significant work absent from the National Portrait Gallery exhibition—Jeff Koons’s sculpture Michael Jackson and Bubbles from 1988. That year, Koons embarked on a series entitled “Banality,” in which he took various kitschy images and had them cast in the same style as cheap porcelain religious effigies. According to Koons, Jackson was selected as a subject because he “served as a kind of spiritual authority who could help people feel secure in embracing their culture, whatever it was.” Subtly altered from its source material (a publicity shot), the sculpture presents the singer reclining on a bed of flowers in a pose reminiscent of many scenes of the Madonna and Child. Yet here was a wholly androgynous—and, more contentiously, white-skinned—figure resplendent in a gold ringmaster’s costume, on his lap an effigy of Bubbles, the pet chimp who, in the 1980s, attracted almost as much media attention as his owner. Strangest of all, Koons’s Michael looked unnervingly like Koons himself.

The sculpture provoked an excess of controversy. Some critics saw it—not entirely favorably—as the ultimate expression of art in the “Me decade,” the most famous entertainer of the 1980s cast in gratuitous Rococo splendor by its most shameless artist. Certainly, Michael Jackson and Bubbles appears to share little of the deeply personal insight present in so many of the works that are included in “On the Wall.” It’s a straight-up piece of cultural pastiche, more an arch punchline than an exercise in artistic expression.

Or is it? Koons has always walked a high wire between irony and Jackson-like innocence; here, the two qualities became indistinguishable. “If I could be one other living person, it would probably be Michael Jackson,” he said around the time he created the work, later clarifying the statement in an interview with the critic and curator Robert Storr. “Michael has a lot of things to say, and he isn’t afraid of anything or anyone,” Koons explained. “I see a symbol of this intrepid nature in the radical transformations he’s carried out on himself—and he has to live with himself after those transformations. He can’t look in the mirror and know how he’ll look when he’s 35. It’s terrifying.” You can say what you like about Koons’s sculpture, and indeed the language he used to talk about it. But something he said elsewhere evaluates the Jackson phenomenon so eloquently that it could serve as an epitaph: “The art wasn’t his record; it was him. He was the real thriller, the man who knows no fear.”

Digby Warde-Aldam