The King of Pop as a Muse
Apr. 5, 2018
By: Mark Beech
When the initial obituaries appeared for Michael Jackson in June 2009, most of them — including the ones penned by this reporter — mainly concentrated on his musical legacy. Sure, we also commented on the shock of the singer-songwriter’s sudden death at the age of just 50 and his eccentric lifestyle; but mainly reports focused on his superstar status. The man had sold 350 million records in his lifetime and was a household name. There were gushing memories of the likes of the “Beat It” and “Bad” singles with their pulsating 1980s dance beats. The media comment was slower to fully explore Jackson’s legacy on other arts. The video for “Thriller” changed pop filmmaking, for example. then there was his influence on choreography — the moonwalk dance move and more — and also fashion, with his ever-elaborate costumes: military tunics, armband suits, sequined single glove and cropped leather jackets.
Only later did essayists start to drill down into how much Jackson influenced visual art and culture. Now for the first time we are to get a touring exhibition that explores how he inspired leading contemporary artists, from Andy Warhol to Isa Genzken. One of Jackson’s most famous albums was “Off the wall” and this show is aptly titled “Michael Jackson: On the wall.” The comprehensive loan tour will start in June shortly before what would have been Michael Jackson’s 60th birthday (August 29, 2018).
Almost a decade on, Jackson’s sales now exceed one billion. The National Portrait Gallery of London, announcing the event, described him as “one of the most influential cultural figures to come out of the 20th century and his legacy continues into the 21st century.” After its NPG debut on June 28, the show will also visit France, Bonn and Finland. (Similar touring rock shows from the Victoria & Albert Museum have highlighted David Bowie and Pink Floyd.)
“It is rare that there is something new to say about someone so famous, but here that is the case,” the event’s curator Nicholas Cullinan commented in a statement. “The exhibition breaks new ground for the National Portrait Gallery in its subject matter and the breadth and profile of the artists who have been invited to participate.” Dr Cullinan, who became National Portrait Gallery director in 2015, has Lucy Dahlsen as his associate curator for “On the Wall.”
Andy Warhol first used Jackson’s image in 1982. His Jackson portrait screen-prints are as collectable as those of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe, to name but two. Another key work for “On the Wall” is “An Illuminating Path,” 1998, by David LaChapelle. This harks back to the “Billie Jean” video with the paving stones that illuminate with each step by the star. “Wind (Michael/David),” produced by Isa Genzken in the year of Jackson’s death, shows “Jacko” at the height of his powers, performing his apparently impossible tiptoe dance moves.
In total, the show will present more than 40 other artists of all generations, including some of the most important living names as well as emerging artists, from different parts of the world, and employing a range of media. The event was produced with the co-operation of the Michael Jackson estate and drawn from public and private collections around the world as well as new works especially made for the show. Other artists featured include: Rita Ackerman, Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, Mark Flood, Maggi Hambling, Gary Hume, Louise Lawler, Catherine Opie, Yan Pei Ming, Grayson Perry, Donald Urquhart and Jordan Wolfson.
Jackson has long been a subject of wonder, for his changing appearance and artistic reinvention. The early fresh-faced look of the Jackson five evolved as his appearance changed: the more mature look of the Warhol images and then the imperious regal phase. Take for example “equestrian portrait of King Philip II (Michael Jackson),” Kehinde Wiley’s 2010 photoshop-style reimagining of the late “king of pop.”
Even after his death Jackson was ruling the charts and he clearly captures the imagination with strange fascination even now.
— “Michael Jackson: On the Wall” is at the National Portrait Gallery, London from June 28 through October21, 2018. It tours to The Grand Palais, Paris (November 2018-February 2019), Bundeskunsthalle, Bonn (March-July 2019) and Espoo Museum of Modern Art, Finland (August-November 2019).
— This article appears in the Spring 2018 edition of BlouinShop magazine.