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Adding a Work by Amy Sherald

The museum welcomes He was meant for all things to meet
Emily Liebert, Curator of Contemporary Art
June 1, 2023
He was meant for all things to meet, 2022. Amy Sherald (American, b. 1973).  2023.5 

The Cleveland Museum of Art was honored to add He was meant for all things to meet (2022) by Amy Sherald (American, b. 1973) to its contemporary collection in March. Sherald, one of the leading contemporary figurative painters, is widely celebrated for her portraits documenting Black American subjects. In 2018, her distinctive style captured the attention of First Lady Michelle Obama, and the artist was commissioned to paint her official portrait for the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. This historic event—the representation of the first Black American First Lady by a Black woman artist—greatly increased the visibility of Sherald’s art. She is now a public figure whose work is in the permanent collections of major museums internationally. 

Image
Amy Sherald's portrait of Michelle Obama
Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama 2018. Amy Sherald. Oil on linen; 183.2 x 152.7 cm. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian, Washington, DC

He was meant for all things to meet is a portrait of Sherald’s nephew, Keith. Although Sherald does not usually paint family members, she was moved to do so after encountering a particular snapshot of Keith in his lacrosse jersey. She found this to be an auspicious picture, showing a young man on the cusp of a promising adulthood. Sherald has said of this series of paintings, “My eyes search for people who are and who have the kind of light that provides the present and the future with hope.”1 

He was meant for all things to meet exemplifies Sherald’s pared-down realism and displays the hallmarks of her renowned portraiture. Through composition and color, Sherald endows her subjects with a powerful physical presence: they fill the frame—at times appearing ready to burst out of its confines— and meet the viewer with a direct outward gaze. In He was meant for all things to meet, the figure’s command of space is even stronger because of the electric palette through which he is conjured.

While Sherald grants her subjects contemporary everyday qualities through their clothing and poses, she typically detaches them from an inhabitable world, placing them against flat, solid- colored backgrounds that lack markers of time and place. This choice to thwart our impulse to place her subjects is a representational strategy that stands for a larger rejection of assumptions that a viewer might pin on Black individuals. Sherald further complicates the interpretation of racial identity in her work through another disturbance of realism: she paints Black skin in shades of gray. Sherald has spoken of her use of grisaille, a centuries-old tradition in art history, as a technique to focus her viewer’s attention on the interior life of her subjects rather than on their outward identities. 

In her use of flat monochromatic backgrounds and gray skin tones, Sherald emphasizes the constructed world of her paintings. But her emphasis on invention resides alongside the accuracy of detail that is equally characteristic of Sherald’s work. This balance of traits is rooted in the way Sherald fuses characteristics of painting and photography, for, as the artist has said, “My paintings start in the viewfinder.”2 Sherald uses photographs that she has taken and found as documents of color, pattern, and scale. She later imports and reconfigures these details in each picture. 

Sherald’s subjects possess a presentness and self-assurance that contribute to what the late art critic Peter Schjeldahl described as “the Sherald effect: an experience of looking that entails being looked at, to ambiguous but inescapably gripping ends.”3 Visitors to the CMA can now experience the Sherald effect in the galleries. He was meant for all things to meet carries forward the history of portraiture through the museum’s encyclopedic galleries, demonstrating the impact of this visual tradition at our moment in time.  

  1. Hauser & Wirth London, “Amy Sherald: The World We Make,” press release, September 2022, https://vip-hauserwirth.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/Amy -Sherald_Hauser-Wirth-London_12-October-2022-copy.pdf.
  2. Amy Sherald and Tyler Mitchell, “The Epic Banal,” Art in America, May 7, 2021, https://www.artnews.com/art-in-america/interviews/tyler-mitchell-amy -sherald-1234592147. 
  3. Peter Schjeldahl, “The Amy Sherald Effect,” The New Yorker, September 16, 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/09/23/the-amy-sherald-effect.