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New on View at the CMA: Amy Sherald’s He was meant for all things to meet

Emily Liebert, Curator of Contemporary Art
June 19, 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 of 2022 by Amy Sherald (American, b. 1973) to its contemporary collection this past March (fig. 1). Sherald, one of the leading contemporary figurative painters, is widely celebrated for her portraits documenting Black American subjects.

Figure 1. He was meant for all things to meet, 2022. Amy Sherald (American, b. 1973). Oil on linen; 137.5 x 109.4 x 6.4 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Fund, 2023.5. © Amy Sherald. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

 

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 (fig. 2). 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.

Figure 2. “Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama” by Amy Sherald, oil on linen, 2018. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. The National Portrait Gallery is grateful to the following donors for their support of the Obama portraits: Kate Capshaw and Steven Spielberg; Judith Kern and Kent Whealy; Tommie L. Pegues and Donald A. Capoccia. Courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

 

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 highlights the constructed world of her paintings. But her emphasis on invention resides alongside the accuracy of detail that is equally representative of Sherald’s work. This balance of traits is rooted in the way Sherald fuses characteristics of painting and photography. The artist has said, “My paintings start in the viewfinder,” an origin that she evokes in her 2017 painting What’s different about Alice is that she has the most incisive way of telling the truth (fig. 3).[2] In her work, 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.

Figure 3. What’s different about Alice is that she has the most incisive way of telling the truth, 2017. Amy Sherald. Oil on canvas; 137.2 x 109.2 cm. The Columbus Museum, The Fund for African American Art, G.2017.10

 

But photography for Sherald is more than a technical medium. As the artist told writer Ta-Nehisi Coates in a recent interview, through photography, “I was finally able to find representations of Black Americans that spoke to me in the same way that I wanted my work to speak to the world.”[3] In such photographs she discovered examples of self-representation that were, in the artist’s words, “quiet, regal, graceful.”[4]

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.”[5] Visitors to the CMA can now experience the Sherald effect in the CMA’s S. Mueller Family Galleries of Contemporary Art (fig. 4). He was meant for all things to meet is on display there as part of a thematic rotation that explores treatments of the figure by artists who represent a range of backgrounds and perspectives, including Emma Amos, Robert Colescott, Rashid Johnson, Simone Leigh, Kerry James Marshall, Alice Neel, Malangatana Ngwenya, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, and Andy Warhol.

Figure 4. Installation view of He was meant for all things to meet

 

Visitors may notice that He was meant for all things to meet is hung on the wall at a lower height than the other paintings in the gallery. This installation follows from Sherald’s direction that her work be installed so that the eye level of her subjects is close to that of her viewers. This alignment creates an encounter that is direct and intimate, reiterating qualities that are themselves essential to the art of Amy Sherald.

This blog has been adapted from an article previously published in the museum’s magazine Cleveland Art. To read more articles on exhibitions and the collection, become a member to receive the quarterly magazine, as well as a host of other benefits.

[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] “Amy Sherald in Conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates,” Amy Sherald: The World We Make, exh. cat. (London: Hauser & Wirth, 2022), 184.

[4] “Sherald in Conversation,” 184.

[5] Peter Schjeldahl, “The Amy Sherald Effect,” The New Yorker, September 16, 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/09/23/the-amy-sherald-effect.