Has anyone seen Grace Jones?
You’ve missed Cincinnati, but Kehinde Wiley would still like to hear from you…
By Steven Rosen. News, Issue 218, November 2010
Published online: 16 November 2010
CINCINNATI. The Cincinnati Art Museum, like many others, has been—in the words of director Aaron Betsky—“trying to connect our collection to the current generation”.
As part of that intention, it commissioned a portrait of disco diva/actress/model Grace Jones by celebrated African-American artist Kehinde Wiley, wanting to hang it in a new show next to one of its masterpieces—Thomas Gainsborough’s 1760 portrait Ann Ford (Later Mrs. Philip Thicknesse). Alas, it did not work out.
Jones didn’t respond to requests for a sitting—a requirement for Wiley, since he aimed to recreate the pose of Ann Ford, who holds a guitar while one arm rests on books and sheet music. It would have been the first traditional portrait the art museum had commissioned from an artist since it had Andy Warhol paint Cincinnati Reds baseball star Pete Rose in 1985.
Cincinnati had been restoring its portrait for a show called “Thomas Gainsborough and the Modern Woman”, which opened on 18 September (until 2 January) and was organised by Benedict Leca, curator of European painting, sculpture and drawings. The show’s thesis is that the way that Gainsborough chose to portray Georgian women—and the independent-minded women he painted—was avant-garde for its time. To advance that premise, it borrowed other Gainsborough portraits from London’s National Gallery, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Tate Britain and the Huntington Library.
But it wanted something new, too—and thought of New York-based Wiley. He has developed a keen following for his depictions of contemporary black males posed in a formalist manner, and his work has been shown at numerous museums.
“We’d been having discussions about wanting to work with Kehinde on something,” Betsky said. “Then someone said: ‘What about the Gainsborough show?’” Betsky said the museum thought Wiley’s traditional approach to portraiture a good fit with Gainsborough. “The other interesting thing is he had not painted a woman yet, so that made it all the more interesting to us,” he said.
Leca explained his enthusiasm. “The point of the show is to restore agency and self-direction to these [Gainsborough] women, just as Kehinde Wiley himself is re-inscribing black men into this preserve of traditional white-male power,” he says.
So Leca, with approval from art museum trustees, flew to New York to propose the project to Wiley. The artist thought of Jones, “because of her personal charisma and physical beauty, and because she has a history of understanding the playful interplay between popular culture and the art world”, Wiley explained.
Leca says Wiley’s then dealer, Jeffrey Deitch (now director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art), even had the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen ready to create a dress just for the sitting.
But nobody could get through to Jones. Leca had contacted her agent in London and wrote to Jean-Paul Goude, the French fashion photographer to whom she is close. And he wrote directly to Jones through another photographer. No response.
If Jones should yet call, it’s not too late for Wiley. He said he still wants to do it. “I believe I could make one of the more meaningful statements of her physical beauty and her presence in the world that hasn’t been seen before.”
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