ST. LOUIS — On Thursday evening, the crowd at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis overflowed the room in which Amy Sherald was speaking, so late arrivals watched the artist talk on monitors in the atrium. It’s been a little over three months since Sherald, the artist who painted Michelle Obama’s official portrait for the National Portrait Gallery, became a public figure, admired and reviled according to the usual cleavages of race and culture that divide this country. But for an artist who confesses a “healthy amount of self-doubt,” she is poised, confident and funny when addressing a crowd of people who deeply appreciate what she has done for painting, for women, for the Obamas, and for the cause of African American artists.
“I thought I was going to die when I was 39,” the 44-year-old Sherald says. Her life story is part of the bond that ties her to the people in this room, many of whom already know the basic outlines: She was a struggling painter from Columbus, Ga., when she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure at age 31. She lived with the fear of death through a fraught but formative decade that included a lifesaving heart transplant in 2012. She emerged from the nightmare stronger, more confident and with a deeper sense of artistic purpose. In 2016, the Baltimore-based artist won the National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever competition, and she was then selected by Michelle Obama to paint the first lady’s portrait.
“Everybody should be a donor,” she tells the crowd, deflecting their curiosity about her health onto a constructive message about organ donation. She is good at this, inviting people into her story and then steering them to something else — to her art, or the people she has painted, or some sense of constructive social purpose.
Sherald has come to St. Louis to open her first major solo show in a U.S. museum. It isn’t a big exhibition, just eight paintings, but she works on a large scale, and she works very slowly. Her depictions of African American subjects are meticulously finished, with the figures set against brilliantly colored but mostly blank backdrops. They are about life-size, have extraordinary presence, and with their faces and skin painted in the colorless grayscale of a black-and-white photograph, they are also a bit surreal.
In the past decade, Sherald estimates that she has made only about 30 paintings, and most of those she has had to sell to keep atop of bills, including hefty medical expenses. “I needed every one of those to be out in the world,” she says, acknowledging regret over being obliged to sell some of her favorites. Although it was the Obama portrait that made her a household name, she has been on a sprint for several years now, struggling to produce work, fulfill commissions and gather enough material for new exhibitions.
“I’ve been working consistently since 2015, almost seven days a week, like 12 hours a day,” she says. “And maybe in three years I’ve been able to take off 30 days, not enough time to actually decompress.” She acknowledges that “it’s been really tough as of lately,” like a marathon.
The Obama commission was only one explosive event in a career that has been full of remarkable coups and careful planning. When the first lady’s portrait was unveiled in February, Sherald wasn’t quite ready for the searing scrutiny, for the casual obscenities with which people described her work, for the intensity of the racism. “I’ll never let the public know, but my feelings were hurt,” she says. That lasted about 24 hours, and then she got on with life.
Since then, she and her most famous subject have become curiously intertwined in the public imagination, two women who seem to share a formidable sense of resilience, who are larger than their own personal stories, embodying the aspiration of countless others. During the question-and-answer session after her talk, it’s clear the audience feels as if Sherald carries with her something of Michelle Obama, that there has been a mutual exchange of mystique between artist and subject. Sherald leavens this with self-deprecation.
“I’m continuing to do what I did before; I just get paid a bit more,” she says.
But things are changing, changes that one can detect in the new work she has introduced in this exhibition. Success has freed her from past constraints. Her earlier portraits were scaled to 54 by 43 inches, because that was the largest size that would fit in the back of a friend’s SUV. Her new work is larger. Her old work usually focused on a single subject, directly addressing the viewer. One of her new works shows two young women, one of them uncharacteristically turned away from the viewer. Her old work situated her figures in mysteriously empty space, as if they were floating in the watery ether of an old daguerreotype. Her new work places them in landscapes of short grass, with a recognizable horizon line.
“There is a lot more that is described in it,” Lisa Melandri, executive director of the Contemporary Art Museum, says of one of the most recent paintings. The work still has a “fantastical” feeling, she says, but there’s a new specificity, a hint of landscape, not just a blazing blue background but a real horizon with a suggestion of actual sky. Melandri doesn’t want to predict the future but says, “That’s something to look at when it comes to what’s coming next.”
It would be a logical development. In her artist’s talk, Sherald shows a series of slides including examples of the kind of historic portraiture against which she has reacted, in which African American figures play subservient roles, looking not at the viewer but adoringly at the white subject of the painting. She also shows a 1986 painting called “Object Permanence” by Bo Bartlett, a painter from Georgia who works in a realist style. It shows an African American man standing confidently in front of a small tract house, an ambiguous figure who may be the father, or a father figure, or a worker helping out the white woman and three children who seem to live there.
“The one artist who actually had influence over me was Bo Bartlett,” she says of a painter born in her home town who has specialized in detailed, dreamlike renderings of (mostly) white Southern life, a vision one New York critic called a “Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren” vision of American life. Bartlett’s work inspired her think about her work in relationship to a larger tradition of American realism, looking for ways to tell African American stories within that tradition. “I feel like there’s not enough of that in the American art canon,” she says.
But it’s clearly not just a matter of telling stories or connecting her subjects to identifiable landscape. In oblique ways, Sherald speaks of her career as a search for her own Americanness.
She remembers spending time in Norway, where she was surprised people thought of her as an American, not as an African American. Her American identity wasn’t something she thought a lot about until the election of Barack Obama, when it became complicated, more interesting and unsettling. “It was something that was out there but not really present to me,” she says.
It cropped up, though, from time to time in her work, as in the red, white and blue depiction of the flag on the shirt of a young man in a 2017 painting. And it may be back in the newest painting on view, “Planes, Rockets and the Spaces in Between,” which includes in its enigmatic background the arcing plume of smoke from a rocket taking off. The reference to the romanticized past of the 20th-century Space Age is as quintessentially American as the team letter jacket of the young woman depicted in the 2016 “Varsity Girl.” And equally as ambiguous.
Sherald is coy about the “what’s coming next.” In St. Louis, she is addressing a crowd that is keenly aware of the city’s identity as the epicenter of a new chapter in the civil rights movement that emerged in nearby Ferguson, where police shot and killed an unarmed African American teenager named Michael Brown in 2014. In 2016, the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis was roiled with controversy when it showed an exhibition of work by a white artist, Kelley Walker, whose paintings include found and sometimes sexualized images of African Americans that many local audiences found offensive. When asked what she wants Americans to understand about “blackness,” Sherald answers directly: “Maybe just that: That we are American, too.”
But she goes on to add something else. Her work is meant as a kind of refuge, as a place to encounter images of self-sufficient, entirely present black people, without the noise that is the background to so much of American life. She says these are works “to rest your eyes on,” and “to not feel the fight, to just be present.”
It is a canny self-observation, about work that is surprisingly quiet, and thus all the more poignant in its insistence and clarity. But that sense of repose seems as if it is about to evolve in some way. Now that people are listening, her figures of silence are entering into the world, living not just in a dreamscape of brilliant color but on terra firma. And that ground seems to be America.
Amy Sherald is on view at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis through Aug. 19. For more information, visit camstl.org. The exhibition will travel to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., in September and the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art in Atlanta in January.