Kehinde Wiley on His Latest Commission for the Moynihan Train Hall in New York

Finding inspiration from the 18th-century Venetian school to Black street style of the 2000s, Wiley creates a perfect metaphor for freedom and possibility, youth and self-invention

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BY Matthew McLean AND Kehinde Wiley in Interviews | 27 APR 21

MATTHEW MCLEAN Let’s start with Go (2020) – your stained glass ceiling commissioned by the Public Art Fund as a permanent installation for the new Moynihan Train Hall in New York. Where did your thinking for this work originate, and what were your influences?

KEHINDE WILEY Go is actually the second iteration of an image that I originally conceived for my first institutional solo show at the Brooklyn Museum in 2004. The call to arms for Go (2003) was simply to say: ‘Here is my debut. Here my career starts. Go, get out there!’ it was literally the inception. There are nods to the religious ceiling frescoes of the 18th-century Venetian school, particularly Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, and nods to Black street style of the early 2000s, which I tied to the sense of movement in some of those Venetian paintings. All of that twisting and wriggling and writhing reminded me a lot of breakdancing – the way that people twist and spin on their heads and arms. There’s a kind of weightless celebration to it, which becomes a perfect metaphor for freedom and possibility, youth and self-invention.

MM Born in Los Angeles, you’ve been based primarily on the East Coast for almost two decades now. How would you describe your relationship with the city?

KW I certainly identify as a New Yorker, but it’s also a dysfunctional relationship in which I need to disappear from the city sometimes to clear my head and get new inspiration. I often work from different cities, different ports of call: I’ll create projects that involve traveling to small villages and large metropolitan areas in order to experience a different tempo, a different rhythm to life. New York is, in many ways, the world’s capital, but it’s also, in other ways, provincial in terms of its own set of cultural expectations and notions of success. I think it’s important to vary my diet of what a meaningful life is. I come back to New York fully charged and ready to interface with the constantly changing and evolving American sensibility.

Kehinde Wiley, Go, 2020, commissioned by Empire State Development in partnership with Public Art Fund for Moynihan Train Hall. Courtesy: the artist, Sean Kelly, New York, Empire State Development and Public Art Fund, New York. Photo: Nicholas Knight
Kehinde Wiley, Go, 2020, commissioned by Empire State Development in partnership with Public Art Fund for Moynihan Train Hall. Courtesy: the artist, Sean Kelly, New York, Empire State Development and Public Art Fund, New York. Photo: Nicholas Knight

MM This August, your portrait of the 44th US President Barack Obama, will go on display at the Brooklyn Museum, as part of a nationwide tour. Do you think the picture will resonate differently in this moment than when it was first unveiled in 2018?

KW I think it’s important to note that, while a work of art is fixed, the consensus surrounding its perception is a constantly changing enterprise. Of course, within the political realities of today’s moment, this portrait can’t help but be seen differently – which is exactly the point. I look forward to the ways in which it will continue to elicit different reactions and illuminate and elucidate what is within the American consciousness.

MM How do you find the increased visibility prompted by such a prestigious and historic commission?

KW Greater visibility creates greater opportunities to provoke, to poke at the contours of art and identity worldwide. It provides a bigger platform for me to make people aware of what I do and why
it is noteworthy and meaningful. It also ups the stakes of how I can challenge myself and what I believe I am capable of doing.

MM The botanical motifs, symbolic in the Obama portrait of the President’s life, heritage, and values, have also crept into your recent commission from American Express to produce a design for their Centurion Card inspired by your 2012 painting Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. What opportunities you feel such collaborations present for artists?

KW The design on the AMEX Centurion Card is a nod to my signature style. The botanicals in my paintings have always been a way of understanding different cultures, since every civilization has found a way of depicting nature in simplified form. My work plunges into diversity and myriad influences to arrive at portraits of individuals. It is exciting to me that contemporary artists can create collaborations across platforms and imagine the ways in which art can situate itself within museums, virtual spaces and commercial spaces. All of these present new opportunities for viewers to engage with my work.

MM Where are you right now?

KW At Black Rock, a fun, magical, cool space on the coast of Dakar – one of the world’s most dynamic, evolving, and relatively young cities. Black Rock allows artists from all over the world to come together and create together, imagining new possibilities for their practices and themselves.

MM After a year of unusual stasis, where do you next want to go?

KW I’d like to go on a deeper dive within Africa, checking out parts of eastern Africa. I’d also like to experience more of the Afro-Latin culture that exists in Mexico, Venezuela and Colombia – to explore further the contours of the blast zone of the African diaspora. And I would like to return to a number of the islands in the Indian Ocean, where there are communities of descendants of African slaves.

This article appeared in Frieze Week, New York 2021

Main image: Kehinde Wiley, Go, 2020, commissioned by Empire State Development in partnership with Public Art Fund for Moynihan Train Hall. Courtesy: the artist, Sean Kelly, New York, Empire State Development and Public Art Fund, New York. Photo: Nicholas Knight

Matthew McLean is Senior Editor, Frieze Studios, based in London, UK.

Kehinde Wiley is an artist based in New York, USA; Beijing, China and Dakar, Senegal. His Public Art Fund commission, Go (2020), is installed in the Moynihan Train Hall at Pennsylvania Station, New York, USA. In 2021 his portrait of Barack Obama will go on view at Brooklyn Museum before traveling to LACMA, Los Angeles; High Museum of Art, Atlanta; and Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (all USA).

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