Life & Culture

How Michael Jackson Impacted the World of Art

As a new exhibition charting the King of Pop’s influence on art opens at the National Portrait Gallery, its curator explains how he inspired five specific artists

“I’m a great fan of art. I love Michelangelo. If I had the chance to talk to him or read about him, I would want to know about what inspired him to become who he is – the anatomy of his craftsmanship. Not about who he want out with last night, or why he decided to sit out in the sun so long…” That’s what Michael Jackson told Oprah Winfrey in 1993, in what remains the most watched television interview in history.

Few have permeated the realm of art like Michael Jackson. Aside from Jesus Christ, there aren’t many people who have inspired creative practitioners to the degree that the MJ has. His influence spans artistic movements and media – something that is explored in the National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibition, Michael Jackson: On the Wall (get it?), which opens today.

Sponsored by Hugo Boss, who created the dazzling white suit worn by Jacko on the cover of his seminal 1982 album Thriller, the show brings together work from a huge variety of artists, who have all interpreted the musician’s legend and legacy in their own unique way. It features a Keith Haring painting (one of his few figurative works), a David LaChapelle photograph, a Grayson Perry pot, a whole room devoted to his relationship with Andy Warhol, and the superstar reimagined as King Phillip II of Spain by Kehinde Wiley. The King of Pop may be dead, walking around these works, it’s impossible not to feel his presence.

“It’s a really unprecedented number of artists that have been drawn to him, and it’s for many reasons,” explains Dr Nicholas Cullinan, the director of the National Portrait Gallery and the curator of this exhibition. “One is that people are fascinated by him. He was such an extraordinary figure, what he achieved, what he accomplished, the barriers he overturned – getting his music videos played on MTV as a black musician, to give one example. He was just extraordinary, he was a genius.”

Visiting the exhibition and you do get a sense of Jackson’s genius and his vast, sprawling impact on modern and contemporary art. You also get a sense of the different ways he impacted individual artists, too – something that Cullinan was keen to convey. “What’s interesting is that no one person has the monopoly on Michael Jackson, who he was and what he represented,” he explains. “And what’s interesting is that there’s so many different ideas around this individual, it’s fascinating. I wanted to make space for that.”

Here, Cullinan expands on this, sharing what Jackson meant to five artists featured in the show.

Keith Haring

“Keith was a big admirer of Michael Jackson and got to meet him through Warhol. He met him backstage at one of his concerts the year before he [Haring] died. The painting we have in the show is extraordinary because it hasn’t been seen for 30 years and it’s so unusual for Keith Haring to make a portrait. It’s an incredible piece.”

David LaChapelle

“David is one of the artists in the show that actually knew Michael Jackson and has very strong feelings about him. He really feels like he was maligned and that what happened to him was appalling. He’s very outspoken about that and clear that he feels it was a travesty, how he was treated.”

Grayson Perry

“Well we interviewed Grayson and he said this is from the 90s. It depicts Michael Jackson and Kurt Cobain as two 90s icons and he said, ‘This is a pot about popular culture, and Michael Jackson is the King of Pop.’”

Andy Warhol

“Well Warhol again knew him and that was a very reciprocal relationship and there’s a whole room in the exhibition looking at that. We have a clip of the Scream video, where he’s in a spaceship, there’s a remote-controlled art gallery featuring a self-portrait of Warhol. So that’s very interesting. Because that’s a relationship over ten years. There’s almost 30 mentions of meeting Michael Jackson in Warhol’s diaries and that’s two giants of late 20th-century culture responding to each other.”

Faith Ringgold

“Faith made this quilt in tribute to Michael Jackson. It features him alongside other black heroes such as Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela. She says she wanted to put him in that pantheon because those are people who were fantastic and did incredible things for black people, and Michael Jackson was fantastic.”

Sponsored by Hugo Boss, Michael Jackson: On the Wall is at the National Portrait Gallery, London, until October 21, 2018