WAS MICHAEL JACKSON the most famous person who ever lived? Not just in his own time, but of all time? Or the most recognizable person, let’s say, leaving aside figures like Jesus or the Buddha for whom no verifiable likeness exists? It’s a purely conjectural question, of course. It can’t really be answered—partly because the parameters have shifted so much in recent years, with the expanded reach of media online; but also because fame itself, particularly at the level of global superstardom, isn’t quantifiable in this way, isn’t something that can be reduced to any simple metric. Not that this stopped the National Portrait Gallery in London, with its summer blockbuster exhibition, “Michael Jackson: On the Wall,” from having a go.
“Since Andy Warhol first used his image in 1982,” the publicity material for the show asserted, “Jackson has become the most depicted cultural figure in visual art,” shortening the description elsewhere to the more universal, “the most depicted cultural figure.” The National Portrait Gallery didn’t provide any evidence for its claim, beyond the show itself (which added slightly to the image tally by including a number of newly commissioned works). Still, the thrust of the museum’s argument was clear: more than any other celebrity or superstar, more than fellow multimillion-sellers Elvis or the Beatles, and certainly more than any actor or politician, it is Jackson—with his preternatural dance moves, his distinctive attire, his uncannily altered features—who currently has the greatest visual impact of anybody in the world, whose image has the strongest purchase on our collective imagination. Whether feted or vilified, he is, nine years on from his death, undeniably iconic.
All of which is to say that “Michael Jackson: On the Wall” didn’t merely commemorate the deceased superstar but aimed to say something about the nature of his fame and celebrity. Curated by the National Portrait Gallery’s director, Nicholas Cullinan, it was a quite different sort of affair from other recent pop-star-centered shows, such as “David Bowie Is” at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in 2013 or the Björk debacle at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 2015. It wasn’t about showing off stage costumes or memorabilia, it didn’t seek to illustrate any narrative about Jackson’s own life. Rather, it explored how his image and influence were—and, posthumously, continue to be—culturally disseminated, by gathering works by forty-eight artists who took him as their subject.
To be sure, some of these works were “official” pieces, created with Jackson’s imprimatur, such as Kehinde Wiley’s glibly monumental Equestrian Portrait of King Philip II (Michael Jackson), 2010—the last, typically kitsch, portrait that Jackson commissioned before he died. In it the so-called King of Pop is photorealistically styled after the eponymous Rubens painting, complete with martial baton, gaudily resplendent armor, and fluttering, wreath-bearing cherubs. And there were also occasional moments of theme-park sensationalism, à la the Björk show—most dramatically, a giant, wall-size reproduction of Mark Ryden’s cover art for the 1991 Dangerous album. The regally themed mise-en-scène, arrayed below Jackson’s looming eyes, formed a kind of palatial doorway at the end of a corridor for visitors to pass through (and, inevitably, take selfies against).
Other works, though, explored this notion of portraiture and reverence in far subtler and more affecting ways. In Dara Birnbaum’s quartet of Polaroid photos of an MTV music video playing on a monitor in 1983 or ’84, Jackson is nothing more than a grainy, smoke-blurred silhouette—yet not only is he still instantly recognizable, but his moves and gestures seem accentuated, his form reduced and fetishized as a sort of pure visual essence. Candice Breitz’s video King (A Portrait of Michael Jackson), 2005, meanwhile, doesn’t show Jackson at all: the work is a multichannel projection featuring sixteen Jackson fans and imitators, each performing an a cappella rendition of the whole of his 1982 album, Thriller. Synced together, the segments yield a choir that invokes a compositely imagined Jackson, a superstar-idol constructed from the fantasies and longings of his admirers. And there was also a reciprocal take on hero worship and wish fulfillment, in Glenn Ligon’s Self-Portrait at Seven Years Old (2005), a small drawing that actually portrays not Ligon but Jackson at that age.
Of course, when it comes to the nexus of concepts around fame, desire, and popular imagery, Warhol must figure prominently, and “On the Wall” dedicated an entire side room to him. Warhol was fascinated by Jackson, photographing him for the cover of Interview in 1982, and eventually devoting several boxes of everyday artifacts, part of his “Time Capsule” series, to the singer. The contents, displayed in vitrines (a backdoor way of getting some memorabilia into the show, perhaps), included press items and photos, as well as more curious objects such as a Jackson “Grammy Award Outfit” doll. But it was Warhol’s three silkscreen prints of a smiling Jackson, made for a Time magazine cover in 1984, that felt most significant, their saturated colors and icy flatness spawning a whole aesthetic lineage—from the high-gloss precision painting of Gary Hume’s Michael (2001) to the cool haphazardness of Isa Genzken’s series of “Wind” collages (2009), which combine shiny plastic and metal with photographs of Jackson, to the slick, graphic outlines of Michael Craig-Martin’s portrait of the performer in his Jackson 5 days, made especially for the show. Though they weren’t displayed together, these and other works mapped out a particular iconography of fame, a domain of surface and artifice, of brilliant and impenetrable appearance.
AMONG THE OTHER, parallel motifs that emerged in the exhibition was the malleability of identity, often evoked by masks and masquerade—the most intriguing such work being Dan Mihaltianu’s installation The Last Days of Michael Jackson in Bucharest (1992–2013), which comments on Romania’s shifting, post-Communist environment by displaying official “Jacksonmania” masks given out at his concerts alongside faces cut from Romanian newspapers. Another recurring trope was invisibility or disappearance: Appau Junior Boakye-Yiadom’s P.Y.T. (2009), a pair of shoes suspended on tiptoes, as if an unseen Jackson were performing his “freeze” dance move; Jordan Wolfson’s digitally altered segment of interview footage, Neverland (2006), featuring nothing but Jackson’s eyes, blinking and floating amid a blank surround; and David Hammons’s Which Mike do you want to be like . . .? (2001), with its three stark microphone stands invoking an African American trinity of idolized Mikes/Michaels (Tyson, Jackson, and Jordan). Collectively, these works conveyed a sense of Jackson’s fame being so great, so elevated, that he no longer seemed to belong to the here-and-now of tangible reality, but instead somehow existed on a different, more universalized or abstracted, plane. And Jackson was not alone in being elsewhere: Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988) by Jeff Koons, probably the most famous portrayal of Jackson, was also absent (its fragile nature, a wall text said, made it unavailable for loan to the exhibition). And yet, like a weird substitute for Jackson, Koons’s sculpture became a subject for other works—namely a photographic series by Louise Lawler and a parodic wall sculpture by Paul McCarthy.
The latter was one of the best things in the show. Green Grey Symmetrical Michael Jackson (2003) is a relief caricature of Koons’s piece, with Jackson’s limbs and head grossly out of proportion, and the whole arrangement, Rorschach-like, vertically symmetrical. It may be a tad formulaic for McCarthy, but, within the context of the exhibition as a whole, its attitude of iconoclasm and exaggeration felt rather refreshing. Indeed, it was one of very few pieces to evoke the more insalubrious, monstrous, shape-shifting aspects of Jackson—the other main example comprising works from Paul Pfeiffer’s series of videos on small LCD screens, “Live Evil” (2002–). In the four selections on view, Jackson’s concert performances are digitally manipulated, his torso mirrored onto itself so that he appears as some headless, multi-armed Shiva figure, flapping and gliding about the stage like a sinister sort of moth.
For the most part, though, the dominant tone of the show was celebratory: whether Jackson was treated as a messianic or angelic figure, as in several large-scale photographs by David LaChapelle; or as an emblem of African American pride, as in works by Faith Ringgold or Lyle Ashton Harris; or just generally as a sort of cultural marker for our times, in a whole range of works—celebrating his celebrity, essentially. Not that you’d expect anything else, given that the exhibition was organized in collaboration with the Jackson Estate. But still, glossing over the aura of scandal and dysfunction, if not outright horror, that came to attach to Jackson during the last two decades of his life certainly seemed like a kind of evasion. After all, whatever degree of credence one gives the child abuse allegations, they were indisputably part of what Jackson, by the end of his life, was famous for.
The exhibition was largely silent, then, on the more tragic side of fame—the isolation that mass notoriety engenders, the debilitating privilege, the weirdness and paranoia. Surely if anyone epitomized these qualities, it was Jackson. Nor did very many works come to grips with what is the one certain truth about the nature of fame: that it is notoriously fickle, that almost all renown eventually fades. Take those claims which the National Portrait Gallery accorded to Jackson—that he was in his time the most depicted person, whether in the visual arts or in the world as a whole. If they have a familiar ring to them, it’s because virtually identical statements have been made, throughout modern times, about one figure or another, individuals whose level of popularity from today’s vantage point seems faintly incredible—Buffalo Bill, for example, during the late nineteenth century.
It’s arguable, though, that in Jackson’s case things will be different. Perhaps the advent of the internet, and its promise of the instant retrieval of past media, means that from now on we’ll all live in a kind of perpetual cultural present. That, at least, was the half-nightmarish, half-enchanting sentiment behind one of the most cogent works in the show, Michael Robinson’s video projection These Hammers Don’t Hurt Us (2010). A strobing, psychedelic montage of sampled footage, it recombines various ancient Egyptian themed excerpts—History Channel documentaries, mummy films, several of Jackson’s most deliriously spectacular videos and live concerts—to recast Jackson as a kind of deathless deity, mummified within media, awaiting his apotheosis. Finally, accompanied by Elizabeth Taylor in her title role from Cleopatra (1963), Jackson ascends, entering into his afterlife as an ethereal, virtual entity, incandescent, omnipresent, famous forever.