On Sunday night, as Miami Basel’s last lights were winking out, Kehinde Wiley was bopping around the back yard of the Shore Club in a floral-print suit, grinning, smoking, and greeting guests. He was hosting his annual closing-night fish fry.
Saturday’s thunderstorm had forced Wiley to cancel his traditional fishing expedition-just as it had frustrated an ambitious, hippie-flavored group-dance sequence organized on the beach outside the Shore Club by choreographer Natalie Kovacs, Ben & Jerry’s, and Interview magazine—but the food was tasty and the crowd was visibly pleased to kick back in the absence of sponsors and clipboard-toting publicists. “The idea was to have a space where the artists can get away from this type of massive bloodletting of art consumption,” Wiley explained. LEFT: KEHINDE WILEY WITH PAIGE POWELL AND DAVID LACHAPPELLE)
Bloodletting is a familiar analogy in Miami Beach: earlier in the week, Chuck Close compared trolling the Basel booths to a “guided tour of a slaughterhouse.” But Wiley’s “Equestrian Portrait of King Philip II” had killed. The subject of breathless pre-fair hype, it was sold by Deitch Projects (for $175,000) to a Berlin museum within minutes of Basel’s opening.
“I think there was a reasonable expectation there would be a sensation, just given the nature of the sitter,” Wiley reflected. That would be Michael Jackson in the place of the eponymous king, surrounded by cherubs. “But also, as an artist, you know when you’re on.” As if on cue, a trio of women who seemed very excited to see him tugged on Wiley’s arm and said hi. “As I was saying, there’s a certain knowledge you have of when a painting is either fighting you or being actualized in the way that’s intended. And I think we hit this one out of the park.”
On the one hand, a splashy painting of the late King of Pop (much like the ubiquitous images of Barack Obama at Basel last year) is the ultimate softball. But Wiley’s Rubens-inspired twelve-footer soaked up more love than Jackson-oriented work by David LaChapelle or Jonathan Monk. The portrait—which Jackson commissioned but never lived to see—is more of a detour for Wiley than some might think. Yes, he’s known for painting African-American men in a somewhat sweeter version of the Old Masters. Ice T, LL Cool J, and Pharrell Williams are among his subjects. “If you look at the entire oeuvre, though, there’s perhaps less than one percent [that’s] celebrity portraits,” Wiley said. “Those are very rare, and they’re moments where I feel as though there can be something fruitful.”
There’s a lot of globe-trotting in the artist’s future, and hardly any work (at least art-wise) that involves celebrities. He’s got parties and exhibitions (not to mention a Puma shoe launch) in cities around the world tied to South Africa’s hosting of the 2010 World Cup. His next major U.S. show, which opens this spring at the Rhona Hoffman Gallery, explores the “African-American-influenced hip-hop culture that you see everywhere from Brazil to Sri Lanka to Cambodia,” Wiley says. He conducted street castings in South Asia for those paintings, just as he will do on the trip he’s trying to schedule to Afghanistan. The plan there is to swap in young men from Kabul for the Bamiyan Buddhas, the centuries-old rock carvings famously destroyed by the Taliban. And Wiley added that he’s looking for a studio in Senegal to fill the gap between his spaces in Brooklyn and Beijing.
Wiley owns a suit for every day of the year—”the full range, from nasty to classy,” he boasted—but not every day is a suit day. “What I usually do is have very intense periods of working, and it’s a very sort of lonely existence. And then of course you’re thrust into this very public life,” he explained. The music kept thumping. “It’s a very bipolar existence.”