Amy Sherald: The World We Make

- by Jenni Sorkin, Kevin Quashie & Ta-nehisi Coates Hauser & Wirth Publishers, ®¯$55 (hardcover)

Opening up this monograph (billed as the first ‘widely available’ book on the American painter), art historian Jenni Sorkin declares that Amy Sherald is widely known for ‘frank, front-facing portraits of black people, subjects who have long been overlooked in both the history of art and American civic life’.

She then rattles o‰ some standard catalogue fodder, linking Sherald to an art-historical narrative that features painter Romaine Brooks, photograph­er Ansel Adams (from whom, collective­ly, Sorkin suggests Sherald draws inspiratio­n for her signature use of greyscale when representi­ng Black skin) and painter Laura Wheeler Waring (who used street casting). In an interview at the end of the book, Ta-nehisi Coates will state to Sherald that ‘I’ve heard you refer to the influence of photograph­y from the nineteenth century. Until I read that, it hadn’t even occurred to me how classic your work really is.’ The idea, for Sorkin, is presumably to correct that perception.

And in so doing, to build up a connection to approved art-historical greatness. The price of which is the implicatio­n that what Sherald does is nothing new. So Sorkin has to pivot at times to suggest that Sherald is also doing the reverse: challengin­g tradition. The Bathers (2015), for example is ‘a direct a‰ront to the long tradition of French modernist painters such as Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, and Henri Matisse admiring – but also leering – at women’.

Next up is academic Kevin Quashie (‘I quote his work often’, Sherald says later, crediting him as the inspiratio­n for her greyscale skintones), who describes, in terms at once more personal and more abstract, the operations of desire, ideology and the aesthetic of what he calls ‘mere beauty’ in the artist’s work. Coates goes in for a more personal look at the artist in an interview that eventually, but too slowly, becomes a conversati­on.

It’s biography that is the key to Sherald’s work here. We learn about Sherald’s heart transplant, the role of faith in her life and how important the experience of painting a portrait of Michelle Obama in 2017 was to her career and her sense of being a public figure afterwards. Collective­ly it’s a little confused. But the illustrati­ons are great. Nirmala Devi

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