Chasing the Myth of Michael Jackson

A new exhibition in London, titled On the Wall, seeks to understand what the superstar—and, more importantly, what his image—meant to the world.

'An Illuminating Path' (1998), by the artist David LaChapelle
An Illuminating Path (1998), by the artist David LaChapelle (David LaChapelle / National Portrait Gallery, London)

In 1985, when the King of Pop was at the height of his fame and the beginning of his infamy, James Baldwin wrote that the “Michael Jackson cacophony is fascinating in that it is not about Jackson at all.” Tabloids, fans, and critics alike wondered of the entertainer: Is he asexual? How many surgeries has he had? Does he want to be white? Who is the real Michael Jackson? Is there a real Michael Jackson? This frenzy, Baldwin argued, was really about money, race, sexual panic, and the “burning, buried American guilt.” The notion that people’s obsession with the singer isn’t really about him, but about the constellation of issues reflected by his life and work, appears to animate Michael Jackson: On the Wall, an ongoing exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

The show’s curator, Nicholas Cullinan, acknowledges as much. In the On the Wall catalog, he writes that the collection, which is on view until October 21, is “not about biography.” Through roughly 100 works created by 48 contemporary artists during and beyond the span of Jackson’s life (including new pieces made specifically for the show), On the Wall explores the performer’s complex power as a cultural symbol. The featured artists hail from around the world—a testament to how Jackson, as the first truly global music superstar, embodied more than the dreams and anxieties of just America. In short, the exhibition examines not Michael Jackson the man, but Michael Jackson the myth.

Mythology pervaded Jackson’s own art and self-presentation. When declaring he was Peter Pan, Jackson was alluding to the puer aeternus, or the eternal boy-child, which has its roots in Roman myth. When pleading for humanity to “Heal the World”—to be stewards of the Earth, to promote love above all—Jackson often positioned himself as a divine messenger or Christ-like figure. The entertainer didn’t shy away from deploying darker characters like tricksters and shape-shifters in his music either, as seen in the videos for “Thriller” and “Ghosts.”

Nimes Road, Bedside Table, 2010–2011, by Catherine Opie (Catherine Opie / Regen Projects, Los Angeles / National Portrait Gallery, London)

The personal narrative Jackson built around his life, through his music and public actions, seems to mirror a popular conceit described by the comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces: A child endowed with extraordinary gifts from birth becomes a champion whose deeds will redeem humanity. If Campbell’s hero loses his way, he can become a monstrous tyrant who must then be defeated. But whether he’s a victim or a villain at the end of his life, the warrior leaves behind a singular and enduring moral tale for the world.

In reality, as On the Wall attests, there isn’t one coherent story arc that can capture the disparate ways people saw Jackson, who traced a rough path from musical prodigy to beloved superstar to alleged child abuser to Hollywood casualty. Fittingly, in the exhibition, the entertainer’s bodily form is often fragmented. His hands, his feet, his mournful sanpaku eyes, and his instantly recognizable silhouette appear in isolation as the focus of certain works. But dissecting the musician, who would have turned 60 this month, is just one of the many ways the artists in On the Wall try to answer the question: How and why has Michael Jackson become so ingrained in our collective imagination?

Collective imagination is Cullinan’s phrase, but it echoes the analytical psychologist Carl Jung’s idea of a “collective unconscious,” which consists of archetypes that everyone in the world innately understands despite cultural differences. In the Jungian view, myths reveal a society’s essential desires and fears, making these tales fruitful material for artists. Indeed, many of the pieces in On the Wall attempt to analyze the phenomenon of Jackson by invoking foundational stories, whether Greco-Roman, Christian, or characteristically American. Appearing throughout the show are images that allude to tropes such as the persecuted savior, the American dream, and the sacred king.

Equestrian Portrait of King Philip II (Michael Jackson), 2010, by Kehinde Wiley (Stephen Friedman Gallery, London / Sean Kelly Gallery, New York / National Portrait Gallery)

Kehinde Wiley’s immense equestrian portrait of Jackson calls to mind the latter of these models. Initially begun months before the singer died in 2009 and completed in 2010, the painting is based on the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens’s (also posthumous) portrait of Philip II of Spain. Wiley doesn’t seem to depict the Jackson of the late-2000s but Bad-era Michael—young, with long curly hair and brown skin. Dressed in armor, Jackson is being crowned from above, as a battle rages on at the bottom of the hill. The entertainer appears unconcerned by the drama unfolding below him and exudes the assuredness of an absolute monarch.

Wiley is known for creating large-scale portraits of black people in majestic poses, and for empowering his subjects by inserting them into a white-dominated, Western art-history tradition. But Jackson, of course, had been likened to royalty for decades before Wiley painted him. The most obvious example is the “King of Pop” moniker, but David Nordahl, who was Jackson’s portrait artist from 1988 to 2005, also depicted the singer as King Arthur in one painting and being crowned in another triptych.

In one of the most overt uses of symbolism, the American photographer David LaChapelle borrows Catholic iconography to portray the singer as a martyr. The piece American Jesus: Hold Me, Carry Me Boldly shows Jesus cradling Jackson’s lifeless body in a reconfigured pietà. Jackson’s limp right arm points at his discarded sequined glove, and the singer wears performance clothes, suggesting he sacrificed himself to entertain the world. Completed in 2009, it’s an early and rather extreme illustration of the zeal with which artists and fans alike sought Jackson’s posthumous redemption. LaChapelle doesn’t omit Jesus from the pietà entirely, but places Jackson in Jesus’s spot to confer a death-by-persecution narrative onto the embattled entertainer. Jackson looks small, devoid of the power and magnetism he exerted in his prime. The singer himself flirted with allusions to Christ while alive, drawing ire most notably from the Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker, who invaded the stage at the 1996 Brit Awards to protest what he saw as Jackson’s messianic pretensions.

Ambition of the grandest and most tragic sort is how the New York–based artist Lorraine O’Grady connects Jackson to the 19th-century French poet Charles Baudelaire. O’Grady places photographs of Jackson and Baudelaire side by side in four diptychs titled The First and the Last of the Modernists (2010) to present two creators who she feels were destroyed by their desire to be like God. For O’Grady, “no one [had] a more godlike vision of art than Michael Jackson,” who in his utopian desire to change the world “changed his face to become the absolute embodiment of the entire world.” Placing Baudelaire and Jackson at either end of an artistic lineage elevates the latter’s actions from what looked to some like madness to the Icarian strivings of a pioneer. Jackson’s life then becomes a cautionary tale, but one viewers might admire for the sheer gall of its protagonist. Much like the speaker of Baudelaire’s poem “The Lamentations of an Icarus,” both the writer and entertainer were left with broken wings for wanting to hug the clouds.

For many onlookers, Jackson’s hubris reached staggering heights during the promotion of his ninth studio album, HIStory, in 1995. The musician released a short-film teaser (directed by Rupert Wainwright) whose hyper-militaristic tone inspired Chris Willman of the Los Angeles Times to call it “the most baldly vainglorious self-deification a pop singer has yet deigned to share with his public, at least with a straight face.” In the film, fans are shown scrambling to see a tarpaulin-covered object that is revealed to be a gigantic statue of Jackson. The crowd becomes hysterical, but the man they’re screaming for is nowhere to be seen. One fan yells out, “Michael, I love you!” as though the statue were actually Jackson. In a manner reminiscent of this film, a few On the Wall pieces explore the singer’s influence through his absence.

The Los Angeles–based artist Rodney McMillian’s video collage Untitled (An Audience) focuses solely on the crowd at the concert for the 30th-anniversary celebration of Jackson’s solo career at Madison Square Garden in 2001. The fans shout, sob, and dance, but Jackson never once appears. With the superstar edited out of the footage by McMillian, Jackson’s effect is demonstrated in the audience’s bacchanalian mania.

David Hammons’s installation Which Mike do you want to be like … ? (2001) also avoids physically depicting Jackson, drawing on the meaning of his name. The work consists of three microphones of varying height, but all too tall for the average person to use, each alluding to three famous African American men named Michael—Jordan, Tyson, and Jackson. Hammons’s piece presents the three Michaels as metonyms for the achievement of the American dream and for the unfair—and narrow—expectations of excellence placed on so many black artists and athletes in the United States.

However vast the gulf between them and their idols, fans often come to see these celebrities as extensions of themselves. The multimedia artist Glenn Ligon’s Self Portrait at Seven Years Old (2005) points to how profoundly so many of Jackson’s young black fans identified with the musician. It is not a painting of Ligon, not literally. Instead, it is a haunting pointillist portrait of a young Jackson—a reminder that many black children in the late ’60s and early ’70s looked at the Jackson 5’s halo afros and humble midwestern beginnings and saw themselves. “You can become so intensely identified with pop-culture figures that they become part of how you see yourself in the world,” Ligon explained in 2004.

Michael Jackson, 1984 by Andy Warhol. (Smithsonian Institution / National Portrait Gallery, London)

Recalling the adage that art holds a mirror to nature, Campbell suggests in The Power of Myth that “all of these wonderful poetic images of mythology are referring to something in you.” But what about the not-so-wonderful images? Do they reflect something in the viewer, too? In 1997’s “Is It Scary?”, Jackson sang “If you want to see / Eccentrialities / I’ll be grotesque / Before your eyes … So did you come to me to see your fantasies performed before your very eyes?” In On the Wall, the British painter Dawn Mellor has a painting of Jackson as a zombie reaching toward the viewer with eyes bulging larger and glowing brighter than they ever did in the “Thriller” video. The image seems to ask, as Jackson did, Am I the beast you visualized?

The exhibition includes just a few pieces that appear to humanize the singer. Sam Lipp’s painting Looking (2015) depicts Jackson in his later years, with huge eyes gazing into the distance. The ambiguity of Jackson’s expression invites the viewer to wonder what he thinks and feels, imbuing him with an interiority that most of the other works don’t. Lipp’s use of steel wool as a brush creates a pixelated, TV-static effect. It softens Jackson’s features in a way that seemingly attempts to both confront and soothe a general public who “lacked a collective willingness to address and accept the images of [the artist] at the end of his life,” as Lipp told Cullinan in an email quoted in the show’s catalog.

It’s no surprise that while a handful of works in On the Wall engage with the darker side of Jackson’s story (such as the 2005 molestation trial, in which the singer was acquitted), Andy Warhol’s 1984 portraits of a prelapsarian Jackson get top billing by the museum. Nostalgia triumphs. If Baldwin once wrote about the “cacophony” surrounding Jackson, visitors to the exhibit might find themselves reflecting on how that public scrutiny may have played a role in the pop star’s untimely death. But it would be hard to blame those who might prefer to delight in the more harmonious visions of the artist on display, myths and all.