The Legend of Michael Jackson

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One of the most significant cultural figures of the contemporary era was pop icon Michael Jackson, whose legendary creativity reached broadly across music, video, dance, and fashion. His boundless aptitudes hold great influence today, 40 years after his breakout stardom. Celebrating his impression on contemporary art, the traveling exhibition Michael Jackson: On the Wall marks its second destination this month at the Grand Palais Galerie, Paris. In its early years, the venue exhibited art from the Salon des Artistes Français, Salon d’Automne, and Salon des Indépendants. Recently, it has been home to fashion runway shows from Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, and Issey Miyake. In its current presentation On the Wall, the Grand Palais features nearly 50 artworks of Jackson, bridging both his artistry and definitive style. The show highlights essential artists Andy Warhol, Kehinde Wiley, David Hammons, Catherine Opie, and Glenn Ligon with a range of generations, nationalities, perspectives, and mediums representing the universal fascination with Jackson as a creator and an icon.

On the Wall discovers the art world’s broad interest in Jackson and his larger-than-life presence. Even posthumously, Jackson is one of the most represented figures in visual art, beginning with Andy Warhol’s first image of him for the cover of Interview magazine in 1982. Warhol made a second portrait of Jackson for a Time cover in 1984. Photographer David LaChapelle, who began his career as a Warhol protégé, also produced a series of artworks representing Jackson after his death. “An Illuminating Path,” 1998 recreates the notorious “Billie Jean” video, where Jackson dances down a walking path and his movements light the steps beneath his feet.

Mark Ryden’s “The King of Pop (#135),” 1991 was commissioned by Jackson as the cover artwork for his album, Dangerous. The artist devised the painting over a period of months while listening to the album’s songs. His complex work shows Jackson looking out from behind a mask over the entrance to an amusement park, a visual metaphor for his emotional and personal retreat as his fame increasingly grew. Isa Genzken created a series entitled “Wind” after Jackson’s death. “Wind (Michael/David),” 2009 merges imagery of Jackson and his inimitable gifts for dance and movement with art historical references. The last portrait of Jackson commissioned before his passing was Kehinde Wiley’s “Equestrian Portrait of King Philip II (Michael Jackson),” 2010 showing Jackson in armor on horseback, incorporating a variety of art historical references. Though Jackson died halfway through the creation of the piece, Wiley finished the work in honor of the singer’s memory.

Jackson grew up in a world very different from the one he ultimately created for himself. He was raised in a working-class home in Gary, Indiana, one of nine siblings. His musical career began with singing and performing as the lead in his family’s Motown group, The Jackson 5. The musical group was managed by patriarch Joseph Jackson, and went on to become widely successful, eventually opening for R&B greats Gladys Knight and the Pips, James Brown, and Sam and Dave. After signing with Motown founder Berry Gordy in 1969, the Jackson 5 moved to Los Angeles, but disconnected in 1976 due to management issues. Jackson then branched off on his own with a 1979 solo album, Off the Wall.

The artist quickly became a best-selling musical talent, acclaimed for his gifts in singing, songwriting, and dance with Number 1 hits on his albums Off the Wall, Thriller, and Bad. Despite his vastly successful solo career over the following decades, Jackson’s private persona was introverted and uncomfortable in the media spotlight. In the late ‘80s, he created a fantasy retreat at his California ranch, Neverland, complete with exotic pets and amusement park rides. Jackson became well-known for his eccentric lifestyle and proclivities, and ultimately faced many unfavorable allegations. Shortly before launching his comeback tour in 2009, the artist died of a drug overdose.

Nearly ten years after his death, Jackson’s fame, enigma, and legacy are as present as ever. On the Wall uncovers who Michael Jackson was as a musical artist, cultural icon, and the person behind his prodigious stardom. His records sales continue to elevate, now in excess of one billion, as does his loyal fan base. His impact and popularity show no signs of waning. A documentary of Jackson’s preparations for his final tour, This Is It was released in October 2009, generating 1 million worldwide and becoming the highest grossing concert film in history. Long after his lifetime, Jackson remains a captivating subject in contemporary culture, influencing long-standing and recent generations of artists and fans throughout the world.

Michael Jackson: On the Wall is on view at the Grand Palais Galerie in Paris now until February 14, 2019. The exhibition will then travel to The Bundeskunsthalle, Bonn and Espoo Museum of Modern Art, Finland.

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