William Carlos Williams once wrote, “The pure products of America go crazy,” and Michael Jackson is a perfect example. No performer of the past half-century has been quite as pure, as single-minded and consummate: He was never offstage or out of character. Surely he was a product, marketed and sold since he was five years old, with superlatively exhausting success; and he was very definitely American, his face and body a virtual map of our obsessions: race and gender, age and sexuality. And, yes, he was a little mad.
Jackson would have been 60 this year—an arresting fact, if you think about it, for not only was he a child when we first heard him but he did his best to never grow up, a trick he managed for several decades, through massive hit records, disturbing plastic surgeries, and horrifying accusations. But even a man-child as determined as he was can’t make the act last forever. Instead, he died, nine years ago, at the tidy age of 50.
How much did he matter? One of the striking things about “Michael Jackson: On the Wall,” a show opening at London’s National Portrait Gallery in June, is the range of work that he inspired among artists who otherwise have little in common. Isa Genzken, for example, is represented in the show by a collage made from photographs of Jackson arrayed above a reproduction of a 15th-century triptych altarpiece by Stephan Lochner. Other pieces include a ceremonious equestrian portrait by Kehinde Wiley painted in the manner of Rubens; a Catherine Opie photograph of Liz Taylor’s closet that shows what appears to be one of Jackson’s elaborate costumes; and, of course, the inevitable Warhol portrait.
It’s all first-rate stuff, but it’s just a sample of the show, which boasts works by more than 40 artists, from heroes like David Hammons and Faith Ringgold to lesser-knowns like Klara Liden and Lorraine O’Grady. I can’t think of another entertainer who would attract so formidable a lineup (and the catalog includes essays by Zadie Smith and Margo Jefferson).
For a world-class museum to mount such an exhibition might seem, at first glance, merely clever: another strenuous high-low mash-up. But the National Portrait Gallery is, after all, a gallery of portraits, the most venerable form of celebrity image-making we have, and the work in the show is complex, elegiac, and sometimes simply strange. As strange and brilliant as Jackson himself? Yes, and some times as pure, as American, and just about as crazy. June 28–October 21; npg.org.uk.