Kehinde Wiley - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Afternoon Session New York Wednesday, November 15, 2023 | Phillips

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  • Kehinde Wiley’s Passing/Posing (The Reluctant Messiah), 2002, relays a sense of pride and grace as a young Black man confidently poses against an ornate decorative pink and silver background. Drawing inspiration from old masters such as Titian and Michelangelo, Wiley transforms ordinary individuals into monumental subjects reminiscent of the royal and ecclesiastical sitters of his predecessors. In the present example, a young man in a bright orange hoodie stands with his right hand outstretched and his left hand across his heart in a pose reminiscent of devotional Catholic paintings. A lush cyan reflects off his skin as he gazes out, his head encircled by a golden halo, in a brilliant collapse of the classical and the contemporary.

    Once triggered by a mugshot of a Black man found on a neighborhood sidewalk, Wiley reflected on portraiture from the eighteenth century and noticed the stark contrast between portraits of the disempowered and those conveying divinity, heroism, and self-possession. This led him to consider the choices of bodily positioning in in portraits and how this can impart dramatically different connotations. This revelation fueled Wiley's desire to redefine the narrative, stating, “I was breastfed going to museums and wanting to be able to copy that language and get it right, and when it became my turn to play, I wanted the protagonist of that story to look like me. I wanted to occupy that field of power.”i

    “I'm talking about the body that I navigate the world with, the difference in the way it has been pictured historically and the way that it feels to taste it, to inhibit it, and to be reminded daily of the dissonance between its representation and its actuality as the subject matter of my work.”
    —Kehinde Wiley

    Wiley adopted what he calls “street casting” in his landmark series Passing/Posing, inviting young Black men, strangers on the street, to pose for his work. The series addresses the imbalance of power inherent in images such as police mugshots, rejecting the historically passive role of the sitter and instead opting to make subjects active participants with a degree of creative agency. Wiley encourages his models to go through art history books, look at the positions held by nobility and biblical figures in Renaissance and Baroque paintings, and choose a pose to emulate.  


    In Passing/Posing (The Reluctant Messiah), Wiley puts forth a grand-scale portrait loaded with reimagined historical references. The golden frame, traditionally symbolic of a sacred space, challenges Western European notions of grace. The present example combines this with mandala iconography drawn from Hinduism. Traditionally symbolic of a womb, the mandala here is surrounded by undulant sperm and faces with plumed caps or avian-like bodies. Passing/Posing (The Reluctant Messiah) serves as a testament to Wiley’s ability to fill a single canvas with profound meaning, challenging norms and inviting viewers to engage in a thoughtful exploration of societal narratives and personal identity. 



    i Kehinde Wiley, quoted in Sam Fragoso, “Opening Night with Artist Kehinde Wiley,” Talk Easy with Sam Fragoso, January 29, 2023, online.

    • Provenance

      Deitch Projects, New York
      Private Collection (acquired from the above in 2003)
      Phillips, New York, March 7, 2014, lot 151
      Private Collection, Chicago (acquired at the above sale)
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2019

    • Exhibited

      New York, Deitch Projects, Faux/Real, May 10–June 14, 2003

Property from a Notable American Collection


Passing/Posing (The Reluctant Messiah)

signed and dated "Kehinde Wiley 02" on the reverse
oil and graphite on canvas, in artist's frame
71 x 59 in. (180.3 x 149.9 cm)
Executed in 2002.

Full Cataloguing

$100,000 - 150,000 

Contact Specialist

Patrizia Koenig 
Specialist, Head of Sale, Afternoon Session
+1 212 940 1279 

20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Afternoon Session

New York Auction 15 November 2023