Kehinde Wiley - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Thursday, March 7, 2024 | Phillips

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  • “Kehinde Wiley is a history painter […] he creates history as much as tells it’”
    —Holland Cotter, The New York Times


    The largest of Kehinde Wiley’s work to have been offered at auction, Christian Martyr Tarcisius is a commanding image, full of majesty and pomp. Created in 2008, the same year as Barack Obama was sworn in as President of the United States, the work is realised on a scale seldom seen in contemporary portraiture, Wiley reconceptualising the formal apparatus of easel painting to create a dynamic, statuesque portrait that challenge hierarchies of race, gender, and taste. 


    Since 2001, Kehinde Wiley has reconsidered historical sculptural and pictorial form through his portraits, challenging and expanding the narrower traditions of the European and American art historical canon. Wiley recalls the prevalence of these frameworks during childhood in Los Angeles, where under the encouragement of his mother, he first visited the Huntington Library Art Gallery. Wiley notes that ‘Joshua Renoylds, Thomas Gainsborough and John Constable were some of my favourites’ through their opulence yet ‘as a twentieth-century poor Black kid […] I had no way of digesting it’. 


    In appropriating a western pictorial tradition that was used to galvanise secular or religious figures, Wiley reintroduces the historically and socially marginalised Black individual into the frame on a heroic scale. In Christian Martyr Tarcisius, the sitter’s clasped hands, recumbent form, parted lips, and pious gaze directly reference Alexandre Falguière’s 1868 sculpture Tarcisius, martyr chrétien. Falguière had taken the spiritual subject of the young Tarcisius on the edge of death, shielding in his hands the Body of Christ from those who attacked him. Yet, in defiance of the delicacy and fragility of Falguière’s sculpture, Wiley’s Tarcisius is beyond life-size, his epic proportions rendered in exuberant colour. In this way, Christian Martyr Tarcisius is as much poignant as it is victorious and affirming. 


    Alexandre Falguière, Saint Tarcisius, 1868, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, European Sculpture and Decorative Arts Fund, 2007, 2007.407

    Wiley ascribes his sitter’s agency throughout his approach to image-making. His subjects are selected at random, through a process of ‘street casting’ that Wiley commenced in 2001 in Harlem, and has subsequently extended globally, from China and Haiti to Senegal and Jamaica. Those who accept Wiley’s invitation to the studio then choose poses from historical artworks and are photographed in their own clothes: ‘there are no props or dressing people up’, Wiley emphasises. Therefore, Wiley champions ‘the beauty in that person who was just walking by you, who the world is ignoring’, exalting popular culture through paint, particularly the world of hip hop.


    In Christian Martyr Tarcisius, by complicating the relationship between the figure and the patterned field, Wiley brings the cultural associations of pattern into central focus. Like Wiley’s use of pose and dress, pattern establishes the cross-cultural exchange central to his practice. Though the floral motif is based on a cotton textile manufactured in Russia during the twentieth century, the design was influenced by French home-furnishing: a leader of the latest fashions in the Russian market from the late 19th century. Wiley’s memories of home furnished with ‘faux French furniture’ include a similar fusion of various cultural designs, an environment fundamental to forming his ‘internal taste’. Here too, Wiley brings European and African sources into dialogue with one another, the figure wearing a jacket and baseball cap referencing the colours and geometric patterning of traditional Ghanian textiles. In drawing our attention to these elements Wiley also underscores the relationship between gender and the decorative. As an industry typically associated with ‘women’s work’ and viewed as ‘secondary’ to fine art, by blurring the boundaries between the body and space, Wiley establishes both components of pattern and portrait on equal terms.  


    [Left] Roller-printed cotton cloth (lining of an Abr Ikat Munisak). Russia, early twentieth century
    [Right] African Ghanian traditional cotton print. Image: Ivan Okyere-Boakye Photography / Alamy Stock Photo


    Collector’s Digest 


    • Perpetually playing with the language of power, in Kehinde’s Wiley’s work figure and pattern take centre stage. The youngest of six children raised by his single mother, Freddie Mae Wiley, Wiley approaches oil paint with academic rigour. Having completed his BFA in at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1999, Wiley earned an MFA from Yale in 2001.


    • Internationally celebrated through solo exhibitions and the permanent collections of significant institutions, in 2018 Wiley was the first African American artist to paint the American president’s official portrait. The painting of the former president, Barack Obama, now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, Washington. 


    • Christian Martyr Tarcisius is part of his DOWN series, executed between 2007 and 2009. A sister work from the series, The Veiled Christ (study), 2008, now resides in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


    • Directly expanding from the DOWN series, an exhibition of a new body of work titled An Archaeology of Silence commenced at the Fine Arts Museum, San Francisco in March 2023 and is currently being shown at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston until June 2024. The exhibition is scheduled to travel to the Pérez Art Museum Miami (July 2024 to January 2025) and finally the Minneapolis Institute of Art (February to June 2025).

    i Kehinde Wiley quoted in Robert Hobbs, ‘Kehinde Wiley’s Conceptual Realism,’ in Kehinde Wiley, New York, 2012, p. 24.

    ii Kehinde Wiley quoted in Robert Hobbs, ‘Kehinde Wiley’s Conceptual Realism,’ in Kehinde Wiley, New York, 2012, p. 41.

    iii  Kehinde Wiley quoted in Kadish Morris, ‘Artist Kehinde Wiley: ‘The new work is about what it feels like to be young, Black and alive in the 21st century’’, The Guardian, 21 November 2021, online.

    iv Kehinde Wiley quoted in Robert Hobbs, ‘Kehinde Wiley’s Conceptual Realism,’ in Kehinde Wiley, New York, 2012, p. 22. 

    v Kehinde Wiley quoted in Peter Halley, ‘A Conversation with Kehinde Wiley and Peter Halley,’ in Kehinde Wiley, New York, 2012, p. 161.

    • Provenance

      Deitch Projects, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2008

    • Exhibited

      New York, Deitch Projects, Kehinde Wiley: Down, 1 November-20 December 2008


Christian Martyr Tarcisius

oil on canvas
213 x 459 cm (83 7/8 x 180 3/4 in.)
Painted in 2008.

Full Cataloguing

£200,000 - 300,000 

Sold for £660,400

Contact Specialist

Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+44 20 7318 4060

Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe
+44 20 7318 4099


20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 7 March 2024