Jason Farago of The New York Times really does not like the current show of paintings by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye at the New Museum, “Under-Song for a Cipher;” however, I’m not quite sure why and, it seems to me, he doesn’t know why, either. Each of his dismissive criticisms reads more like a neutral description of this and many, many other painters’ work. He doesn’t like that they feel quickly executed, he doesn’t like there are passages where Yiadom-Boakye has used thin layers of paint and left the weave of the linen support visible underneath, he doesn’t like her loose brushwork in the figures’ contours. Those are not reasons, those are characteristics of most of the most influential and beloved figurative painting since, at least, the middle of the 19th century: Impressionist Berthe Morisot, Henri Matisse, Willem de Kooning, Jean-Michel Basquiat and on and on. The artistic debate about whether or not figures should have literal outlines had its heyday in the 17th century.
Her figures all project what I can best describe as personality.
I suppose that I join Farago in acknowledging that Yiadom-Boakye is not Ingres, or Poussin, but, I didn’t expected her work to echo those academic artists’ more formal styles, so that’s where I diverge from his review. “Under-Song for a Cipher,” in fact, is a complex and exciting show, and, in addition to shouldering the dialectical history of Modernist painting that has been thrust upon her by The New York Times, Yiadom-Boakye’s work has a lot to teach us about specific forces at play in the world right now. As American xenophobia metastasizes and the social contract disintegrates, empathy seems more important than ever, but is falling out of official favor. It is ironic that the Times review was so casually curt and groundlessly negative, so unempathetic about an artist whose work stimulates, even demands, profound empathy in her viewers.
My first encounter with Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings was in 2012, also at the New Museum, in the Triennial group show, “The Ungovernables,” and the power of that handful of her images has stayed with me since. The curators of the current show, Natalie Bell and the New Museum’s Artistic Director Massimiliano Gioni, must have felt the same way I did, because now they’ve devoted the entire fourth floor to an open-plan environmental installation of a new body of Yiadom-Boakye’s work. It is a spare hanging with no labels interrupting the arrangement of 15 paintings (including one in three parts) on rich burgundy walls. This helps the warmth of the images to bloom, highlighting Yiadom-Boakye’s expert use of understated color.
Yiadom-Boakye says she does not seek to make her images political, but understands that her almost exclusively Black figures prompt many to see the work through a political lens. There are still so few images of people of color in museums that simply making so many of them feels like an engagement with this significant question of artistic representation and identity politics. Furthermore, in its own way, it is a different kind of political for a Black woman to argue that images of Black people are simply and innocently whom she happened to end up painting. Rhetorically normalizing a version of progress that is not, in practice, very normal, can be an effective strategy. Let’s also acknowledge that playing down the political aspects of paintings of Black figures in American or European museums is only possible because of the work done by earlier generations of “Black Radical Women.”
Yiadom-Boakye’s images, all new canvases painted for this show, focus on individual figures—only one painting in the show, Ever the Women Watchful, includes a pair of women—but they are not portraits. The artist has been open about her process: she usually paints each of her images in just a single day, and each of her subjects is invented in her imagination; her paintings do not represent real individual people. Yiadom-Boakye’s surfaces have a dancing interplay between matte and shiny paint, which makes them literally scintillate under museum lights. There is no ideal perspective from which to comprehend the details of each painting; rather, each forces the viewer to examine it slowly, to take time, to move physically in the real space of the gallery. It almost feels like a social encounter and the imaginary figures in the paintings all project what I can best describe as personality.
They all look in different directions. Some look down, some look away, some look right out of the painting at the viewer, some don’t seem to be looking anywhere in particular at all. They are sitting, standing, lounging, dancing or futzing; a few seem to interact non-specifically with evocative animals (an owl, a cat, etc.). They question, they investigate, they rest, they get lost in contemplation, they dance. These are invented people, but it feels like some of them genuinely don’t know what to do with their hands. The people Yiadom-Boakye conjures in her paintings display, in short, persistent reserves of interiority and the sparks of active minds interacting with the world.
The artist’s refusal to discuss any details of the fictitious implied narratives in the paintings or to provide any back-stories for the “characters” is vital to the work’s emotional tension. In Of All the Seasons, the edges of the canvas crop out most of a woman’s limbs, but the attitude undergirding her side-eye and the curve of her mouth as she arranges her hair makes a formidable impression without the need for any further details. A Vogue profile of Yiadom-Boakye from earlier this year quotes fashion designer and friend of the artist Duro Olowu: “If you walked into a room with a thousand people in it, and one of the people in her paintings was there, that’s who you’d want to meet.”
None of this, of course, is unique to Yiadom-Boakye’s work or even necessarily ground-breaking, but her project is important and she’s executing it beautifully. By creating images of people so lost in thought, with so much presence, with such active faces, she is reminding us how to recognize and respond with empathy. Empathy ought to be a kindergarten skill, not a world-political-stage skill, but in the post-empathy Trump era many things are not as they should be. As the temperaments of President Trump and the entire Republican Party decay to the point of callously working to withhold health care, abandon desperate refugees, ban travel on the basis of religion and devastate the world with petrochemicals, it is difficult to avoid the impression that empathy is in catastrophically short supply. While the Trump administration and the GOP have been superlative in their lack of empathy, don’t forget that empathy was also the thing missing from many in the UK when they voted for Bexit. Yiadom-Boakye is a British artist showing in the United States, so it is admirable that she uses her paintings to speak up.
People have died because of the empathy vacuum the president has inspired and modeled. These paintings are not going to topple any governments, alas, but when the stakes are as fundamental as whether or not we’re going to acknowledge each other’s basic humanity, images like these can accomplish something valuable.