Few pop stars have impacted global culture like Michael Jackson. Yet while his musical influence is world-renowned, most of the artistic renditions of the King of Pop remain unseen and unstudied—even though he is one of the most depicted figures in contemporary art. “Michael Jackson: On the Wall,” a survey of depictions of the singer, aims to change that. The exhibition, which opens at London’s National Portrait Gallery on Thursday, explores for the first time how the iconic star influenced contemporary art.
Encompassing 48 artists—including Andy Warhol, Kehinde Wiley, David Hammons, Catherine Opie, and Glenn Ligon—the show asks why Jackson continues to capture the imagination of artists nearly a decade after his death. Many of the works have been loaned from private collations and have never been publicly exhibited before.
“All the artists included—despite coming from different generations and parts of the world, and employing a range of media—are fascinated by what Jackson represented and what he invented,” National Portrait Gallery director and exhibition curator Nicholas Cullinan said in a statement. “It is rare that there is something new to say about someone so famous, but here that is the case.”
The selection of work spans 36 years and multiple generations, from Andy Warhol, the first artist to depict the pop star in 1982, to a commissioned Kehinde Wiley portrait of Jackson in armor on horseback—the last portrait the star ordered before his death in 2009, which was completed posthumously.
Speaking to the BBC, Cullinan said the selection of works included in the exhibition emerged organically through conversations with the various participating artists. “I’d mention the idea to artists who would either say they already had a Michael Jackson piece—or in some cases that they would love to attempt one,” he explained. “It confirmed for me how often artists were attracted to his image. Ultimately we commissioned half a dozen pieces from scratch.”
It’s the first exhibition curated by the director since he took over in 2015, and it takes the 160-year-old institution in a decidedly new direction. For a museum based on historically important depictions of well-known British national figures, an exhibition on an American pop star is uncharted territory.
“The exhibition breaks new ground for the National Portrait Gallery in its subject matter and the breadth and profile of the artists who have been invited to participate,” Cullinan acknowledged. “It will open up new avenues for thinking about art and identity, encourage new dialogues between artists and invite audiences interested in popular culture and music to engage with contemporary art.”
See more works from the exhibition below.