Obamas unveil their portraits and it feels like a White House reunion
But on closer inspection, it’s clear that the relatively conventional styles contradict strong artistic visions. Informed by McCurdy’s meticulous process, which he compares to “directing the world’s shortest movie,” and Sprung’s passion for painting, which she called “pushing around puddles of this almost living substance.” these portraits strive for more than faithful representations for the sake of posterity. They aim to make the former president and first lady feel present — to make their likenesses as accessible as the Obamas themselves.
Their public debut is still a long time coming – the commissions have been a secret for six years. Handpicked by the Obamas with the help of Thelma Golden, who is director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, McCurdy and Sprung were hired in 2016 after a months-long interview process.
Stewart McLaurin, president of the White House Historical Society, said the portraits are particularly expressive. “With our earliest presidents, Americans didn’t know what they looked like, so they depended on paintings,” he said. “Now, we’re saturated with images,” so these portraits don’t just show the Obamas, “they’re a snapshot of how the president and first lady see themselves.”
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For McCurdy, 69, Barack Obama’s portrait isn’t really a “portrait” at all. It is a meeting place. His subject, he said, is not the sitter, but his gaze.
“I don’t even call them portraits,” McCurdy, who is based in New York, said in a telephone interview. “My paintings are about creating an encounter between two people. We try to achieve a moment where there is a personal connection between him and the person looking at him.”
Anyone who has visited the National Portrait Gallery will be familiar with that kind of encounter. The museum has several McCurdy works in its collection – from Toni Morrison, Jeff Bezos, the Dalai Lama and others who mostly pose expressionlessly in front of stark white backgrounds.
McCurdy’s artistic training goes back to high school. He attended Camp Hill, a school in Pennsylvania that allows students to major in art, and he went on to study at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. McCurdy said he was influenced by minimalism, the dominant art movement during his formative years, and for two decades he painted in an abstract style.
Then one day he said: “I felt like figuratively [paintings of people] was right outside the door and said, ‘Whatever you’re doing in there, I can do it better.’ “
In the stripped-down portraits McCurdy creates today, those early influences are evident. His works have a mechanical quality and are aligned in spirit with the industrial minimalism of Donald Judd and simplicity of Ellsworth Kelly, who is one of his favorite artists. “When I start making gestural lines and creating movement in the piece, then I start telling the viewer how to think,” McCurdy said. “I try to create so much opportunity that it can be an interactive experience for the viewer.”
When McCurdy met with Obama in 2016, they talked about the artist’s rigorous process. He spends only a few hours with his subjects, during which he takes dozens of photographs of them staring directly into the camera without gesture or emotion. All the photos were destroyed, he said, except for one that McCurdy felt captured a timeless moment, with no before and no after. He works from that photo for 12 to 18 months, nine hours a day, to make every hair and pore to agonizing perfection.
Obama sought out McCurdy for the portrait, which McCurdy said is rare. His only other commission is the portrait of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.) When he reaches out to subjects he wants to paint, they sometimes say no.
“We’re in a Photoshop era where we make everything look pretty. We’re not used to having all our flaws out there and being a real person,” he said. “The people who chose to do this are incredibly brave.”
As for why Obama wanted such an honest account? “My impression is that he never tries to be anything other than what he is. He always tried to make a genuine connection with people,” McCurdy said.
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This was certainly Sprung’s experience. When the artist visited the White House in 2016 as a candidate for the official commission (she was considered for both portraits), she brought printed talking points. Obama chased them away. He just wanted to have a conversation, she said in a phone interview.
What followed was perhaps more emotional and honest than Sprung, 69, was prepared. When Golden asked her why she painted, Sprung began to cry and told the curator and the Obamas that she lost her father when she was just 6 years old — a tragedy that led her to art.
After his death, she did not speak for a year. “From then on, I think my orientation was to observe things and try to figure out what was going on around me,” she said.
“When you live in a family with a lot of stress and trauma, people don’t tell the truth, so reading people’s faces became necessary for me to function.”
Sprung has been an artist since those difficult childhood days in Glen Cove, NY. She remembers drawing illustrations of her mother getting ready to go on dates. At 16, Sprung began going to Manhattan on Saturdays to attend the Art Students League, where she now teaches. She recalls being inspired by the diverse faces she saw in the city – a stark contrast to her homogenous hometown.
“Where I grew up, every house was the same. The lawns were the same. It was just a repeat, repeat, repeat,” she said. “Coming into the city was this wonderful world where you saw all these faces and everyone was different.”
At 19, Sprung dropped out of Cornell University to pursue art full-time, a decision that isolated her from her family. “I really had no choice at that point but to pass, and I had to do it quickly because I had no money and no support,” she said. She wrote to artists she admired and developed an acquaintance with Aaron Shikler, who happened to paint official portraits of Jacqueline Kennedy, Nancy Reagan and former President John F. Kennedy.
Sprung describes her career as a “slow rise.” The same gallery – New York’s Gallery Henoch – has been showing her work for four decades (she has a solo show there in October). She didn’t begin to feel like she’d really “made it” until she was commissioned to paint portraits honoring congresswomen—first Jeannette Rankin, whom she painted in the early 2000s, and later Patsy Mink.
“I felt very empowered by that,” she said. “I painted women who I admired, who took chances, who had courage, who made it the hard way.”
Sprung is an evocative painter, and her rich, gestural work reflects her love of oil painting, which she describes as “sensual” and “almost alive”. She painted brooding, single women and bright-eyed children. Her portrait of Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress, was so moving that it brought Rankin’s cousin to tears.
For nine months, Sprung toiled over Michelle Obama’s portrait. She began by sketching the first lady at the White House and then worked on the painting at her Brooklyn studio. Obama visited Sprung’s home to approve the final piece.
The portrait became so real to her that she found herself saying good morning and good night to the image of the first lady, even asking it for help with the painting.
Sprung said she felt an artistic freedom while working because it was clear the first lady trusted her. Obama did not ask for reference photos or provide feedback throughout the process. “I was able to express myself because I didn’t have someone looking over my shoulder and saying, ‘Oh, I don’t like my eyebrows,'” Sprung said.
The final portrait shows Obama in a blue dress on a red couch and is rendered in a style that Sprung calls “contemporary realism” for its bright, modern colors. “I think I have a sense of who she is,” Sprung said of the former first lady. “Not in words. I couldn’t describe it. It is a different, intimate kind of knowing.”