Dr. Nicholas Cullinan: Curator of Michael Jackson: On The Wall

To find out more about the exhibition ‘Michael Jackson: On The Wall” at the National Portrait Gallery in London, we talked to the curator of the exhibition and the Director of the National Portrait Gallery, Dr. Nicholas Cullinan. He discusses Jackson’s enormous impact on culture and contemporary art, and the unique challenges of curating such an exhibition.

Dr. Nicholas CullinanDr. Nicholas Cullinan

Interview with Dr. Nicholas Cullinan

  • How do you decide to curate an exhibition? And why do you curate an exhibition about Michael Jackson?
    Michael Jackson was one of the most influential cultural figures of the twentieth century and his legacy continues into the twenty-first. His significance is widely acknowledged when it comes to music, videos, dance, choreography and fashion, yet his considerable impact on contemporary art is an untold story, one that has so far not been recognized. Like many of the different artists included in the exhibition, my own interest in and fascination with Jackson goes back as far as I can remember. The first music I recall hearing as a toddler in the late 1970s was my elder sisters playing their vinyl record of Off the Wall on repeat. The first music video I ever saw was Thriller on VHS in 1984. The first pop concert I ever attended was Jackson performing in Leeds in 1992 on his Dangerous tour. More than any other musician, Michael Jackson has been the soundtrack to my life. In Michael Jackson: On the Wall we hope to say something new about a figure who has been talked about so much over the last half century and who raises many issues that are still relevant today. This year would have been Michael Jackson’s 60th Birthday, which seems an apposite moment to revisit his formidable cultural impact, explored through the prism of contemporary art.
  • How do you think Michael Jackson has influenced contemporary art? Could you name a few examples?
    Michael Jackson: On the Wall explores the impact and influence of Jackson on contemporary art and the continued interest in him as a major cultural figure through the work of over 45 international artists. The exhibition asks why Jackson continues to loom so large in our collective imagination and why so many contemporary artists have been drawn to him as a subject and a source of inspiration. For many of the artists in the exhibition who grew up in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, Jackson’s music made a huge impression and his image played into their subsequent work. Some of the featured artists worked closely with Jackson himself. All the artists included are fascinated by what Jackson represented and what he invented. Andy Warhol, with his usual prescience, was the first artist to depict Jackson, in 1982, when he used Jackson’s image for the cover of Interview Magazine, which was founded by Warhol in 1969. He depicted Jackson for a second time when he was commissioned to make a portrait of him for the cover of Time magazine in March 1984. Warhol made a series of silkscreen portraits of Jackson for this commission, several of which feature in the exhibition. More recently, the British artist Graham Dolphin has made a series of works about Jackson through which he explores themes of fandom and idolatry. Dolphin is known for his meticulous and laborious artworks inspired by the memorialization of late celebrities, including Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and Jackson. Over the past year, in the lead-up to our exhibition, Dolphin has made two large-scale works using multiple copies of Thriller and Off the Wall vinyl covers, which he has bound together before inscribing in minute writing the complete song lyrics to each of the albums. Other artists include Grayson Perry, who has made a ceramic vase covered with drawings, texts, photographic transfers and rich glazes, which features an image of Jackson. Perry explained: ‘This is a pot about popular culture and Michael Jackson was the King of Pop!’
  • Could you elaborate a bit on how the artists featured in this project were selected? Which aspects were taken into consideration?
    The exhibition is deliberately inclusive in scope, bringing together for the first time the works of over forty-five artists spanning different generations, perspectives and parts of the world, and employing a range of media. The works are drawn from international public and private collections, including new works made especially for this project. We have selected artists who have responded to the wide variety of issues that Jackson raised around identity, fame and celebrity culture. We have had to be mindful of the space that we have available at the Gallery in creating a narrative within the exhibition.
  • What was the biggest challenge you had to face as the curator of this exhibition?
    The sheer number of artists who have been inspired by Michael Jackson and created fascinating works responding to him as a cultural figure has made the task of selecting which works to include in the exhibition one of the biggest challenges. We hope that the exhibition will open up new avenues for thinking about art and identity and encourage new dialogues between artists. Like its subject, we hope this exhibition will be inclusive in appeal, uncompromising in artistic integrity and break down barriers.
  • How did the connection between the National Portrait Gallery and HUGO BOSS come about?
    We had worked with HUGO BOSS before in 2014 on Bailey’s Stardust, our highly successful exhibition of work by leading photographer David Bailey. HUGO BOSS has an incredible history as a supporter of contemporary art through the HUGO BOSS PRIZE and its commitment to an array of arts partnerships with museums, galleries and artists internationally. Of course, the link was especially compelling when we made the connection that a new piece being created by artist Graham Dolphin features the Thriller album cover in which Jackson is wearing a BOSS suit. It is such an iconic image and truly captures the concept of the exhibition and the influence Jackson has had on art, music and fashion. We felt that this particular exhibition presented a great opportunity to work together again.