Meet the Artist Who Moves Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka: He's "Phenomenal"
The upcoming Oscar host and his husband prize Kehinde Wiley's regal portraits of everyday figures
This story first appeared in the Dec. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
It's possible that artist Kehinde Wiley and Neil Patrick Harris, a passionate collector of the painter's work, will end up together at February's Academy Awards. Harris, of course, will be hosting the ABC broadcast. Meanwhile, Wiley is the subject of a documentary short co-produced by PBS and directed by Jeff Dupre (producer and co-director of HBO's Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present) that is shortlisted for an Oscar nomination. It's one more sign that the 37-year-old — who was raised in South Central L.A. by a single mother and who holds an MFA from Yale — seemingly is everywhere, with works in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and LACMA as well as of such stars as Elton John and Alicia Keys.
Known for his large pieces, mainly of African-Americans, that play on the canon of European heroic portraiture, Wiley has gained a reputation as a masterful painter, combining the nuanced realism of Rubens with the chromatic pop of Roy Lichtenstein and the spectacle of Jeff Koons — among his signature works is a large painting of Michael Jackson in kingly garb astride a white horse. In 2015, the State Department will honor Wiley with its Medal of Arts award for his cultural diplomacy, and he'll be the subject of a retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum. And his "Modern Kings of Culture," a series of portraits of Spike Lee, Swizz Beatz and Carmelo Anthony commissioned by Grey Goose, is on display at Art Basel Miami Beach from Dec. 4 to 7 and will be auctioned to benefit a group of charities.
Harris, 41, owns three of Wiley's works with his husband, David Burtka, 39, an actor, singer and chef. Recently the couple acquired a 2014 oil portrait, Venus Anadyomene, that hangs in the living room of their new town house in Harlem. Says Harris: "I love Kehinde's ability to draw hands and wrinkles and skin tones. It's phenomenal." Adds Burtka, "What he does with the color patterns and the vibrancy of his paintings is extraordinary." He and Harris favor such emerging talents as L.A.-based Tomory Dodge and Francesca Gabbiani and also collect such established artists as Mike Kelley and Robert Longo (a Longo drawing is the first piece the couple bought). "One of our favorite pieces is a digital piece on a projector by Jennifer Steinkamp that Neil got me for Valentine's Day," says Burtka. "It's these moving flowers that are projected on a wall."
Due to the rigors of his studio practice and of operating studios in Beijing and Brooklyn, Wiley (repped by Roberts & Tilton in L.A.) rarely meets collectors, but Harris and Burtka are exceptions. "I met Neil and David when they came to the opening of an exhibition in Los Angeles," says Wiley, who wears bespoke suits covered in images from his oeuvre. "Very few collectors ask such in-depth questions — why and how the work was made and what my sympathies and passions are. They see art not simply as luxury but rather as something that really connects to people."
9:20 am, Dec. 4 Updated to clarify that Dupre is the co-director and producer HBO's Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present.