FOR MORE THAN A DECADE, Kehinde Wiley has been painting regal portraits of men of color. First focusing on young African American men in Harlem, Wiley eventually expanded his oeuvre and launched his World Stage series featuring “urban” men in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. His contemporary subjects replicate poses from classic European paintings against elaborately patterned backgrounds.

“What I do in my own work is to look at the canon, but to imagine people who look and feel like I do,” says Wiley.

The New York-based artist always painted men, exploring the image and representation of masculinity in his masterful portraits, until he decided to change direction for his inaugural exhibition at Sean Kelly Gallery in 2012. For his new body of work, Wiley painted his first-ever series of women.

an economy of grace - kehinde poster“An Economy of Grace,” a new documentary that began airing on PBS Sept. 5 (check local listings), explores Wiley’s first foray into feminine portraiture, which the artist says he was “incredibly anxious about.” From concept to canvas, viewers get a behind-the-scenes look at how the project came together, as well as a larger sense of his process and practice.

“In this new body of work i wanted to look at women in the history of painting, much in the ways that I had looked at masculinity and the history of painting,” Wiley says in the documentary. “I think i am making a decision to follow a very classical narrative around glamour and beauty as we’ve traditionally defined it in high fashion.”

Wiley street casts black women in Harlem and Brooklyn—young women from various walks of life, a few in awe, one with a skeptical yet curious attitude, only a couple of whom are familiar with his work—and commissions Givenchy designer Riccardo Tisci to create couture gowns for each to wear in her portrait.

“What I really want to do is go directly to the heart of absolute glamour, but also allow fantasy and play to come into the picture.”
— Kehinde Wiley, “An Economy of Grace”

The models get full hair, makeup and wardrobe treatment and then they are photographed. Wiley works from the images to produce the paintings in Beijing, where he keeps a studio and a team of artists assist him with completing the portraits. He concentrates on the figures; They attend to the detailed backgrounds.

kehinde wiley on set
Kehinde Wiley commissioned couture Givenchy gowns for the models in his “Economy of Grace” portraits.

Viewers gain an understanding of Wiley—his upbringing in South Central Los Angeles and early exposure to art, Yale education, inspirations, career arc and penchant for bespoke tailoring. The experiences of the women are a central part of the narrative too, strengthening the film and breathing life and a real personal backstory into the grand portraits. The documentary also offers plenty of poignant moments and socio-cultural insights.

Before the Givenchy gowns are made, each of the women’s body measurements are taken. As a particularly buxom model is being measured, the scene transitions to one of Wiley’s associates speaking to the camera, noting the significance of the French design house making one-of-a-kind gowns for the models.

“It’s measured for your body, which is a really big deal because, you know, Givenchy and Valentino, they don’t make things to fit black women’s bodies, let alone men’s lines,” he says. “I mean I can’t get into a pair of Tom Ford slacks, can you? Or Prada. They don’t make them for brown asses. They don’t.”

At the exhibition opening, it’s a revelation when the women learn that the large-scale portraits for which they have posed are each priced at $250,000.

Finally, in a moment of reflection, Wiley considers why his portraiture has fixated on men and says:

“Why black men? Why men of color? Why not women? I don’t know. I think sexuality certainly plays a role. I am a lot more attracted to men than I am women. But to get to the heart of that question, you have to consider my World Stage, or all of my paintings, to be a type of self portraiture.”
— Kehinde Wiley, “An Economy of Grace”

Wiley was an artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem where he practically lived upstairs in his studio and honed the direction of his practice. That was more than a dozen years ago. Bonus footage at the end of the PBS airing shows Wiley reuniting with Thelma Golden, the museum’s director, in an engaging conversation about the formative time in his career. It’s a fitting conclusion to a graceful portrait of a great American artist. CT

“An Economy of Grace” continues airing this weekend on PBS (check local listings, or watch here).