David Nordahl – Study for Field of Dreams

Upstart Costume Dramas: From Benjamin West to Michael Jackson

Where did it all begin?
The Philadelphia native Benjamin West was known for irreverent remarks and upstart costume dramas. As a raw youth visiting Rome, West observed that the Apollo Belvedere sculpture he encountered at the Vatican resembled “an Indian brave.” In his best-known picture, The Death of Wolfe, West (now in England) defied the advice of Joshua Reynolds, who pleaded to the American the tempestuous royal worries over what the figures in the painting had on.

Reynolds (and the King) were concerned that West  had garbed the general and his attendants in modern waistcoasts. But the other figure flaunting Wests liberties with convention is the brave. He wears a  sinuous leg tattoo, a parfleche, and Folies-Bergeres-style headgear whose red feather matches the dying mans costume. His pose, an idiom-busting palimpsest, is one familiar to prime ministers and bank executives: chin on pensive fist.  Ah, history.

I thought about how a sample of this history –West and the Belvedere, and Wolfe–might relate to  the numerous self-reinventions with which  Michael Jacksons “personal painter,” David Nordahl, assisted to adjust the Pop princes iconography over 20 years. Jackson, a genius of video dance and one spangled glove, looks in hindsight to be a  prescient of art appearances as well, if you consider not only the impact of Hollywood on Jacksons tortured self-image, but the potential now for art Hollywood-style to turn Jacksons posthumous reputation around. A reversal to positive, that is, with the Morley Safer-allied art preferences of much of the American public.

Nordahl, who lives and works in Santa Fe, has had moderate commerial success as a Western American minor since he began “specializing in Apache subjects,  in 1977, when he lived in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.  Before Jacksons death he had also spent two decades, and  been paid up to $150k a pop, interpreting Jackson, cavorting  in happy camp,  in  color ways reminiscent of a 1940s Coppertone ad.  When Jackson appeared alone, he did so as a hybrid emperor-knight-Merlin, amid embellishments as rich  as JD Ingress  Napoleonic throne, with a little Alice Cooper-Odilon Redon psychedelia thrown in.

Nordahls Geronimo Waiting for the Dawn sold for $46,000 at the Coeur dAlene Art Auction in Reno on July 25th, precisely a month after Jackson died. The Reno auction felt recession effects surely. Total results were down to $11.6 million from close to $39 million last year.

Judging the painting by its constituent parts, note  the sky-matching outerwear of Geronimo and two of his warrior deputies, in s hades of teal redolent of a Martha Stewart designer color.   To  Geronimos  left, the aching-back militant wears pink and appears to bemoan  his long ride on the white pony – or the long wait for dawn.  If its 4 a.m. I see warriors lined up for a Today show appearance. Theyre  ready to hustle down that furrowed granite path, which the hooves of Geronimos steed straddle like a figure skater, and back into prime time. (But can they leave their projections behind?)

It bears final note that  Jackson encountered Nordahl, roughly as West did the Belvedere, at Steven Spielbergs office. Spielberg had hanging on  his wall a picture of an Army corporal shielding two Apache children  from  Army troops racing in to break up Indian camp. (Nice try, Steve, but the US Cavalry was  hardly Schindler.)
Last weekend, in Santa Fe, was Indian Market. The event comes with everything its billed as: the pageant of Native American creativity, the parade of blonds in turquoise ; and this year, in the parking lot with the fry bread and Navajo taco stands, the odd sight of a wig of platinum tresses hanging off the handle of a baby carriage. Very funny. And it was.

As to Michael Jackson, meanwhile, he knew that American history was history  plastic-surgery-style. So did Benjamin West. It was a way for  a Philadelphian to grow famous in 1764. Had anything changed by 1984? And doesnt Michael actually look to be the figure of history that he made himself, when others werent making fun of him?

David Nordahl, “Study for Field of Dreams”
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