When the artist Jordan Casteel arrived on campus as a college freshman, her mother marched her into the dining hall — not for a meal, but to greet the kitchen staff. They had met the president and dean, but these were the people, her mother explained, who would truly be taking care of her.
Ms. Casteel recalls being shy, but her mother was right: The first person she approached, a baker named Betty, became a surrogate parent. “She cooked me Sunday meals, would bring me birthday cakes,” said Ms. Casteel. Nearly a decade later, they still talk on the phone. “There’s really something magical that can happen when you take that risk,” she said.
This particular alchemy, the kind that begins with a nervous hello and transforms strangers into family, lies at the core of Ms. Casteel’s practice. Nearly 31, she has attracted widespread acclaim for colossal portraits of friends and neighbors, works celebrated for their tenderness, keen social commentary and technical brio. Her first institutional show in New York — an exhibition of nearly 40 canvases spanning seven years — opens at the New Museum on Feb. 19.
“What we see when we look at one of Jordan’s portraits is her ability to represent her subjects in their fullness,” said Thelma Golden, the director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, where Ms. Casteel completed a residency in 2016. “She is able to capture a sense of spirit, a sense of self, a sense of soul.”
Ms. Casteel, who exclusively paints people of color, is passionate about exalting members of her community who might not otherwise see themselves on the walls of art museums. In recent series, she has portrayed her undergraduate students at Rutgers University, Newark, where she is an art professor, as well as street vendors and business owners in Harlem, where she lives with her partner, the photographer David Schulze.
Currently looming above the High Line, at West 22nd Street, is a wall-size rendering of one such person: Fallou Wadje, a Senegalese-born clothing designer, who sold her hand-painted wares outside the Studio Museum at the time of Ms. Casteel’s residency. Of all the people working inside the building, Ms. Wadje said the artist was the one who always stopped and talked with her. The two became friends, and, in 2017, Ms. Casteel painted “The Baayfalls,” a portrait of Ms. Wadje with a fellow member of the Baye Fall, the Sufi Muslim order for which the piece is named. When High Line Art invited Ms. Casteel to present one of her works as a 1,400-square-foot mural, she chose it without hesitation.
“To have an immigrant story so prominently placed at this time in this world, in New York City — it just feels right,” she said. The painting, her first public art commission, will be up through December.
“It’s crazy, when you go there, the energy of it is just so strong,” said Ms. Wadje as she played a video of herself crying when she first saw the mural. Ms. Wadje, who is currently writing a book on spirituality, subsequently posed for another painting called “Fallou,” now owned by the music producer Swizz Beatz. The exposure, she said, may help her realize her own projects. “It’s a tool,” she said. “I’m going to use it.”
The New Museum curator, Massimiliano Gioni, who organized Ms. Casteel’s show, said he hopes viewers gain a new perspective on contemporary life in New York. He was struck by Ms. Casteel’s approach to celebrating vocations that, he said, “get too quickly marginalized because we think of them according to certain stereotypes.” As Ms. Casteel once pointed out to him, “We tend to think of a guy working on a laptop in a cafe as an entrepreneur.” But not, he said, “someone selling T-shirts or statues on the street.”
Ms. Casteel is most at peace when she is alone in her studio, but she is a gregarious friend and neighbor, quick to crack jokes and burst into fits of raspy laughter. A recent afternoon found her in Benyam, an Ethiopian restaurant near her Harlem apartment, wearing black jeans, high-top sneakers, and a loose sweater that hung around her tall willowy frame.
When Ms. Casteel came inside, the restaurant’s chef and co-owner, Helina Girma, rushed over to rub her hands warm. Ms. Casteel is a regular here; a reproduction of “Benyam,” her 2018 portrait of Ms. Girma and her two brothers and business partners, hangs beside the bar. “There’s a difference between living here and being of and with the people who live here and caring about people more than just on a surface level,” she said.
Her interest in the lives of others stems, she said, from her upbringing in Denver, where her mother, Lauren Young Casteel, runs a philanthropic group. (It is also part of Ms. Casteel’s heritage: Her grandfather was the civil rights activist Whitney Moore Young Jr.) “Empathy is something that I have been really raised thinking about,” said Ms. Casteel. “What does it mean to come outside of oneself into someone else and understand the common grounds, or even the differences, that might exist?”
At home, Ms. Casteel grew up with prints and exhibition posters by artists of color, but the museums she visited rarely told stories that felt relevant to her family’s history. “I wasn’t seeing them in institutions or feeling that they were being valued in those institutions,” she said.
Ms. Casteel’s artistic career caught her somewhat by surprise. She studied anthropology and sociology at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga., until she took a painting class during a semester in Italy. She found herself happy in a way that she “hadn’t been before” and switched majors. After a stint teaching special education in Denver, she enrolled in the painting M.F.A. program at Yale University.
It was a rocky transition. While most of her classmates had gone to art schools as undergraduates, she arrived in New Haven with three paintbrushes and no clue how to stretch a canvas. “I think all of us were confused by my presence,” she said with a laugh. “Impostor syndrome was very real.”
Ms. Casteel found a sense of direction in the summer of 2013, when George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin. She returned to Yale thinking about how she might use portraiture to counteract images of black men as victims or violent criminals.
“I came back with intention: I’m going to paint black men as I see and know them,” she said. “As my twin brother, as my older brother, as people that I love. I wanted to find a way to get other people to see them in their humanity.”
Ms. Casteel began painting her subjects fully dressed, but soon found that streetwear logos were obstructing the private selves she hoped to capture. “People weren’t getting to the human vulnerability part that I really wanted them to get to,” she said. Half kidding, a friend suggested she just get rid of the clothes. Ms. Casteel balked: “Black men have historically been villainized, sexualized — their bodies have not been respected.’”
But the artist found ways to subvert these tropes. She painted her subjects in their homes or other intimate settings, and posed them so their genitals were obscured. Ms. Casteel also chose to depict the men at a scale impossible to ignore. (She loves the idea that a collector buying one of these works might have to rearrange the furniture “to make room for this giant black body.”) Each man makes riveting eye contact with the viewer.
“Having us sit nude meant that we could be ourselves without having anything projected upon us,” said the actor Jiréh Breon Holder, the first participant in the series, who has since become a close friend of Ms. Casteel. “Jordan rendered us with such specificity. She really paid attention to the detail of our interior life as well as what we looked like. At the time, we really did not have many opportunities to be other than big black men.”
Finally, Ms. Casteel painted some of her models in traffic-stopping shades of lavender, green and glacial blue, forcing the viewer to contend with “blackness” as a concept and as a construct.
When the portraits debuted in New York in 2014, at the downtown gallery Sargent’s Daughters, in a show called “Visible Man,” they caught the attention of critics and art-world heavyweights. Cecilia Alemani, the High Line Art curator, said she immediately began imagining the works at a public scale. Ms. Golden offered Ms. Casteel the Studio Museum residency after seeing the exhibition
In the past decade, museums and the market have increasingly embraced figurative painters of African descent, and Ms. Casteel is often discussed in conjunction with other black artists, including Amy Sherald, Kerry James Marshall, Kehinde Wiley and Barkley Hendricks, who died in 2017. Their various approaches are so distinct, however, these associations strike some experts as artificial.
“It’s almost like saying that just because a group of people are all speaking the same language, they’re all saying the same things or all belong to the same lineage of thought,” said James Haywood Rolling, Jr., a professor of art education at Syracuse University.
Others feel that it’s important to collectively examine recent work in this vein. As Richard Powell, an art history professor at Duke University and the author of “Black Art: A Cultural History,” put it: “For me, it would be intellectual dishonesty to say, ‘Here we are in 2020’ and not say, ‘We have this whole group of artists who are invested in painting the black figure.’”
“Admittedly, they are all very different, he added, “and yet they all see this black figure as a launchpad, a jumping-off point.”
If anything unites these painters, said Mr. Rolling, it’s a “call and response to the absence of relatable figures in the canon of painting.” Or, he added, “the overwhelming presence of whiteness.”
For some of Ms. Casteel’s sitters, the chance to counteract institutional neglect is a reason to participate. “I knew I wanted to use this opportunity to place my mom and I in the art historical canon,” said Emmanuel Amoakohene, one of Ms. Casteel’s students, who posed with his mother in 2019. The scale of the radiant, seven-foot canvas, he said, “makes me feel like I matter.”
Even now, asking strangers to be sitters is “terrifying,” Ms. Casteel said. But the bonds she has created through her work make each introduction easier: “I’m constantly reminded of the fact that there’s something bigger that awaits me if I take that chance.”