In the National Portrait Gallery, a haven of culture off Trafalgar Square, a middle-aged man in a T-shirt, shorts, sandals and trilby is busting the moves to the Michael Jackson song, Workin' Day and Night. Hips swaying, shoulders shaking, fingers clicking, the man is dancing close to a female member of staff, who's on watch duty and wearing a nervous smile as she tries to work out whether this eccentric character is just having harmless fun – or if security needs calling.
She needn't worry. He is, it transpires, along with pretty much everyone else here (myself included), simply enjoying the foot-tapping, nostalgia-inducing buzz of Michael Jackson: On the Wall – a new exhibition unveiled in the lead-up to what would have been the King of Pop's 60th birthday (Jackson was born, the eighth of 10 children, in Gary, Indiana, on August 29, 1958).
While Jacko's impact on music, music videos, dance, choreography and fashion have been widely acknowledged, charted here is the relatively untold story of his influence on contemporary art – and how it has enhanced his legend. There's an eclectic medley of Jackson-inspired works on display, spanning various mediums, by almost 50 artists, including Andy Warhol, Isa Genzken and Susan Smith-Pinelo, whose quirky contribution, it seems, sparked trilby man's impromptu dancing.
A visual installation has screens showing close-up footage of Smith-Pinelo's cleavage as she bops away to Workin' Day and Night (a track from Jackson's 1979 Off The Wall album). Many other exhibits are sure to get the pulse racing. Some pieces are decades-old and iconic; others specially commissioned for the exhibition, which explores why so many artists have been drawn to Jackson as a subject, why he continues to ignite such passion among his devotees and why he still looms so large in our collective consciousness almost a decade after his death.
Among the diverse paintings on show, none are more vivid than Equestrian Portrait of King Philip II (Michael Jackson), Kehinde Wiley's imposing portrait of Jackson on horseback, clad in ostentatious armour. A twist on Peter Paul Rubens' painting of the 16th-century Spanish monarch, this was the final commissioned portrait of Jackson, begun months before he died and finished posthumously. Wiley – who also painted Barack Obama's official portrait – described collaborating with Jackson as "extraordinary". He adds: "His knowledge of art and art history was much more in-depth than I had imagined. He was talking about the difference between early and late Rubens' brushwork."
Wiley's grandiose effort contrasts starkly with the myriad, humble images of a young Michael that scatter this exhibition. As well as sketches and portraits of the once-baby-faced star, there are intricately-designed works by the British artist, Graham Dolphin, who has etched Jackson song lyrics, in tiny font, onto album sleeves, including ABC – the 1970 release from the Jackson 5, in which Michael performed alongside his four brothers before solo stardom beckoned.
Another room covers Jackson's relationship with Warhol, and has the artist's famous screen-print portraits of the singer for Time magazine in 1984, plus photographs of the pair rubbing shoulders in New York's Studio 54 nightclub.
As you move (or dance) through the exhibition, avant-garde pieces will grab your attention, such as a "dinner jacket" by costume designer Michael Lee Bush. He's attached a collection of tiny knives, spoons and forks to a leather jacket that you could picture Jackson wearing. Lording over one corridor is a series of American Jesus photographs by David LaChapelle, a former protege of Warhol. He portrays Jackson as a kind of modern-day saint and martyr, with biblical-like scenes showing the singer sprouting angelic wings and being cradled by Christ.
The exhibition doesn't shy away from the controversies and tragedies that befell Jackson later in life, but the overriding feeling expressed here is the joy he brought to so many. Video clips focus on ecstatic crowds at his live concerts, another clip has Swedish installation artist Klara Liden doing his moonwalk dance in Manhattan at night. The final room is illuminated by screens featuring 16 German-speaking Jackson fans, dressed in costumes, side by side, singing a cappella tracks from his 1982 album, Thriller. It's simultaneously weird, funny and moving – a bit like this entertainingly offbeat exhibition.
Michael Jackson: On the Wall runs until October 21 at the National Portrait Gallery, London, with tickets priced from £15.50 (about $28). See npg.org.uk
Steve McKenna was a guest of the National Portrait Gallery.