08 Oct, 2009

Barack and Michelle Obama’s taste in art

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

The White House’s living quarters are now decorated with modern art, as well as work by African-American and Native American artists. Good for the Obamas

It was clear that Michelle Obama was partial to Rothko when she chose that daring dress, with its swathes of red and black, for election night. Now there’s proof: two Rothkos have been loaned to the White House since President Obama came to power.

The full list of works borrowed from museums for the White House is copied at the end of this post. What can we extrapolate from it?

Rothko is not the only modern artist to make the cut. The Obamas have also selected work by Jasper Johns, Ed Ruscha, Josef Albers and Sam Francis. These are the great giants of postwar art, quintessentially and ineluctably American, yet, at times, acerbic critics on the national condition. It seems clear the Obamas have a personal liking for abstract expressionism, but they are also projecting a clear message: they are thoughtful, comfortable with abstraction, aesthetically sophisticated. And patriotic.

Unsurprisingly – and pleasingly – the Obamas have also chosen to hang works by African-American artists, including two works by Glenn Ligon, a selection of William H Johnsons, and a piece by the African-American abstract expressionist, Alma Thomas. Less predictably, there is work from Native American artists and makers too, including by the 20th-century painter Leon Polk Smith, and 69-year-old ceramicist Jeri Redcorn. And so the image projection piles up: to modern and sophisticated add inclusive and multicultural. There’s a sense of an attempt at gender balance: included are works by 20th-century sculptor Louise Nevelson and the New Mexico based Susan Rothenberg.

Despite the pile-up of modern art, the Obamas have also included pieces that say, “We have a sense of history”: here is a Winslow Homer, painter of classically American rural and marine landscapes; here is a selection of George Catlin’s 19th-century paintings of Native American life.

Just in case there was a risk of the list looking patriotic to the point of parochial, the Obamas have not neglected Europe. By choosing a Giorgio Morandi still life, they have shown exquisite taste and nodded towards Italy; with Degas, comes a tribute to France. But, if the “special relationship” was indicated under the previous administration by George W Bush’s displaying a bust of Winston Churchill behind his desk, Gordon Brown had better be worried: there’s not a British work of art in sight.

Art and artefacts loaned to the White House since President Barack Obama came to office:
Displayed in the Obamas’ personal living quarters:
From the National Gallery of Art:
George Catlin’s A Crow Chief at His Toilette, Comanchees Lancing a Buffalo Bull, Mired Buffalo and Wolves, Cheyenne Village, Grizzly Bears Attacking Buffalo, Game of the Arrow-Mandan, A Foot War Party in Council-Mandan, Ball-Play Dance-Choctaw, Buffalo Chase, with Accidents, Catlin and Indian Attacking Buffalo, K’nisteneux Indians Attacking Two Grizzly Bears.
Edward Corbett’s Washington, D.C. November 1963 III.
Richard Diebenkorn’s Berkeley, No. 52.
Sam Francis’s White Line.
Winslow Homer’s Sunset.
Jasper Johns’ Numerals, 0 through 9.
Giorgio Morandi, two paintings called Still Life.
Louise Nevelson’s model for Sky Covenant sculpture.
Susan Rothenberg’s Butterfly.
Mark Rothko’s Red Band.
Edward Ruscha’s I Think I’ll . . .
Leon Polk Smith’s Stretch of Black III.
Unknown artist: Chief Jumper of the Seminoles.
From the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden:
Josef Albers’ Homage to the Square: Elected II, Homage to the Square: Midday, Study for Homage to the Square: Nacre.
Edgar Degas’ Dancer Putting on Stocking, The Bow.
Nicolas De Stael’s Nice.
Glenn Ligon’s Black Like Me No. 2.
Alma Thomas’ Sky Light.
From the Smithsonian American Art Museum:
William H. Johnson’s Booker T. Washington Legend, Children Dance, Flower to Teacher, Folk Family.

On display in the West Wing:
In the Oval Office from the Museum of the American Indian: vase by Lucy M. Lewis (Acoma Pueblo), jar by Steve S. (Iroquois), jar by Maria Poveka Martinez (San Ildefonso Pueblo), the bottle Intertwining Scrolls” by Jeri Redcorn (Caddo).
In the Oval Office from the National Museum of American History: Samuel F. B. Morse’s 1849 telegraph register patent model, John A. Peer’s 1874 gear-cutting machine patent model, Henry Williams’ 1877 feathering paddle-wheel (for steamboats) patent model.

In the Cabinet Room from the Harry S. Truman Library, Frank O. Salisbury’s President Harry S. Truman.
On display in the East Wing:
Alma Thomas’ Watusi (Hard Edge) from the Hirshhorn.

Not yet placed: Mark Rothko – No. 17 [or] No. 15 – National Gallery of Art

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