Back to November 2009 Critics Nix Obamas' Pix Mix  

Searching for meaning in the art selected for the presidential residence

This just in: "bold colors, odd shapes, squiggly lines have arrived" in the White House. So reported the Associated Press in early October, when the First Lady's office released a list of 45 artworks borrowed from national museums for mostly private areas of the White House.

It was, the AP claimed, nothing less than a "quiet cultural revolution." The choices, including modern and abstract classics by such artists as Josef Albers and Mark Rothko, along with works by edgier names like Jasper Johns and Ed Ruscha, made news around the world—and launched the latest skirmish in the culture wars at home. Political writers suddenly became art critics, and art writers became critics of the president, all of them scouring the selections for clues about the personal tastes of the Obamas and the political tone of the administration. The debates and close readings continue to percolate—about the role of race and gender, the appropriateness of appropriation, and what the meaning of "maybe" is, among other issues.

This past year, guessing what art the symbol-sensitive First Couple would put in their new home was both parlor game and power play, as pundits floated favorites, art-world insiders discreetly inquired if they might "help," and the Wall Street Journal predicted how the selections could affect the market. But White House curator William Allman and decorator Michael S. Smith limited the selection to national museums in Washington, D.C., shuttling names of potential candidates between the museums' curators and the Obamas. "The overarching theme was trying to offer the president and Mrs. Obama the best of America," Smith told me in a telephone interview, describing the First Couple as "unbelievably curious and interested in a lot of types of art." It was a lengthy back and forth. Works by well-known artists on some early wish lists, including Edward Hopper, Charles Burchfield, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Romare Bearden, Brice Marden, and Agnes Martin, fell by the wayside, either for conservation reasons, or because they were currently on view or promised for loan in the next four years. So did works on paper, photography, and video art.

A prime aspiration, say curators who worked with the White House team, was to assemble works with a graphic punch—"what we call 'wall power,'" says National Gallery of Art curator Harry Cooper. "It was, What are the greatest works we have in storage?" He suggested some Giorgio Morandi still lifes. Valerie Fletcher, curator at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, brought Josef Albers into the mix, along with several pieces by African American artists, including Glenn Ligon's text piece about segregation in the South, Black Like Me #2 (1992), and two paintings by the late local abstractionist Alma Thomas. A few other Europeans—Nicolas de Staël and Edgar Degas—made the cut as the eclectic list took shape. The final selection also included a Winslow Homer sunset, abstractions by Leon Polk Smith and local artist Edward Corbett, a Susan Rothenberg horse, a Jasper Johns number relief, and a large group of cowboy-and-Indian paintings by George Catlin.

Meanwhile, for the Oval Office, where Western imagery has often predominated, National Museum of the American Indian curator Ann McMullen sent a selection of works by ceramic artists, including the great Maria Poveka Martinez. And the National Museum of American History lent such patent models as a telegraph register by Samuel F. B. Morse. "They're sculptural icons of American ingenuity," Smith notes. "It means so much more than Chinese export plates with presidential seals."

Ignoring the newfound prominence of Native American ceramics and industrial folk art—both surely underappreciated national art forms—many of the country's art writers were a bit down on the picks. While applauding the effort to include African and Native Americans, some critics wondered why there were so few women; a total absence of Latin and Asian Americans (no one commented on the presence of Russian and German Americans); and a disappointing lack of edge. New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl waved off abstract works by Albers, Sam Francis, Richard Diebenkorn, and Corbett as "upper-middlebrow in an O.K. way." In terms of "coolness," Holland Cotter reported in the New York Times, the art community's verdict was: "fair." And while some judged the picks as though they were a curated show, others fixated on individual targets. "It's not far-fetched to see something fiercely reactionary in Morandi's work," wrote the Washington Post's Blake Gopnik, citing the artist's support of Mussolini. Meanwhile, in the London Times, chief art critic Rachel Campbell-Johnston explained that the choice of Louise Nevelson's model for Sky Covenant (1974), a maquette for a piece designed for a Boston synagogue, "addresses the Jewish lobby directly."

Of course, this was tame compared with the discussions raging on right-wing Web sites critical of Obama in general. One popular target was Ruscha's 1983 canvas I Think I'll..., a flock of "maybe's" on a sea of red-which, according to who's looking, exemplifies either a "lack of authority" (as conservative pundit Michelle Malkin put it) or "a psychic inclination that accepts paradox and allows that the world is not only good or evil" (as New York critic Jerry Saltz responded).

The most unlikely villain here is Alma Thomas (1891-1978), who spent her career teaching children, only starting to paint later in life, and became the first black artist to show at the Whitney Museum. To Holland Cotter, she is an ideal symbol for the Obama White House: "forward-looking without being radical; post-racial but also race-conscious." To right-wing bloggers, however, she is nothing more than a plagiarist and a fraud. Their evidence is her 1963 composition Watusi (Hard Edge), which she appropriated, as we in the art world might say, by flipping around a late Matisse and changing the colors. According to critics of the president, he was too clueless to notice the deception, turning a blind eye because the artist was black.

And then, by late October, there had been another quiet cultural move in the White House. Watusi (Hard Edge), which had been the only painting listed for the East Wing-and reportedly destined for Michelle Obama's office-was no longer on the list. The Hirshhorn confirmed that it had been sent back, but no one involved with the White House loans would say why. In the end, perhaps, the story behind this painting may also presage the cultural politics of the Obama administration.

Robin Cembalest is executive editor of ARTnews.