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More on the Obama art collection

Here are snippets I posted on the New York Magazine site re: the art borrowed for display in the Obama White House.

Alma Thomas, Watusi (Hard Edge)

Comment on: Obama’s Startling White House Art

Deitch did not foist a Kehinde Wiley on the Obamas, as previously speculated on these pages. There's also no Basquiat, Carrie Mae Weems, Adrian Piper, Gary Simmons, Mark Bradford, Jacob Lawrence and countless other black American artists (including Kara Walker). Ligon, while "prickly" and "challenging", still deals with identity from a politely subversive text-based perspective.

In fact, all the Afro-American art chez Obama is carefully abstract or non-figurative. Perhaps with an extended Afro-Am family in residence at the White House, there was no pressing need for further black figuration. For images of the "other", the collection veers towards George Catlin's renderings of the Native American. But one of Wiley's virtuoso, ornate and fawningly homoerotic celebrations of hip hop masculinity would have been interesting. It might have kicked the jams out of the Casa Blanca.

Obama was expected to favor progressive art, a signal that the age of Yahoo Bush was over. The Diebenkorn, Ruscha, Albers, Morandi and Rothko are safely within the acceptable canon of High Modernism. The Ruscha is deemed significant because it deconstructs the opacity of high policy decision making, reminding us that Obama has publicly committed himself to transparency and circumspection, as opposed to the clueless, blustery arrogance of Bush "the Decider". But it is not a particularly good Ruscha, just an apt one for the situation.

In fact much of the collection consists of acceptable but mediocre pieces from recognizable names, possibly because it is on loan from Washington D.C. institutions, where the collections are not always on par with work held in New York, Los Angeles and Europe.

Comment on: Obama’s Startling White House Art

Granted Ruscha postdates what we usually consider Modernism. But he is certainly part of the collectible $$$ canon of text based abstraction, color field meets the word. Pardon my lumping him in with Rothko.

I am ambivalent on Wiley. My point is that the Afrocentrism of the Obama borrowings is carefully manicured to veer towards abstraction and away from in-your-face figuration. It is a political collection, excessively polite, and does not wish to threaten white folks who might still be coming to grips with a black First Family. Hence no dashikis, no Barkley Hendricks, no William Pope.L, no David Hammons.

10/09/2009 at 6:45 pm

Comment on: Obama’s Startling White House Art

And no Robert Colescott, no Kerry James Marshall, no Khalif Kelly, no Henry Thomas, no Nick Cave.

10/09/2009 at 7:00 pm

Glenn Ligon, Black Like Me No. 2

Comment on: Obama’s Startling White House Art

Allow me to be clear: the artists I have named above do not constitute my "fantasy installation", nor would I be so reductive as to suggest that an Afro American president only display Afro American work.

I was merely responding to the assertion that the early Ligon text painting "evinces a willingness to look race directly in the face and not settle for easy answers." Yes, but there are many other artists, both Black and Post Black, who do so, and the selection of Ligon, despite his cool, cerebral, semiotic bent, is in fact an easy, symbolic fulfillment of that demographic. I'd love to see a Martin Puryear sculpture on the White House grounds or a Fred Wilson installation.

The "rules" governing the loans, from three D.C. institutions, and from work not otherwise needed for display, would seem to be established internally by the Obamas and their advisors, and for essentially political reasons: to show they are part of their city and their hood, and to be artistically "green", to not leave a big footprint through their borrowings.

That the Obama White House actually seems to value art, and has hired consultants to enable an intelligent choice of borrowed items, places the current administration on an infinitely higher plane than the cacti and cowboys of the happily departed First Vacationer. But make no mistake: Obama is a political animal, and his art collection, no less than a press conference in the Rose Garden, is carefully calibrated for maximum effect and to send a particular and exact message.

10/09/2009 at 10:32 pm

Comment on: Obama’s Startling White House Art

According to a reblog of an article from the London Times, "working with the California decorator Michael Smith and William Allman, the White House curator, the Obamas have borrowed dozens of works from Washington museums and galleries, obeying the gallery rule to request items that were not already on display or wanted for a forthcoming exhibition."

So it seems Michael Smith is a California decorator. Perhaps he, or another Michael Smith, is also curator of paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.

My point is not that the Obamas obeyed an pre-existing rule of the museums they approached for art, but rather that they decided to approach their local D.C. based institutions in the first place. Must the First Family borrow art for the White House from the National Gallery, Hirshhorn and Smithsonian, or do they have free reign to acquire from other sources? If the latter, then the choice is politically based.

Edward Ruscha’s I Think I’ll ...

Everyone will receive their own message from the Ruscha painting. The Birthers/Deathers will see it as one more example of Obama's supposed indecision and his socialist, foreign, effete agenda (as "courageously" exposed by Glenn Dreck). We, on the other hand, can take some comfort in a president who acknowledges the importance of the arts, and also who doesn't need to pretend he has all the answers going in. While some critique Obama for his supposed high self regard - and what politician does not have a healthy ego? - it is a refreshing change from the arrogant, ostrich-like Bush, a man too dumb to care because he never felt he had to consult outside of an immediate circle of family connections and Neocon enablers.

10/10/2009 at 7:24 am

Alma Thomas in the Sunday NY Times

Holland Cotter discusses the life and work of Alma Thomas in the Sunday Times Week in Review section, naming her the artist in the Obama collection he would choose for his own apartment.

In the 1950s, she took weekend studio classes at American University, working briefly with Jacob Kainen, one of a group of abstract painters — Gene Davis, Morris Louis, and Kenneth Noland were others — gaining national attention as the Washington Color School. Thomas, who loved color above all else in art, always felt a kinship with them.

Thomas herself was a popular favorite in her late-blooming career. Howard gave her a retrospective in 1966. In 1972, at 80, she was the first African-America woman to have a solo at the Whitney Museum. Critics raved. There was a second retrospective in 1977, and Jimmy Carter invited her to the White House. People couldn’t get enough of her. Why?

Her art was accessible. Her abstraction was never really abstract: you could always see the nature in it: flowers, wind. Her paintings were modern but part of some older tradition too, as close to quilts as to Matisse. In a racially charged era, her art wasn’t political, or at least not overtly so. When asked if she thought of herself as a black artist, she said: “No, I do not. I’m a painter. I’m an American.”

Instead of talking anger, she talked color: “Through color I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man.” American museums, under the gun after their neglect of black artists, breathed a sigh of thanks.

But when Thomas said color what was she really saying? She vividly remembered being barred from museums as a child because of her race. A lifetime later, she acknowledged that things were still hard. “It will take a long time for us to get equality,” she said in an interview. “But what do you expect when whites closed up all the schools and libraries on us for so long? They know that schooling would give us our salvation.”

In many ways she’s an ideal artist, and power of example, for the Obama White House: forward-looking without being radical; post-racial but also race-conscious; in love with new, in touch with old. A genuine rainbow type. She would have enjoyed being in Rothko’s company, and she would have understood where Mr. Ligon was coming from.

Sky Light, 1973