Obamas Go Mod With White House Art

Art is more modern, abstract

By NANCY BENAC
|  Wednesday, Oct 7, 2009  |  Updated 10:23 AM CDT
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The Obama Presidency in Photos

National Gallery of Art

Ed Ruscha's "I Think I'll..."

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You can't see it, but there's a quiet cultural revolution under way at the White House.

The Obamas are decorating their private spaces with more modern and abstract artwork than has ever hung on the White House walls. (Click here for an entire list.)

New pieces by contemporary African-American and Native American artists are on display. Bold colors, odd shapes, squiggly lines have arrived. So, too, have some obscure artifacts, such as patent models for a gear cutter and a steamboat paddlewheel, that now sit in the Oval Office.

Works by big names from the modern art world -- Jasper Johns and Mark Rothko -- are rubbing shoulders with lesser-known artists such as Alma Thomas, an African-American abstract painter of the 1960s and 1970s.

Thomas' "Watusi (Hard Edge)" now hangs in the East Wing, where Michelle Obama has her offices. The acrylic on canvas, on loan from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, shows a jumble of geometric shapes in bright reds, blues and greens.

Glenn Ligon's "Black Like Me No. 2," a Hirshhorn loan now hanging in the first family's living quarters, is a "text painting" that reproduces words from the 1961 book "Black Like Me," a nonfiction account by a white man who disguised himself as
a black man and traveled through the South.

Ligon, a black artist from Brooklyn in New York, said in an interview that the painting's theme fits with President Barack Obama's efforts to create a dialogue between the races.

"It's a really important part of what he's about and symbolically what he's done," Ligon said, adding that it was "intensely flattering" for the Obamas to want his painting to hang in their private spaces.

The Obamas got to work selecting new artwork for the White House even before the inauguration and had the first pieces installed on Day One. Other pieces have arrived only in recent weeks. And there's a Rothko piece -- "No. 17 (or) No. 15" -- in limbo; they
haven't quite decided what to do with it.

Working with California decorator Michael Smith and White House curator William Allman, the Obamas have borrowed dozens of works from various Washington museums and galleries, being sure to use only items that weren't already on display. Other recent first families hung a few modern pieces in their living quarters, but none approached the scope of the Obamas, Allman said.

Smith ferried lists back and forth between the White House and the galleries and museums as the Obamas narrowed down their
choices.

"The first lady had clear ideas about what they were aiming for," Allman said. "They knew their tastes, and Michael Smith
knew a lot about their tastes."

The new artwork is on display only in the first family's living quarters and office areas. Any changes to the historic public spaces --such as the Blue Room or the State Dining Room -- must be approved by the Committee for the Preservation of the White House,
which has yet to meet in the Obama administration.

Could more modern artwork be headed for public spaces at the White House?

"Undoubtedly, this will be a subject that will be raised," says Allman. There may be an opening, he said, to "collect something new and different and take a leap."

As for the private spaces, the first lady's office provided a list Tuesday of dozens of pieces of artwork-on-loan that now supplement the hundreds of more traditional landscapes, portraits and still life paintings that dominate the permanent White House collection.

Richard Feigen, a private art dealer in New York, scanned the list and pronounced it "highly sophisticated."

"We're encouraged as far as the art world," Feigen said. "We feel we have someone now in the White House who is saying that
culture is an important part of this country."

The Obamas' selections include an impressive assortment of modern and contemporary works from the National Gallery of Art. One
of the most striking is Edward Ruscha's ``I Think I'll ... ,'' which superimposes phrases such as ``I think I'll ...'' and ``maybe ... no'' and ``wait a minute'' on top of a blood red sunset. Others include Susan Rothenberg's ``Butterfly,'' which shows a horse with an X through it, and Richard Diebenkorn's ``Berkeley No. 52,'' an abstract oil on canvas in soft colors based on the landscape of Berkeley, Calif.

The Obamas' list of borrowed items also includes an intriguing trio of patent models on loan from the National Museum of American
History, including models for Samuel Morse's 1849 telegraph register, a gear-cutting machine and a paddlewheel for a steamboat.

Peter Liebhold, curator of the museum's Work and Industry Division, said the museum was both surprised and pleased by the White House choices, especially since two of them are from minor inventors. All three models, he said, are ``intrinsically beautiful. They say a lot about American ingenuity.''

They're also small enough to fit on the president's bookshelves, Allman said, and they make great conversation pieces.

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