This Tuesday, the White House released the official list of paintings that the Obamas selected for the hallowed halls of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Of the 45 works that will enter the White House, there are some expected and unexpected choices. To start, the first couple seems to have a great fondness for painter George Catlin (12 of the works are by the 19th-century artist) who traveled West several times to paint the Great Plains Native American tribe. In addition to paintings of Native Americans, the Obamas also chose art by them; both Leon Polk Smith and Jeri Redcorn made the cut.
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And of course, the Obamas honored their own heritage with several works by African-American artists, including two works by Glenn Ligon, and one by Alma Thomas. The Obamas acknowledged almost every area of art, from the Old Masters (Giorgio Morandi), to the Impressionists (Degas), to Abstract Expressionists (Rothko, Jasper Johns), to California postmodernism (Ed Ruscha), to American classic (Winslow Homer). The collection does exactly what it is supposed to; it shows that the Obamas have a strong sense of history, with a tendency toward the American and multicultural.
The art world is, of course, having a field day with the list—what does it all mean? Why didn’t Michelle choose more women? Fewer Native American paintings? More European masterpieces? And wither the work of Shepard Fairey, he of the infamous Obama campaign posters (which hang a mile away in the National Gallery)? The speculation has reached England, where they note the Obamas’ inclusive bent, to California, where art types are excited about the inclusion of a painting by Bay Area abstract painter Richard Diebenkorn.
Everything about the Obamas is scrutinized (down to Michelle’s choice of heels) but the art they choose for the White House deserves this type of close examination. While the George W. Bush administration’s art choices (Georgia O’Keeffe’s Jimson Weed, for example, which hung in the Bush dining room but has since returned to New Mexico) went relatively unreported, the Obamas have the ability to make a remarkable impact on any sector that they touch. If the girls carry a doll, it becomes a bestseller. Michelle has the ability to sell out a J.Crew cardigan. So in choosing painters and sculptors to adorn their home, the Obamas are making a statement that will influence the artistic conversation. And in this case, it is clear that the Obamas want to show a strong sense of art’s trajectory from the past, while including voices that haven’t always been acknowledged by major institutions. They certainly know how to curate an ideology.