Obama’s Taste in Art

My brother sent me this link with some pictures of the art pieces that the Obamas have selected for the White House. Before seeing these pictures, I had already read different commentaries on how Obama had selected mostly modern pieces for his walls. Although other first families have hung modern art before, no one has displayed as much modern art as the Obamas.

There are two articles from today (one from the Guardian and another from the London Times), which discuss how Obama’s taste in art can be a reflection of his presidency and policies. I think it’s interesting (and kind of humorous) that Obama picked this above painting, “I think I’ll…” (Ed Ruscha, 1983) for the White House collection. If you can’t tell, the subject of the painting deals with indecision.

I’m sure that the White House art is a reflection of the Obama family’s taste, but I can’t help but think about all of the political messages that the Obamas needed to consider in the selection process. What a headache that must have been! For example, I think it’s likely that the selection of Alma Thomas’ Watusi Hard Edge (1963) was chosen because Alma is an African American and female. Of course, the painting is really nice, but I wonder if its aesthetic was the primary motivation for selection. What do you think?

Although some pieces entered the White House earlier this year, some paintings have just recently arrived. The painting above, Rothko’s No. 17/No. 15 (1949) is kind of in limbo right now; the Obamas aren’t quite sure what to do with it. I hope they find a place for this painting. It’s quite lovely. (Do you think there’s a reason that the Obamas want a Rothko that is comprised of red, white, and blue? Maybe? Maybe not?)

What do you think of the Obama’s art? Are there any pieces that stand out to you?

  • Rebekah says:

    I actually am more interested in your take on the George Cartlin paintings. Which are…interesting, but nothing special. Is it the topic? Because there are a LOT of nicer native am paintings. Also, Truman? And I really like both Black Like Me and the original telegraph. THINK of the amazing art and artifacts they can choose from! Swoon!

  • M says:

    Yeah, it is pretty amazing to think of the art objects available to the Obamas! I found a comprehensive list, published this morning, that details all the art loaned to the Obamas, where the art is displayed, and the lending institution. (J, did you notice the three works by Albers that are on there? Are you green with envy?)

    When looking at the list, I was really surprised to see how many Catlins were loaned! I definitely can't speak for the Obama family's personal taste in art, but I don't find Catlin to be the most intriguing painter in the world. On the other hand, though, I would say that Catlin is considered to be the quintessential American artist cum frontiersman/traveler. Maybe the Obamas like the paintings because they simultaneously embody the Westward Movement while being sympathetic to the Native American culture? (Kiersten, if you read this, feel free to step in with your opinion. I think you know more about Catlin than me.)

    I forgot about the Truman portrait. I wonder why they chose that. My guess is that Obama (or perhaps Michelle Obama?) really identifies with Truman. In fact, someone wrote a comparison between the two presidents earlier this year. Anyhow, that's my best guess.

    The telegraph is cool! I think they picked other cool patent models too, like the steamboat paddle wheel and the gear cutter. Wouldn't it be fun to have so much history in your home?

  • e says:

    I'm sure you've been on a tour of the White House, so this won't be new to you, but when I went on the tour, the staff told me that any art acquired by the President stays at the White House (or at least government custody) forever — as in, the President does NOT take it with him when he leaves.

    The White House walls are FULL of paintings. Some good, some not so good. But, I'm sure all of them are now very valuable and have done wonders for the artists (if they are alive).

    When it comes to whether or not the Obama's intentionally chose certain pieces to represent certain, specific things I'd have to say both YES and NO. I think they knew (and so did their advisers) that every piece they picked would be examined and questioned by the public (or maybe art historians?? ;p). Certainly, they kept that in mind coupled with the fact that it would be studied years after they left the White House, too. On the other hand, it probably goes without saying that they also picked stuff that they plain, old LIKED the look of!

    What do you think?

  • heidenkind says:

    I think that the choices have to political–I mean, just picking art for exhibits in regular galleries can get very political, so just imagine how it is at the White House!

    I liked that he got a lot of Catlins. I like the naivety of his artwork. Plus his life was just fascinating! I also liked that they have "The Bow" by Degas–that's kind of an odd choice considering the other pieces.

  • M says:

    I actually haven't ever toured the White House, e, but I gathered that the president wouldn't be able to keep the art. It looks like most of the lending museums are under federal funding (although I'm not sure if the Hirschhorn and Smithsonian fall under government jurisdiction), so that makes sense what you said about the art remaining government property.

    I have to agree with heidenkind, I think that almost all (if not all) of the art was picked for political reasons. I don't doubt that the Obamas like the art that they picked (they definitely had enough options to choose from!), but I think there was a political agenda behind everything.

    Yeah, heidenkind, I thought that "The Bow" by Degas was an interesting and surprising pick. From a quick glance at the list, it looks like Degas is one of the only European artists included in the Obama "collection."

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.