What Does the Arrival of Abstract Art to the White House Mean?


Rachel Somerstein has penned a fascinating article for Guernica, “White Canvas House,” which suggests that the media’s fixation on the race, gender and ethnicity of the artists on display in Obama’s White House (1, 2, 3, 4, 5…) misses the real radical-ness of the fact that abstract art has finally arrived to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue:

The artists not included in the White House’s four-hundred-and-fifty-piece permanent collection read like a greatest hits list of twentieth-century American art: Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Edward Hopper, Jasper Johns, Willem de Kooning, Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, Joan Mitchell, Robert Rauschenberg, Ben Shahn, Andy Warhol.

But things may be changing:

Obama, by contrast, has borrowed…works by Diebenkorn, Thomas, and Ruscha, among others…It may be somewhat dangerous to extrapolate leadership style from one’s taste in art—it’s an urge that seems similar to the impulse toward autobiographical literary criticism—but I believe the vastly different selections of Presidents Bush and Obama are somewhat revelatory.

Bush “decorated the Oval Office with borrowed photorealist paintings of Texas by the painter Tom Lea.” Somerstein takes a crack at playing Presidential therapist:

Bush looked to a single representation of things as they are; what you see is what you get. Obama at least gives the impression of considering a multitude of opinions, which differ depending on who is doing the looking.

She also explains that the exceptions to the reign of representation at the White House are few:

The exceptions to these staid loans were Hillary Clinton, who borrowed Willem de Kooning’s Untitled XXXIX, 1983, long since returned to the artist’s private collection, and Laura Bush, who hung a Helen Frankenthaler canvas in her private quarters.

And the crescendo:

By bringing works by the likes of Diebenkorn, Thomas, and Albers, as well as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Louise Nevelson, into the White House, Obama is symbolically ridding the executive mansion—and, by extension, the U.S. Presidency—of the xenophobia that has informed the American rejection of abstraction.

I think she’s a little too optimistic about the meaning of the whole shift but it is a fascinating idea. The whole piece is well worth a read.

Photos via Independent

{hat tip Lyra K}

4 responses to “What Does the Arrival of Abstract Art to the White House Mean?”

  1. Jeremy Sapienza Avatar
    Jeremy Sapienza

    “Bush looked to a single representation of things as they are; what you see is what you get.”

    And yet the Bush White House was defined by sneering at reality.

  2. hv Avatar

    Well, it was definitely a candy coated reality…read the article…she mentions that it was more akin to Salvador Dali in the fact that it seemed so surreal.

  3. […] *White House Canvas: Rachel Somerstein analyzes an overlooked aspect of the White House’s much-buzzed about new art picks: their unusual (for the White House, anyway) emphasis on Abstraction. (Via Hrag Vartanian). […]

  4. Craig Banholzer Avatar

    Seeing as abstract art has been displayed in corporate boardrooms and Midtown lobbies for over forty years, I’d say it is indeed a mistake to infer a leader’s political philosophy from the pictures on the wall.

Leave a Reply to Craig BanholzerCancel reply

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