Obamas Bring Bold Art to the White House

In a tradition dating back to the Camelot years of the Kennedy administration, President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama have cherry-picked artworks from the nation’s federal museums to decorate the family’s private White House quarters.

But instead of stuffy portraits of past presidents and first ladies, the Obamas, working closely with their White House decorator, Los Angeles–based interior designer Michael Smith, chose approximately 36 works — ranging from an Edgar Degas dancer in bronze to an Ed Ruscha word painting — culled from the climate-controlled storage rooms of the National Gallery of Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The majority were chosen and installed in the Obamas' personal quarters on the second and third floors of the White House even before they settled into their new home on 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

“The Obamas wanted some great modern and contemporary art in their private quarters,” said Harry Cooper, curator of modern and contemporary art at the National Gallery of Art, who worked in concert with Smith and longtime White House curator Bill Allman to make the necessary selections and arrangements. “They really wanted it from day one.”

And they were willing to be very involved in the decisions. “They certainly had some input,” noted Cooper, who also explained that the couple limited their selections to works in the museums’ storage, not wanting to take anything off public view.

“They really ended up with great examples of mostly postwar American paintings,” said Cooper, “from famous names like Rothko and Diebenkorn to a few who are less famous, like Edward Corbett, to some artists who are still working and rather contemporary, like Ed Ruscha and Susan Rothenberg.”

Cooper said he suggested to the couple several still lifes by the obsessive Italian modernist Giorgio Morandi, two of which the family wound up choosing as springboards to more contemporary works.

Balancing the newer works are two tabletop Degas bronze dancers as well as a group of George Catlin American Indian scenes, the latter following a tradition started by the Kennedys back in the early 1960s.

Asked if he was surprised by the Obamas’ selections, Cooper said, “We were all bowled over and excited by the desire for some pretty challenging art from the postwar era.”

He singled out as surprising Ruscha's I think I’ll….,” a 1983 word painting with pithy phrases floating across a fiery-red Los Angeles sunset, including “maybe no” and “maybe yes,” partly because the words in it are all about indecision and worry. “The idea of that painting being in the White House is really interesting,” Cooper said.

For his part, White House curator Allman took the change in aesthetic in stride, saying, “It’s a younger couple than we’ve had in the White House for a long time, so the likelihood that they’d find something in the modern vein to be of interest didn’t surprise us at all.”

He also noted the Obamas' participation in the process, saying, “I think a lot of thought was put into the choices. The president and first lady wanted to see all of the choices and consider them for color, size, content, and what they evoked to them. It was a well-thought-out process.”

The first couple certainly did their art history homework in Abstract Expressionism, picking three generously sized works: Mark Rothkos luminous Red Band (1955), at 80 3/8 by 67 5/8 inches; Sam Franciss stunning White Line (1958/59), at 108½ by 75¾ inches; and Richard Diebenkorns Berkeley No. 2 (1955), at 58 5/8 by 53 7/8 inches.

Those three paintings also have considerable market value, it turns out. Christie’s postwar/contemporary specialist Robert Manley, who considered the dates, size, and provenance of those three paintings without examining the actual works, estimates they’d be worth in the range of $20–30 million for the Rothko, $3–4 million for the Francis, and $4–5 million for the Diebenkorn.

Slightly further along the art historical time line is Susan Rothenberg’s iconic Butterfly (1976) in acrylic on canvas and measuring 69½ by 83 inches, which depicts her classic horse figure marked by a large X. And on a more modest scale, the Obamas chose Jasper Johnss Numerals, 0 through 9 (1970), a lead relief at 30 by 23½ inches, produced by Gemini G.E.L.

“It’s a very high-quality selection of some of the most important artists of the last 50–60 years,” said Manley. “Well chosen with real intelligence and knowledge of art history and what movements were important.”

Pausing for a moment, he added, “It makes me like the Obamas even more.”