All the Presidents Art
All the Presidents Art
Now that the Obamas have settled into the White House, the First Family is focusing on what art to hang on the walls, a thrilling and anxiety-producing prospect for collectors, curators, and artists. What pieces Barack and Michelle decide on has wide-ranging implications about what art and artists should be on the public's radar, and could affect what those artists' work is worth. While the couple can hang anything they want in their residence and offices, pieces hung in public places must be approved by the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, which consists of the White House curator and advisory board.
The decision is a tough one, so we thought we’d give the Obamas a hand. We asked 21 of our favorite artists, dealers, curators, and bloggers to tell us what pieces they think should grace the White House walls.
Click on the photo gallery at left for images and excerpts from our interviews, or continue reading below.
Doreen Remen, co-founder, Art Production Fund, and Casey Fremont, director
“Untitled (1991) by Barbara Kruger because she is an incredibly strong female artist. Here she presents important questions to think about daily.
“Lawdy Mama (1969) by Barkley Hendricks — a constant reminder of the individual in all of her idiosyncrasies.
“A Particular Kind of Heaven (1983) by Ed Ruscha. This work is peaceful and poetic.”
Shepard Fairey, street artist, designed Barack Obama “Hope” poster
“One of the Jasper Johns American flag paintings, ideally the one in the green tones. Jasper Johns is now accepted as an important Pop artist, but his American flag works were seen by some as irreverent at the time they first were created. I think hanging a Johns flag painting would be a great way for Obama to symbolize the diverse interpretations of what it means to be American, and the green flag could additionally represent the need for the U.S. to become greener.
“Barbara Kruger’s We Don’t Need Another Hero would be a great reminder that macho imperialism masked as heroic world police action is not part of the Obama administration’s approach to foreign policy. Kruger began in, and fully understands, magazine design and advertising, which she utilizes in her art by subverting the propaganda of American stereotypes.”
Andres Serrano, photographer
“If I had my choice, I would want the first family to have the following four works of mine: America: Firefighters John L. Thomasian and Darrel Dunbar; Nomads: Rene; and Black Supper. ‘America’ is a project I embarked upon a few days after Sept. 11. It was my contribution to the war effort as an artist. I felt the need to respond and define who and what America is.
“The project took me three years to complete and consists of 116 portraits. Among the first ones I did were those of firefighters John L. Thomasian and Darrell Dunbar. Although I took their somber demeanor to mean they were saddened by the tragic loss of their brethren, someone told me they looked tired, and it made sense. They had been working endlessly for weeks, and it shows.
“Rene is from my series ‘Nomads,’ which consists of portraits of homeless people I took in 1992. Black Supper is a five-piece work of Leonardo da Vincis Last Supper immersed in water. It is the largest work I’ve ever done, and there’s one in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. It is one of a very few images of Jesus acquired by the Israel Museum, Andy Warhols Last Supper being another.”
Agnes Gund, president emerita, Museum of Modern Art, New York
“Elizabeth Murray captures the American spirit: Her works have an optimistic, playful feel but are powerful and smart. They are uplifting and full of joy and life. She is also a great choice because her works are accessible even to those with a limited knowledge of the art world. I suggest The Sun & the Moon.
“One of Susan Rothenbergs horses would be ideal for the White House art collection, because they are incredibly dynamic and interesting and evoke feelings of the American West. I X I (1976–77) is a good example.
“The White House would easily be able to display one of Jasper Johns’s maps or flags, and you can’t get more American than these paintings. Map (1961) and Three Flags (1958) are two of my choices.
“Glenn Ligon is an African-American man living in a white man’s world, which is what he expresses in much of his art. He also tends to explore sexuality and identity. His pieces are beautifully painted, drawn, and/or printed. Untitled (There is a consciousness we all have ...) (1988) is a good choice.
“Martin Puryears Alien Huddle (1993–95) should be on the list. Martin is one of the best artists working today. His sculptures are simply magnificent. He combines craftsmanship with sensitivity, and his works have tremendous integrity and project such a strong sense of presence that they seem truly monumental — timeless and grand.
“Kiki Smiths Untitled (1987-90) or Pool of Tears 2 (after Lewis Carroll) (2000), because Kiki is inventive and comes with all kinds of ideas. Hers is an extremely poetic voice that is also questioning and edgy but never too abrasive.
“Julian Stanczaks art comes out of an entirely different perspective. He uses optical art and illusion, forms often overlooked by the art world but incredibly appealing to the public. He paints all of these wonderfully fascinating pieces with the use of only one arm. Untitled (2001) would be a good choice.”
Paddy Johnson, blogger, Art Fag City
“I’d like to see a little more contemporary art at the White House and think the work of photographer Jason Lazarus would be a very good fit. Lazarus’s photographs are thoughtful, reflective, and frequently depict American subject matter. Also, from what I’ve seen reported, the Obamas are short on both photography and figurative work, so this would help fill that gap. The specific work I’d pick is Spencer Elden in His Last Year of High School (Jan ’08) (2008).
“Painter Zach Harris melds the traditions of Impressionism and contemporary painting. His work beautifully integrates the frame into the larger piece, at times evoking a ’90s video-game aesthetic. It would fit in very well with the Richard Diebenkorn and Jasper Johns already on loan at the White House. The piece I’d pick is titled 7078292169(2007–08).
“Finally, Dasha Shiskins paintings present a contemporary spin on artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec and Manet. Her paintings often draw inspiration from great literary works such as Franz Kafkas ‘First Sorrow.’ I love you and I can’t pretend. Such beautiful feet (2007) would be my choice.”
Naomi Beckwith, assistant curator, the Studio Museum in Harlem
“First I would suggest something modernist from Jacob Lawrence, who created epic paintings depicting the expansion and building of America and important scenes from African-American history. Most fitting for the Obama White House would be a print titled The 1920s ... The Migrants Arrive and Cast Their Ballots (1974), made in advance of the U.S. bicentennial. It’s a rather ordinary Election Day polling scene but becomes extraordinary when one realizes that these voters are mostly migrants to Northern cities who are voting for the first time. It is reminiscent of the number of people — black or otherwise — who were compelled to vote for the first time, as well as prior voters who were inspired by the American democratic process, this last election season.
“The next work I would recommend is a sculpture by Edmonia Lewis, whose Neoclassical style depicted historic American and mythological scenes. I suggest Bust of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1872), which is sculpted in Lewis’s heroic Italian style and is a likeness of the great American man of letters. Longfellow’s writing was the inspiration for many of Lewis’s sculptures of Native American and slave scenes.
“If I can add a bonus work by a contemporary artist, I would suggest the Obamas add an installation by James Turrell. His simple interventions in architecture create beautiful meditative spaces with light and color. It would be a wonderful refuge for the family and staff for quiet, contemplative moments.”
Magdalena Sawon, owner/director, Postmasters Gallery, New York
“I am seconding Greg Allen of the brilliant blog greg.org to bring Sir Charles aka Willie Harris (1972) by Barkley Hendricks to the White House. It's a tremendous painting from a still-under-the-radar master that puts Kehinde Wiley to shame.
“I believe that the Obamas (and this administration) are smart enough to accept a biting political satire. HOPE He Can CHANGE This Shit! (2008) by Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung, a Chinese-born artist known for his charged digital collages, would find a special resonance ‘on the inside.’
“And for the sublime slowdown of the hectic White House pace, I propose untitled (to Barnett Newman to commemorate his simple problem, red, yellow and blue) (1970) by Dan Flavin. An abstract, transcending, immaterial, and contemplative piece of sheer beauty.”
Chrissie Shearman, senior director, Yvon Lambert New York
“Shinique Smiths work would be the perfect addition to the home of the first family, with the Obamas’ focus on the people and their message of inclusiveness. Smith utilizes the discarded objects of everyday life in a considered way. Blue Green Yellow Red references Ellsworth Kellys seminal work of the same title from 1966. Bale Variant No. 0017 invokes bundles of clothes being sent to Africa, aid from the First World to the Third World. The artist’s own writing is incorporated in the piece, and all of the materials are hand-dyed by Smith.
“Obama has stated that he is generally in favor of looking forward, not backward. Jenny Holzers work, with the central role that language plays, consistently focuses on timely subject matter and affirms the call to look forward, while showing that we must assess the past in order to do so. Incorporating Holzer’s socially and politically charged works — such as Striped Cross or, perhaps even more provocatively, Purple — would be an incredibly strong and poignant statement.”
Daneyal Mahmood, owner, Daneyal Mahmood Gallery, New York
“Waterboarding by Stephen J. Shanabrook — the title says it all, and I think the work has a lot of charm and humor. I also love it because it is slightly reminiscent of blackface, which is more appropriate than the concept of torture these days — which is interesting in and of itself, and I think of the Obamas as progressive enough not to shy away from either concept.
“Empire at War is a ballpoint pen on linen by Andrei Molodkin. Andrei used as many pens as soldiers had died in Iraq up to the point he made the piece back in September 2006 — 2,764. I would like to see the piece in the White House and the number of pens at the foot of the drawing increase every time another soldier dies.
“The bad-news image is a sculpture by Guerra de la Paz, Sealing the Deal. I think it is timely, given the weak economy and Wall Street’s collapse, to remember how we all got here. Put the piece at the entrance to the Federal Reserve.
“Artforum is a piece by Justine Cooper, part of a marketing campaign for a fictitious drug (Havidol) for a disease she created (dysphoric social attention consumption deficit anxiety disorder). The concept is that nothing is wrong with you, but you are still not satisfied. Fix health care.”
Edward Winkleman, owner, Winkleman Gallery, New York
“Edward Hoppers Early Sunday Morning. In addition to representing Main Street in a small American town, there’s a hopeful, if somewhat somber, feel to this painting. This seems to describe the state of the country at the moment. We’re war weary and very nervous about the economy, but we’re encouraged by Obama’s message of hope and the true breakthrough in our history that his presidency represents.
“Jacob Lawrence’s ‘The Great Migration.’ This series of paintings seems a nice choice for two reasons. First, it is among the earliest major works by an African-American artist to be widely celebrated. It took ages for the entire series to be unified in one institution, which perhaps parallels the struggle it took for the U.S. to unite behind its first non-white president. Secondly, the series itself depicts the struggle of African-Americans to find their way out of the still highly racist South into the Northern, Midwestern, and Western states, in search of a better life after the end of slavery.
“Cy Twomblys ‘Scattered Blossom’ paintings represent one of our last living legends making astounding contemporary art. The symbolism of including Twombly in the White House is one of embracing the cutting edge. That seems highly relevant for a president whose challenge is to break with so many of the trappings of our past, including our dependence on fossil fuels, our dilapidated infrastructure, our imperialistic arrogance, etc.”
Risa Needleman and Benjamin Tischer, co-owners, Invisible-Exports gallery, New York
Risa: “Rashid Johnson, Pinar Yolacan, and Mickey Smith. All three of these artists deal with the politics of culture, as well as the (self- and unself-) portraiture of predetermined groups. Obama, similarly, has faced the portraiture of a nation and seeks, as these artists do, to redefine what we see as ourselves.”
Benjamin: “I would like to include some don’ts. No Warhol, no Koons, no Hirst. While these artists have some great work, their inflated value is to the art market what AIG is to the banking world. They ruin it a little for everyone else. My choices: Tom Sachss Nutsy’s McDonald’s (2001). It’s practical, fully functional, and so fucking American it hurts. And Him by Maurizio Cattelan. Because really, what would throw diplomats off their game more than a little praying Hitler in the middle of the foyer?”
Nicole Will, Bortolami gallery, New York
“Eric Wesleys Remix (Stage Coach) (2008–09) is a bronze statue based on the Western Union/Wells Fargo stagecoaches. Wesley scrambles the parts into one big tumbling mess. This piece, in good humor, placed on the White House lawn, would represent our current muddled financial state, using this symbol of financial freedom now assembled in chaos.
“Aaron Youngs Ain’t No Sunshine (2008) is a steel, chain-link fence, and 24K gold work that was installed at our booth at Art Basel Miami Beach 2008. Young’s art is derived from the rebellious youth culture and its desire to push through, vandalize, and break down barriers, both symbolic and territorial. This fence is pried apart, allowing whomever wants to pass through. The election of Obama by a youthful generation has a distinct parallel to these works.
“Tom Burrs An American Garden (1993) is an earlier work in which Burr created an exact replica of a portion of Central Park called the Ramble, which was designed by Fredrick Law Olmsted in 1858, and placed it at an exhibition site in the Netherlands. George Baker wrote ‘… Burr’s reconstructed and pristine garden threw into relief the difference between planned design and public use…’”
Jayme McLellan, owner and curator, Civilian Art Projects, Washington, D.C.
“The Obamas would most definitely benefit from having the work of Sam Gilliam in the White House. Gilliam is internationally recognized as the foremost contemporary African-American Color Field painter and lyrical abstractionist. Further, he has called Washington, D.C., his home since 1962. Adding his work to the collection would contribute to the breadth of the White House collection and support D.C. as a place for historical, living artists.
“Ken Ashton resides in Washington, D.C., and has spent the past decade photographing neighborhoods throughout the world. He has undertaken an encyclopedic project of photographing communities in the Northeastern corridor of the U.S., from D.C. to Boston, entitled ‘Megalopolis.’
“Iona Rozeal Browns most recent paintings are an unprecedented mixture of anonymous courtesans, geisha, and other Japanese subjects. She explores the theme of Afro-Asiatic allegory, addressing the global influence of African-American culture as fetish. Brown’s work signals the energy, critical direction, and complexity of contemporary practice that is engaged in a tenuous marriage of commerce and resistance. Brown brings a subversion to her art and manipulates hyper-self-conscious imagery to articulate contemporary concerns regarding race, gender, and class.”
Emilio Steinberger, co-director, Haunch of Venison New York
“One is Adrian Ghenie, whom the Haunch of Venison gallery in London is currently showing. A very good young painter from Romania who is getting a lot of attention. The show in London is sold out.
“The other is Enrico Castellani, whom we are showing at Haunch of Venison in New York. His work is amazing and very closely linked to Manzoni, Fontana, and Yves Klein, but the prices are much lower. I think it has great potential.”
Anne Pasternak, president and artistic director, Creative Time
“A big mural by Kara Walker. In taking on American history, her cutouts are radical, unapologetic, historic, and profound.
“A big, black neon commissioned by Glenn Ligon for the White House. Glenn’s texts reference African-American writers and intellectuals — from the brilliant comic Richard Pryor to author James Baldwin — to comment on race, sexual identity, and representation. And they are always poetic and gorgeous.
“A shadow-puppet video by William Kentridge titled Shadow Procession, from 2001. His work is so much about politics and its ramifications on the poor and displaced. Not many artists show compassion as viscerally, poetically, and hauntingly.”
Simon Watson, co-founder, Scenic art advisory firm
“My first choice would be an installation by husband and wife Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry, an interracial couple whose work deals with race in America and an examination of how we get along. I would urge the Obamas instead of borrowing to buy a cycle by McCallum and Tarry titled ‘The Evidence of Things Not Seen,’ which are 104 portraits of all of the people arrested during the Montgomery bus boycott of 1956. It was the very first time Dr. King was arrested and probably the single most important boycott of all because it started the whole civil rights movement.
“My second choice would be a photograph by Mexican photographer Gonzalo Lebrija titled Entre la vida y la muerte (blanco y negro) (2008), which will appear on the cover of a monograph being published by Damien Hirst, who publishes groovy emerging-artist books. The piece is a black-and-white photograph of a car taking a nosedive into a lake. Lebrija had a crane holding a black Cadillac over a dead-still lake. When he dropped it, he took a high-speed photo of the car. It’s surreal. The car looks like it’s facing itself in a mirror, which is everything Obama has been doing for the last three months in dealing with the economic crisis and the world. It’s a haunting and beautiful photo of a disaster looking at itself.
“I think it would be fun to commission a portrait of Obama in his basketball outfit by Kehinde Wiley. And Michelle would look extraordinary in one of Mickalene Thomass fabulous Lichtenstein-like rhinestone paintings. The two artists together have a sense of glamour and now and streetness, and something to say about pleasure and Pop art that speaks to a broad, fun audience. Contemporary art is fun when it speaks to the art world, but in a bigger sense it’s inclusive in the same way that Obama’s White House is.”
Jerry Russo, independent curator
“As a tribute to Bo, the Obamas’ Portuguese water dog, how about Jeff Koonss Puppy?
“Dorothea Langes poignant photo Migrant Mother, to remind the Obamas of the plight of the poor and forgotten in this country.
“And last, but not least, Ralph Eugene Meatyards image titled still life, mannequin. Meatyard was president of the Parent-Teacher Association, coached a Little League baseball team in his hometown of Lexington, Kentucky, and was an optician by trade. His work is some of the most disturbing imagery ever created with a camera — all the more reason to be hanging on a wall in the White House.”
Sima Familant, private curator and art adviser
“The first piece I would pick is Slavery! Slavery! Presenting a Grand and Lifelike Panoramic Journey into Picturesque Slavery or ‘Life at ‘Ol Virginny’s Hole’ (1997) by Kara Walker. An African-American woman, Walker is one of the most important artists of her generation, and her work is steeped in the subject of race as well as power — its transference, its possessors, and how it is used and/or abused. Walker’s narrative, fairy-tale-like constructions seduce the viewer, as she mixes historical material with slave narratives and romance novels. The results articulate a complex reading of history, both illuminating and terrifying.
“The next artist is Mark Bradford, a Los Angeles–based artist whose work articulates much about the cultural and geographic makeup of a specific American community. Either of two large-scale paintings would be great for the White House collection: Boreas (2007), which uses the silver paper that has become a signature of Bradford’s work, or Across 110th Street (2008), which has more of a map-like feel, another signature of his work.
“He was invited to participate in the New Orleans biennial this past October, where he built an ark out of his signature signposts and installed it on a spot in the Lower Ninth Ward where a house had stood before being washed away by Hurricane Katrina. This would be a fantastic outdoor sculpture for the White House lawn, as it discusses how the American government handled (or mishandled) a major crisis in a largely African-American community.
“Julie Mehretus work is about the 21st-century experience — the density, fast pace, and compression of information. Mehretu creates densely layered, large-scale expressionistic paintings with opaque layers. This technique of collapsing a cacophony of visual information allows her work to convey a compression of time, space, and place.
Mehretu is a postmodern painter, offering many perspectives at once to show the nomadic nature of urban living, the preoccupation of power and globalization, the density of our urban environments, as well as the acceleration of how we move through these spaces. The painting Empirical Construction, Istanbul (2003) is major and fantastic and would be great for the White House collection.”
Roger Netzer, art collector
“My three suggestions are the artists Jim Sams, Maurice Denis, and Jack Pierson. I think the Obamas should commission a work by Sams, a wood carver from Kentucky. Don’t be fooled by the pedestrian pedestal you see in Dwarf Crested Iris; Sams’s work is uncanny. The scrupulous fidelity to detail embraces imperfection — the brown and bug-chewed laurel leaves, for example. A photo gives little idea of the obsessional power these pieces radiate in person. They are each about 10 inches high — life-size. The Obamas should commission him to do the 50 state flowers. The results will be beautiful, patriotic, and utterly strange.
“The Museum of Modern Art in New York shamefully sold L’Enfant Jesus a la belle verdure (1900), an absolutely gorgeous and major work by Maurice Denis, at Christie’s a few years ago. Denis is my favorite among the Nabis, though his pals Vuillard and Bonnard are better known. His greatest works were executed before he turned 30 — this one was done when he was 29. Christian mysticism consumed him from day one, but as the years went on his pictorial sense became as conservative as his religion. But there is nothing bourgeois about the gloriously sensuous picture. So what if he was a nice man who loved mamas and babies? An even better picture by him is Easter Morning — painted when he was only 20! — but it is already on public exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, so there would be no net gain for the public if it came to the White House.
“Don’t we need to see some citizens? Here’s one: Ben Kweller, Rockaway, photographed by American artist Jack Pierson in 2001. Pierson captures immensely moody romanticism in the everyday. Look how the stained glass harmonizes with Ben’s skin tone and clothes. Pierson’s portraits are humane and warm and a joy to live with. What’s not to like?”
Anastasia Rogers, independent curator
“Mika Tajimas sculptures reference mismatched car parts and architecture, using precise lines and geometry. They are incredible freestanding sculptures of all sizes, each painted uniquely and with aluminum mirror on plywood. Tajima’s work represents destruction and rebuilding with strong, reliable materials, embodying the stance Barack and Michelle have taken in their respective roles.
“Michael Phelans work culls American iconography, exploring themes from Western culture and American consumerism. Tie-dyes and popular slogans are prevalent, referencing the choices we have made and how certain parts of our culture have become representative and sedentary. Phelan’s work would be an important addition to Barack and Michelle’s collection, as it harks back to the roots of both the culture and geography of America, celebrating the contemporary American landscape.”