Tuesday, October 13, 2009

You can’t see it, but a quiet cultural revolution is under way at the White House.

The Obamas are decorating their private spaces with more modern and abstract artwork than has ever hung on the White House walls. New pieces by contemporary black and American Indian artists are on display. Bold colors, odd shapes and squiggly lines have arrived. So, too, have some obscure artifacts, such as patent models for a gear cutter and a steamboat paddle wheel that now sit in the Oval Office.

Works by big names from the modern art world — Jasper Johns and Mark Rothko — are rubbing shoulders with lesser-known artists such as Alma Thomas, an black abstract painter of the 1960s and 1970s.

Ms. Thomas’ “Watusi (Hard Edge)” hangs in the East Wing, where first lady Michelle Obama has her offices. The acrylic on canvas, on loan from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, shows a jumble of geometric shapes in bright reds, blues and greens.

Glenn Ligon’s “Black Like Me No. 2,” a Hirshhorn loan hanging in the first family’s living quarters, is a “text painting” that reproduces words from the 1961 book “Black Like Me,” a nonfiction account by a white man who disguised himself as a black man and traveled through the South.

Mr. Ligon, a black artist from Brooklyn, N.Y., said in an interview that the painting’s theme fits with President Obama’s efforts to promote dialogue between the races.

“It’s a really important part of what he’s about and symbolically what he’s done,” Mr. Ligon said, adding that it was “intensely flattering” for the Obamas to want his painting to hang in their private spaces.

The Obamas got to work selecting new artwork for the White House even before the inauguration and had the first pieces installed on the president’s first day in office. Other pieces have arrived just in recent weeks. And there’s a Rothko piece — “No. 17 (or) No. 15” — in limbo; they haven’t quite decided what to do with it.

Working with California decorator Michael Smith and White House curator William Allman, the Obamas have borrowed dozens of works from various Washington museums and galleries, being sure to use only items that weren’t already on display. Other recent first families hung a few modern pieces in their living quarters, but none approached the scope of the Obamas, Mr. Allman said.

Mr. Smith ferried lists back and forth between the White House and the galleries and museums as the Obamas narrowed their choices.

“The first lady had clear ideas about what they were aiming for,” Mr. Allman said. “They knew their tastes, and Michael Smith knew a lot about their tastes.”

The new artwork is on display only in the first family’s living quarters and office areas. Any changes to the White House’s historic public spaces — such as the Blue Room or the State Dining Room — must be approved by the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, which has yet to meet in the Obama administration.

Could more modern artwork be headed for public spaces at the White House?

“Undoubtedly, this will be a subject that will be raised,” Mr. Allman said. There may be an opening, he said, to “collect something new and different and take a leap.”

As for the private spaces, the first lady’s office provided a list last week of dozens of pieces of artwork on loan to supplement the hundreds of more traditional landscapes, portraits and still lifes that dominate the permanent White House collection.

Richard Feigen, a private art dealer in New York, scanned the list and pronounced it “highly sophisticated.”

“We’re encouraged as far as the art world,” Mr. Feigen said. “We feel we have someone now in the White House who is saying that culture is an important part of this country.”

Jeri Redcorn, a 69-year-old American Indian artist from Norman, Okla., said she started jumping up and down and screaming when she found out last week that a piece of her pottery was on a bookshelf in the Oval Office.

Ms. Redcorn, who uses the same pottery techniques her Caddo ancestors relied on 500 years ago, said the Obamas’ art selections represent “a bridge and a reaching out to other cultures.”

“To have this artwork in the Oval Office is like a beautiful tribute to the way that my ancestors did things,” she said.

The Obamas’ selections include an impressive assortment of modern and contemporary works from the National Gallery of Art.

One of the most striking is Edward Ruscha’s “I Think I’ll … ,” which superimposes phrases such as “I think I’ll …” and “maybe … no” and “wait a minute” on top of a blood-red sunset. Others include Susan Rothenberg’s “Butterfly,” which shows a horse with an X through it, and Richard Diebenkorn’s “Berkeley No. 52,” an abstract oil on canvas in soft colors based on the landscape of Berkeley, Calif.

Harry Cooper, curator of modern and contemporary art at the National Gallery, said the Obamas’ selections are exciting the art world and should provide a significant boost to the arts in general.

“This is great art to live with,” he said. “A lot of it is challenging. There are different styles: figurative art, abstract art. A lot of it is avant-garde: It was avant-garde, and a lot of it still is avant-garde.”

The Obamas’ list of borrowed items also includes an intriguing trio of patent models on loan from the National Museum of American History, including models for Samuel Morse’s 1849 telegraph register, a gear-cutting machine and a paddle wheel for a steamboat.

Peter Liebhold, curator of the museum’s Work and Industry Division, said the museum was both surprised and pleased by the White House choices, especially because two of them are from minor inventors. All three models, he said, are “intrinsically beautiful. They say a lot about American ingenuity.”

They also are small enough to fit on the president’s bookshelves, Mr. Allman said, and they make great conversation pieces.

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