Ruscha to the White House

30720817jpgMove over, healthcare. The news of the day is the installation in the White House of 45 artworks that have been loaned to the Obama family by Washington museums. Ed Ruscha’s “I think I’ll…” painting will now refreshingly grace the private residence. One can imagine the staff meeting where they green-lighted the loan request for a work that openly addresses the theme of indecision—an unusual message for any politician, and quite a leap from the resolute cowboy sculptures that adorned the White House under its previous tenants. Other works to be installed offer a kind of visual Rorschach test of a culturally hyper-sensitive administration’s leanings and talk points. It’s a tasteful and astute mix, including abstract and figurative works, Caucasian and African American artists, living masters and dead ones. The aesthetic sweet spot of the Obama collection is somewhere in the neighborhood of Richard Diebenkorn. What does this all mean? And what should be hanging in the White House at this juncture?

1 thought on “Ruscha to the White House”

  1. What does it all mean indeed. Of the selection of art, it’s surely interesting to note that works by George Catlin dominate the list. Catlin, as nearly every news-reading citizen of the US and beyond will surely soon learn, traveled the plains in the mid-nineteenth century painting the many Native American tribes, their customs and cultures. His collection of pictures became a traveling attraction of sorts, though one that found only tepid audiences in the US; Europe, it turns out, was a bit more interested in the spectacle of the Native Americans. Of course one can draw all sorts of inane conclusions from this weighting of the first-family’s selection: Perhaps it is a love letter to North America’s “first” culture. Or is it an attempt to glorify North America’s indigenous and one time unsullied past? Maybe it’s a personal reminder to the President that the US government has an often easy way with dishonorable deeds when it comes to the “question” of other peoples and other nations…

    And then you look at the paintings, and it dawns, hopefully pretty quickly, that the often cartoonish scenes are just the kind that can set fire to a child’s imagination. My guess is that Catlin is for the kids. If he’s not, well, then, all I would say is “Yikes.”

    Nevertheless, I have to say “bravo” to the Albers (three ‘Homage to the Square’ pieces) . He’s a difficult artist to appreciate and one too easily dismissed. If his work found itself up a cerebral cul-de-sac where no one else really wanted to follow, his teaching of color, design and artistic method in the US (at Black Mountain College and then at Yale) had a very significant and largely unsung (except for our AWS contributor Eva Diaz who has written excellently on Albers’ teaching legacy) impact on generations of American artists. Albers (and his wife, Annie) are little giants; it’s good that Josef’s work has found a place in the first family’s residence.

    To be quite honest, however, I’m less interested in the art that’s been chosen for the residence than the pieces that are heading for the West Wing, and those include a portrait of Harry Truman by Frank O. Salisbury, which is destined for the Cabinet Room, a handful of artifacts from the National Museum of the American Indian (maybe Obama really is a fan of Catlin’s work–Ugg) and three patent models from the National Museum of American History, all of which are going to the Oval Office.

    It’s these last items that should be most revealing: The first is a model of Samuel F. B. Morse’s Telegraph Register (patented in the late 1840s); the second is a “gear cutter” patented by John A. Peer; and the third is a model of Henry William’s “steamboat feathering paddlewheel” (both patented in the 1870s). Taken together, the models represent technological achievements in communications, machine tooling (a.k.a. manufacturing and industry) and transportation. Seem like apt items of inspiration to me.

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