Art Goes to the Obama White House

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Twilight Sounds, Norman Lewis, 1947/Bill Hodges Gallery

Twilight Sounds, Norman Lewis, 1947/St. Louis Art Museum, image courtesy of Bill Hodges Gallery

I was fascinated by a story in the Wall Street Journal last week about the art that the Obamas have been choosing for the White House. As the Journal points out, First Families are free to choose whatever works they like for the White House residence and offices, including the Oval Office. As for the public areas, the president and his family can make proposals for what to show there, but those have to be approved by the White House curator and something called the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, which sounds like it was formed to protect the place from Damien Hirst’s shark. Works can be lent by museums, galleries or private collectors, or drawn from the 450-piece White House permanent collection. When a president leaves office, the loans are returned.

So those are the rules, and within them you more or less express your tastes, though obviously with an eye to whatever political statements your tastes are making. So choosing a painting for the White House is a bit like picking a justice for the Supreme Court, except that it doesn’t have to go through a Senate confirmation hearing.

The upshot of the Journal piece is that the Obamas have been choosing more abstract and modern work than the White House usually features — Jasper Johns, Ed Ruscha, Richard Diebenkorn and Louise Nevelson are some of the names —  and more work by African-American, Asian, Hispanic and women artists.

The combination of abstract and African-American made me wonder if the Obamas have an eye out for work by Norman Lewis, who was featured — in the margins — of last year’s excellent “Action/Abstraction” show, a traveling exhibition that looked at postwar art through the lens of the rivalry between the critics Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. (I say “in the margins” because Lewis was included in a section of the show devoted to artists who were under appreciated.) Lewis worked in a number of abstract styles over the years. (He was 70 when he died in 1979.)  Especially in the last two decades of his life he had a weakness sometimes for the purely decorative. But in the late 1940s and ’50s he did some notable work, paintings and drawings in a wiry, calligraphic style that calls to mind Mark Tobey but in its own sprung rhythms. His painting Twilight Sounds, which you see up above there, was for me one of the main takeaways of the “Action/Abstraction” show.

If the Obamas are interested in work by African-Americans and abstractionists, Lewis would be somebody worth a look, if they haven’t been tipped to him already. (And I shouldn’t have to say this but just so we’re clear — I have no connection to — and have never even spoken with — any gallery owner, collector or even any curator who has any connection to Lewis or his work.)

You can find the Journal story here.