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May. 22 2009 - 10:36 pm | 14 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

Art at the White House: Obama gives Impressionism a surprise nod

Jasper Johns 1954-55 pre-Pop Art

Image via Wikipedia

So the Obamas are changing up the art in the White House. And what do their choices say about them?

The Wall Street Journal’s well-reported story points out that they made some early picks— Jasper Johns (several pieces from his numerals series), a Diebenkorn, and an Edward Ruscha — from the National Gallery.

All those are solid modern artists, but the Journal also led the story with the point that identity would be informing their choices: “The Obamas are sending ripples through the art world as they put the call out to museums, galleries and private collectors that they’d like to borrow modern art by African-American, Asian, Hispanic and female artists for the White House. ”

So in addition to abstract art, they want to emphasize the artist — not just what’s on the canvas. But the real surprise came in the description of some works the Obamas have borrowed from the Hirshhorn: “Last week the Obamas decided to borrow “Nice,” a 1954 abstract by Russian-born painter Nicolas de Staël containing red, black and moss-green rectangles; a couple of boxy paintings from German-born Josef Albers’s famed “Homage to the Square” series in shades of gold, red and lavender; and “Dancer Putting on Stocking” and “The Bow,” two table-top bronzes by Edgar Degas.”

Degas? Really? So traditional, so French, so dorm-room poster.

Look, if someone opened up a museum to me and offered a Degas, I wouldn’t think twice. And I would walk over hot coals to have a Degas bronze in my house for a minute. But with the geometry of Albers and the brash color of Diebenkorn and de Staël, the choice of such a familiar Impressionist seems out of step.

But not entirely. Their choice of Degas balances their contemporary leanings with a nod to the representational. Their tastes are weighted toward the new, but accented with the past. No matter what’s selling for top dollar at auction or who is the artist of the day, they’re willing to admit: a beautiful picture will always be a beautiful picture.


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  1. collapse expand

    There’s also the dance angle, Degas-wise. Michelle does seem to be a dance fan. Which, really, is rather nice.

  2. collapse expand

    “Degas? Really? So traditional, so French, so dorm-room poster.”

    Hilariously on-point. Boys get the Marley poster, girls get the Degas.

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    About Me

    After graduating from Kenyon College, I headed to D.C. and have been in journalism ever since. I've enjoyed a broad scope: politics, fashion, society, arts, food, travel. My most recent employment was as cultural editor of the New York Sun. Since the paper folded last fall, I've been looking at American culture from a different angle. With so many news sources, so many voices, and all of it streaming by so fast, we tend to breeze past matters of taste. This blog attempts to pause — and lay praise or blame at the feet of those who deserve it. Who are today's tastemakers? I'm also looking for ideas that address wealth, luxury, and class — which are changing by the second.

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