Michelle Obama brings her own sense of style to the art in the White House

What you put on your walls usually says as much — or more — about you as what you put on your back. And in the artworks first lady Michelle Obama has borrowed from three great museums to adorn the family's private residence in the White House, she seems mostly consistent in her taste. She loves color, clean lines and an occasional touch of renegade style both in what she wears and in what she'll be seeing every day in her home.

The difference is that, though she has a penchant for pairing retail items with designer labels in her wardrobe, everything in the art collection can be described as haute couture.

And why not?

If you could possess a Mark Rothko, Winslow Homer or Edgar Degas, if only for four years, wouldn't you? Choosing art for the residence is a perk of the office enjoyed by all first families in modern administrations.

With the help of curators from the National Gallery, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, all in Washington, and from her interior decorator, she reviewed their inventories and went shopping. (Don't worry, museum visitors; she limited herself to what was in storage — a lot! — so no masterpieces are being removed from gallery walls.)

The first lady covers all the bases. A Homer landscape and two small bronze sculptures by Degas from the 19th century are traditional and beautiful, as are still lifes by Giorgio Morandi, a 20th century Italian representational painter. Due is given to female artists: There's a study for one of sculptor Louise Nevelson's large works, an important painting from Susan Rothenberg's horse series, and Alma Thomas' lush blue abstract, Sky Light. Thomas, who died in 1978, probably has special appeal to Mrs. Obama since Thomas was also African-American and part of the Washington Color School.

She pays homage to heritage in selecting works by George Catlin, who immortalized the American Indian way of life in the 19th century, and William H. Johnson, a 20th century painter whose scenes of African-American life combine charming simplicity that evokes self-taught artists with an abstract, graphic style. (That combination isn't easy to pull off.)

The biggest concentration is in middle to latter 20th century art movements represented by gold standard names such as Rothko, Josef Albers, Edward Ruscha, Richard Diebenkorn and Jasper Johns. The Ruscha oil painting also reflects Mrs. Obama's sense of humor, maybe even her rumored role in keeping her husband's ego in check. The artist uses words, sometimes with images, to create ironic cultural observations. The one in the White House that the leader of the free world can ponder daily is titled I Think I'll . . . and is strewn with indecisive phrases.

A bit of frisson has been generated by her inclusion of Glenn Ligon's Black Like Me #2, the only work with a possibility for controversy. Ligon is a gay African-American known for text-based paintings, sometimes politically charged, that seem to dissolve into dark black smudges.

I find the group of Catlin paintings more cause for discussion. Some critics think he exploited American Indians in intensely marketing and commercializing his work. He was also thought to overstate his exploits. Mrs. Obama chose 11 of them. That's a major concentration and they're not that great. Given the absence of paintings by other Old West artists or from other historical eras, I doubt she has a preference for the genre in general. Are she and her decorator collaborating on some kind of themed room or hallway up there on the second floor?

I'm also wondering if Shepard Fairey's feelings are hurt. He's the artist who created the Hope portrait that became the visual touchstone of the presidential campaign. President Barack Obama wrote him a thank-you note. Hope won't be hanging with the first family. Admittedly, it hasn't been accessioned into a museum, but still. Then again, displaying his likeness while still in office could be considered pretentious. That's what presidential libraries are for.

Okay, potshots are easy because instant art collections gainsay the spirit of a true collector who studies, learns and buys over many years. But the Obamas are in a unique position that calls for first-class surroundings and provides the wherewithal to get them.

I'm generally pretty proud of our first lady's decisions. I would love a tour.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lennie@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8293.

Michelle Obama brings her own sense of style to the art in the White House 10/10/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 10, 2009 5:30am]

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