Davis Deals With Controversy Over Art in ‘America’s House’

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Watched more closely than any other in a generation, life for the First Family cannot be without its challenges, chief amongst which must be projecting a sense of openness while maintaining their own privacy. One can only imagine the forethought that led up to last week’s announcement from the First Lady’s Office regarding the artworks that Mr. and Mrs. Obama will be borrowing from Washington museums to decorate their private home, as well as the parts of the White House’s East and West wings. However, rules dictated by the Committee for the Preservation of the White House serve to limit a building-wide aesthetic overhaul. Works considered for inclusion in the permanent collection, which constitutes most art displayed in public spaces, must have been made over 25 years ago, and their creating artist must be deceased. This accounts for the collection’s overwhelming focus on 18th- and 19th-century paintings, as well as the lack of ethnic and gender diversity in the collection.

Given the Obamas’ well-known fondness of contemporary art (their first date included a trip to the Art Institute of Chicago), the traditional leaning of so much of the White House’s art is a likely motivation for the First Lady’s decision to incorporate works by more contemporary artists in the building’s non-public spaces. Mrs. Obama has been quoted numerous times stating that she believes the White House is ultimately, “America’s house.” The roughly 45 pieces requested, comprised mainly of portraits of Native Americans in the Old West, 20th-century abstract paintings, and sculptures, were undoubtedly curated to reflect both the Obamas’ personal tastes as well as the new administration’s approach and aspirations.

Over the past week, much of the talk about these new additions to the White House has surrounded the Ed Ruscha piece entitled “I think I’ll…” in which elliptical statements including “Wait a Minute… I… I…” and “Maybe… No…” are set against a blood orange background. The piece, a meditation on the decision-making process, has unsurprisingly been read as a political signifier. For some, it embodies the President’s thoughtful approach to governing; for others, it ironically captures his characteristic indecision and lack of achievement in office. As Ed Pilkington noted in The Guardian, the Ruscha piece “pretty much sums up the 44th presidency as seen through the eyes of Fox News.”

The inclusion of two twin works by abstract painter Alma Thomas, however, speaks volumes more to the President and First Lady’s political and artistic leanings. The first of these two works, entitled “Watusi (Hard Edge),” is a painting directly inspired by Henri Matisse’s paper collage “L’escargot,” the second, a fabric-like abstract work in blue called, “Sky Light.”

While far less prominent than the Ruscha debate, the inclusion of the former of these two pieces has received its own share of criticism. Ben Shapiro of Big Hollywood penned a piece entitled, “The Obama White House’s Plagiaristic, Silly Art.” Perhaps most biliously, Michelle Malkin—yes, the same woman who bizarrely accused Dunkin Donuts and Rachel Ray of advocating Islamic extremism—commented on her website, “Can anyone say plagiarism? American art? I don’t think so!” Not only is this characterization wildly misguided—as a brief inquiry into Thomas’ biography reveals—it distracts from developing a more appropriate reading of the painting’s intended significance, as well as the Obama’s motivations for chosing it.

Born in Georgia and raised in Washington D.C., Thomas was the first graduate of Howard University’s then-nascent art department, as well as the first black woman to receive either an MFA from Columbia University or a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York. A lifelong schoolteacher, Thomas’ commitment to art education is perhaps explained by her own denial from many public museums as a young girl. While much of her early work was marked by a distinct realist style, as she aged, her work became increasingly abstract. With this in mind, “Watusi”—whose name stems from the 60s era song-and-dance craze, as well as the Batutsi tribe of Rwanda—can thus be read to be as much a product of Thomas’ lament at having been denied opportunities in the arts as it is a veiled protest of art historians’ negligence in noting the extent to which African art influenced Matisse.

Thomas’ decision to rotate the piece 90 degrees, as well as her near-complete color reversal (greens are pinks, and most symbolically, bright oranges become blues), speaks to multiple beliefs: the color reversal, to the historic mistreatment of black people in Western societies; the correspondence in shape, to a fundamental common ground between all peoples’ experiences. In short, Matisse may have gotten some credit where credit was perhaps not due, but this fact did not impede Thomas from either being inspired by or relating to his work. This notion is further illustrated by her second painting included in the collection, “Sky Light,” which distills her earlier (and arguably more derivative) use of large blocks into the small-brushstroked celebrations of color for which she became known. With this pairing, “Watusi” emerges as a work by an artist conscious of the history and struggle of her race but devoid of vindictiveness, confident in the potential of all people to find common ground.

In her book “Alma W. Thomas: A Retrospective of the Paintings”, she notes, “Through color I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man.” Many argue that it was just this relatable and hopeful approach to the politics beneath her work that allowed her to break so many barriers in the art world. Sound like anyone you know?

—Staff writer Ruben L. Davis can be reached at rldavis@fas.harvard.edu.

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