President Obama narrates a look inside his art-filled White House residence. | Obama White House Video

 

IN OCTOBER, PRESIDENT OBAMA hosted “Love & Happiness: A Musical Experience,” the last of many, many musical performances staged at the White House during his two terms. “Over the past eight years, Michelle and I have set aside nights like this to honor and celebrate the music that has shaped America. We’ve had classical. We’ve had country. We’ve had blues. We’ve had Broadway. Gospel; Motown; Latin and jazz,” the President said when he opened the BET concert named for Al Green’s soulful ballad. “It’s no secret that Michelle and I love music, and we tried to share our passion with the rest of the country.”

Music and many other forms of art have been ever present in the Obama White House, bringing it to life as President and First Lady welcomed a broad swath of Americans to what they always emphasized is the People’s House. It makes perfect sense that the family keeps a turntable and speakers at the ready upstairs in the West Hall of their private living quarters. A small collection of albums rests nearby, including Earth, Wind & Fire’s “That’s the Way of the World” and Green’s “Greatest Hits.” Above the setup, hangs “Skylight,” a 1973 abstract painting by Washington, D.C., artist Alma Thomas (1891-1978). The blue canvas is representative of Thomas’s practice, a celebration of color and pattern, with a precise rhythm created by her signature daubs of paint. Displaying the painting where music emanates is particularly fitting.

The blue canvas is representative of Thomas’s practice, a celebration of color and pattern, with a precise rhythm created by her signature daubs of paint. Displaying the painting where music emanates is particularly fitting.


Displayed in the West Hall: ALMA THOMAS, “Sky Light,” 1973 (acrylic on canvas). | Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, Gift of Vincent Melzac, 1975

 

THE FAMILY SPACES of the White House reflect the Obama’s refined, casual aesthetic—a fresh approach to classic American style. The rooms are inviting, yet remain stately. Throughout, from the Family Dining Room to the Center Hall, Sitting Room, Treaty Room and Solarium, new furnishings with modern silhouettes and color palettes complement traditional elements. The design is punctuated by an unprecedented selection of 20th and 21st century art on loan from Washington museums. In addition to the Thomas painting, there are works by two other African American artists—William H. Johnson (1901-1970) and Glenn Ligon (b. 1960). Paintings by Susan Rothenberg, Sam Francis, Hans Hofmann, Giorgio Morandi, Robert Mangold, Sean Scully are also on view.

As is customary when a new First Family moves into the White House, Mrs. Obama worked with an interior designer to make the mansion feel like home. Creating a comfortable family oasis above the store was especially important because daughters Sasha and Malia were just 7 and 10-years-old, respectively, when their father assumed the presidency eight years ago.

In December, Architectural Digest published a cover story about the Obama’s private quarters emphasizing the art the family brought into the spaces. The inventory of art is familiar. In October 2009, the White House announced an initial selection of 47 works of art the Obamas were borrowing to display in the residence and the East and West Wings. What’s new is the images featured in the magazine—wide view photographs of several rooms, including furnishings and all of the fabulous art.

“Because of Michael Smith, the private residence of the White House has not only reflected our taste but also upheld the proud history of this building. Above all, it has truly felt like a home for our family,” Mrs. Obama told Architectural Digest, praising the Los Angeles–based decorator. Smith noted that the design reflects her progressive spirit and vision. “Mrs. Obama often talks about bringing new voices into the national conversation, and that idea informed many of the decisions we made,” he says. “We selected artists and designers who would never have appeared in the White House before.”

“Mrs. Obama often talks about bringing new voices into the national conversation, and that idea informed many of the decisions we made. We selected artists and designers who would never have appeared in the White House before.” — Interior Designer Michael Smith

Ligon is the youngest artist to have his work displayed in the White House. Thomas’s representation is also historic. Downstairs, on the State Floor, her 1966 painting “Resurrection” is exhibited in the Old Family Dining Room. It’s the first artwork by an African American woman to hang in the public spaces of the White House and enter the permanent collection. Mrs. Obama had “Resurrection” installed in February 2015. She wanted to refresh the space by bringing in 20th century art, including paintings by Josef Albers and Robert Rauschenberg.

Paintings by African American artists Jacob Lawrence and Henry O. Tanner are on view in adjacent rooms. Tanner’s “Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City” (1885) was added to the White House collection in 1996 during President Clinton’s tenure. The Tanner painting was the first work of art by an African American artist to enter the White House collection. “The Builders” (1947) by Lawrence was acquired in 2008 when President George W. Bush was in the White House. Finally, President Obama displays a bronze bust of Martin Luther King Jr., in the Oval Office. The National Portrait Gallery loaned the 1970 sculpture by Charles Alston to the White House in 1990 during the presidency of George H.W. Bush.

WITH THE OBAMAS DAYS in the White House winding down as the President’s second term comes to a close, the White House released a video (top of page) in which the President narrates a tour of the private residence. He says the family is living there for a limited time because they have the privilege of serving the American people. The first night sleeping in the White House, he notes, was overwhelming.

“Every day, although you consider it the place you live, I think you are very mindful that this is a place of history, that this is a place that belongs to the people and to the country,” the President says. “As much as you want to feel comfortable in that place, you also want to feel a little bit of reverence for the fact that down these halls Lincoln has walked, in these rooms FDR’s made decisions that had impacts around the world.”

“Every day, although you consider it the place you live, I think you are very mindful that this is a place of history, that this is a place that belongs to the people and to the country.”
— President Obama

As President Obama reflects on the significance of the White House residence, the camera pans room by room. Ligon’s “Black Like Me #2” (1992), shown at right, is on view in the Family Sitting Room. The vertical painting replicates the size of a door and features a repeated excerpt from the 1961 book “Black Like Me,” by John Howard Griffin, a white man who used makeup and a pharmaceutical product to disguise himself as a black man for a six-week sociological experiment. “Lift Up Thy Voice and Sing” (1942) and “Folk Scene-Man with Banjo” (1940-44) by Johnson can be seen. His paintings depict poignant scenes of the African American experience. Thomas’s “Skylight” is featured, too.

A few months ago, at reception for the White House Historical Association, Mrs. Obama thanked the group for their support over the years. She expressed her gratitude to William Allman, the longtime curator of the White House art collection, for his guidance, knowledge, and expertise. She revealed that in one of their very first Preservation Committee meetings, she asked Allman about devoting the Old Family Dining Room entirely to 20th century art. What would it take? It took two terms, but they made it happen.

“The President and I, we are true art lovers,” Mrs. Obama said. “We don’t know as much as some of our friends do, but we hope when we get out of here we’ll learn a little bit more. But we think that all of our country’s great artists have a place within these walls.” CT

 

BOOKSHELF
“Glenn Ligon: AMERICA” surveys 25 years of the Brooklyn-based artist’s work. More recent titles include “Glenn Ligon: Encounters and Collisions” and “Glenn Ligon: A People on the Cover,” which explores representation of black people on book covers, analyzing the use of photography, typography, and graphics. “William H. Johnson: An American Modern” is fully illustrated, while “William H. Johnson: Truth Be Told” examines the artist’s life. To further explore the life and practice of Alma Thomas, a new exhibition catalog coinciding with a survey exhibition organized by the Tang Museum and Studio Museum in Harlem, includes an expansive selection of the artist’s works. Also consider “Alma W. Thomas: A Retrospective of the Paintings” and an earlier catalog, “A Life in Art: Alma W. Thomas, 1891-1978.”

 


WILLIAM H. JOHNSON, “Folk Scene – Man with Banjo,” circa 1940–44 (oil on plywood). | Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation

 


WILLIAM H. JOHNSON, “Lift Up Thy Voice and Sing,” 1942-44 (oil on paperboard). | Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation

 

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