There’s been a lot of hot breath expelled over the Obama’s art choices for the White House. The complaints have come from all sides. In many ways, so have the defenses too. Here’s Jerry Salz getting a little exasperated with the more-radical-than-thou side:
In my lifetime, I’d never have expected to see something like a Glenn Ligon 1992 text painting, based on a line in the 1961 book Black Like Me, hanging in the living quarters of the White House. Ligon’s hauntingly beautiful, difficult-to-parse painting looks like a self-replicating printout or a hard-to-read gravestone or poster.
But the best response comes from the New York Times‘s Holland Cotter who takes a different and much more welcome tack by highlighting the Obama’s choice of Alma Thomas. In her story, there’s more about art that supersedes politics. Which, in the end, is what the White House’s art should be all about:
Thomas was born in Columbus, Ga., in 1891, and moved to Washington in her teens. Her family settled in a house at 1530 15th St. N.W., and she lived there until her death in 1978. Her parents had relocated for two reasons: racial violence was on the rise in Georgia and Washington had excellent public schools. Thomas got a solid, though segregated, education, and taught art in one of the city’s junior high schools for 35 years. Before taking that job, though, she did other things. In 1921, she enrolled in a home economics program at Howard University, with an interest in making theater costumes. One of her instructors suggested she study art instead. She became Howard’s first fine art major, with a specialty in painting.
The painting continued sporadically during her teaching years. In the 1950s, she took weekend studio classes at American University, working briefly with Jacob Kainen, one of a group of abstract painters — Gene Davis, Morris Louis, and Kenneth Noland were others — gaining national attention as the Washington Color School. Thomas, who loved color above all else in art, always felt a kinship with them.
Only when she retired could she finally start to paint full time. She was 69. She used her kitchen as her studio. For subjects she took the trees outside her windows and floral plantings in local parks. She had once been an academic realist; then a semi-Cubist. Now she was ready for abstraction. […] Thomas herself was a popular favorite in her late-blooming career. Howard gave her a retrospective in 1966. In 1972, at 80, she was the first African-America woman to have a solo at the Whitney Museum. Critics raved. There was a second retrospective in 1977, and Jimmy Carter invited her to the White House. People couldn’t get enough of her. Why?
Her art was accessible. Her abstraction was never really abstract: you could always see the nature in it: flowers, wind. Her paintings were modern but part of some older tradition too, as close to quilts as to Matisse. In a racially charged era, her art wasn’t political, or at least not overtly so. When asked if she thought of herself as a black artist, she said: “No, I do not. I’m a painter. I’m an American.”
Instead of talking anger, she talked color: “Through color I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man.” American museums, under the gun after their neglect of black artists, breathed a sigh of thanks.
Obama’s Startling White House Art (New York)
White House Art: Colors from a World of Black and White (New York Times)