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Tuesday, August 4, 2015

President Barack Obama Portraits

Barack Obama, Portrait of a President, Lee Mitchelson
President Barack Obama celebrates his fifty-fourth birthday today. Happy Birthday, Mr. President. In my continuing series dedicated to bringing to light the many official and un-official presidential portraits down through the years, this is the first case in which I have many of the latter and none of the former. Official presidential portraits are, of course, painted only after the president leaves office. And as of his birthday today, August 4, 2015, he still has about seventeen months to go before he chooses an artist to immortalize his visage from a wall in the White House. This presents an interesting first-time opportunity for me, that being the chance to suggests possible portrait artists for the president to consider; and furthermore, knowing a little of the Obama's tastes in art, to try to visualize just what such a portrait might look like.
Berkeley, No. 52, 1955, Richard Diebenkorn
Black Like Me No. 2, 1992,
Glenn Ligon.
The occupants of the White House are in the enviable position of having an entire art museum (The National Gallery of Art) from which to choose art matching their personal tastes and the impression they wish to make on visitors. Usually this task falls mostly to the first lady but with the Obamas, I have the feeling it was a joint effort. The Obamas have decorated their private spaces with more modern and abstract artwork than has ever hung on the White House walls before. They have also chosen new pieces by important African-American and Native American artists as well. Bold colors, odd shapes, squiggly lines have arrived. If you could tour the residential areas of the Executive Mansion, you would find art my Jasper Johns, Mark Rothko, Alma Thomas, and Glenn Ligon, among other 20th-century art notables. The Alma Thomas work chosen by Mrs. Obama is Watusi (Hard Edge) in which the African-American painter/educator jumbles geometric shapes in bright reds, blues, and greens. Ligon's Black Like Me No. 2 (left) is a "text painting" which reproduces words from the 1961 book Black Like Me, a nonfiction account by a white man who disguised himself as a black man and traveled through the South. There's also Native Americans by George Catlin, a bronze sculpture by Edgar Degas, and a colorful abstract by California painter, Richard Diebenkorn (above)--forty-two pieces in all.

Hope, Shepard Fairey.

Of course the most famous Obama portrait is the iconic Hope Portrait (right) by Shepard Fairey, painted during the 2008 campaign. (Probably not suitable for the White House.) From all this, we might assume that President Obama's official White House portrait might well be somewhat less traditional than those of his predecessors. One portrait which struck me as in keeping with the Obama taste in art while maintaining the stylistic tradition of previous presidential portraits, is the work of Lee Mitchelson (top). It's far more informal than any previous official portrait and even more notable for the fact that it features a horizontal format unlike any other White House presidential portrait. Of course, this particular painting is unlikely to ever grace the walls of the White House but it would be a fine example of what the artist could do and how he might do it.

Barack Obama, Tim O'Brien
President Obama, Sarah Boardman
Two other artists struck me as possible candidates to paint President Obama's official White House portrait. Both are exceptional in capturing the fierce determination and quiet intelligence of the man without venturing too far into the jarring realm of modern art. And if the Obamas prefer something a bit more colorful (as Mrs. Obama's tastes would suggest), perhaps they might like to look at the work of Jagjot Singh Rubal, (below, left) or the still more brilliant colors and brushwork of Eric Marette (below, right). Either one would tend to shake up the White House portrait collection a little.

Obama, 2012, Jagjot Singh Rubal
Obama, Eric Marette
In choosing an artist for the president's post-presidential portrait, the Obamas have a wide range of possibilities. It's almost as interesting to look at the art and artists they probably wouldn't select. As much as they might agree with the sentiment, it's doubtful the Obamas would want to leave behind in the White House an Obama-Superman image (below, left) or something done on black velvet (below-right). They might never be invited back, even for the unveiling.

Granted, the powers of the presidency
have grown over the past decades,
but this might be a bit "over the top."
The image is familiar but it's doubtful
the White House portrait collection is
ready for black velvet.

First Lady Michelle Obama, Urbano Galindo,
a strikingly modern artist for Mrs. Obama to
consider, for her own official portrait. She
might get some criticism though, in that
 he's Spanish.


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