x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

First choice

The Obamas' choice of artworks for the White House demonstrates their informed interest in history

Detail from Genn Ligon's Black Like Me #2 (1992), one of several works by black artists on display in the Obama White House.
Detail from Genn Ligon's Black Like Me #2 (1992), one of several works by black artists on display in the Obama White House.

We have been told what is on the most powerful man in the world's iPod, and discovered Bruce Springsteen nestling alongside Jay-Z. Then we admired Barack Obama's summer reading list, bookended by the thrills of the literary crime writer George Pelecanos and a weighty biography of John Adams, the second president. This week, his art collection was revealed, and the world tried to decipher what a love of abstract artists such as Mark Rothko says about the 44th President of the United States of America.

Unlike Obama's Bruce Springsteen albums, of course, these artworks are not his personal possessions, just loans to the White House from museums after he took office. As the full list published last week shows, if he were actually to own two Rothkos and work by Jasper Johns, Degas and more than 25 other artists, Obama would probably have to raid Fort Knox. The Obamas (these are very much the First Lady's choices too) are following in a rich tradition. The White House has a permanent collection of 18th and 19th-century classical art, to which successive presidents always add with their own loan choices for their periods of office.

In the 1960s, John F Kennedy had George Catlin's famous portraits of Native Americans on the Oval Office walls, while his wife Jackie favoured Cézanne. The Clintons enjoyed work by Kandinsky and de Kooning. But fast-forward to 2009, and the photo-realistic Texan landscapes of Tom Lea, loved by George W Bush, have been replaced by a much more abstract Edward Ruscha canvas. The bust of the civil-rights activist Martin Luther King now stares out proudly from where Winston Churchill sat just a year ago.

The couple's taste in art has received a favourable reception so far. David Morris, the head of collections at Manchester's highly regarded Whitworth Art Gallery, goes so far as to suggest that their list, in a sense, represents the cultural history of America. "We have a Josef Albers print in our current exhibition, The American Scene, and it's really interesting that the Obamas have three," he says. "Albers was a sophisticated abstract artist who taught at Bauhaus, was a refugee from Nazi Germany, and, despite having to flee, ended up gathering together some of the most influential American artists of the 20th century, people such as Robert Rauschenberg and the pioneering African-American painter Jacob Lawrence. It shows that the Obamas are interested in history, not just art history, but history generally. I think that's incredibly encouraging."

It is also encouraging that, amid all these powerhouses of fashionable post-war American art, and for all the Obamas' clear love of abstract expressionism, they have not completely ditched the old classics. There are, in a clear echo of Kennedy's presidency, 12 Catlin portraits, and a landscape painting from the 19th-century American artist Winslow Homer. They all fit into the theme of history, of struggle and strength through adversity.

"It doesn't surprise me that the timeline is so broad," says Morris. "If you look at it, Barack Obama's life is like an exemplar for modern America. He, more than most, has lived their history." Now the president is hanging that history on his walls. As Morris points out, it might not have been a surprise that previously overlooked black American artists feature, but it does demonstrate how multicultural the Obamas' vision of the world is. Most fascinating of all, though, are paintings by Glenn Ligon (just the title, Black Like Me #2 says it all) and Edward Ruscha. These pictures are not just pretty, or achingly cool.

"Certainly not," Morris agrees. "The Edward Ruscha is a really cerebral choice for me. The text on a blood red background [it says: 'I Think Maybe I'll... Maybe... Yes.. On Second Thought... Maybe... No'] is almost a contemplative aid for a president. It dramatises what the thinking person should do in politics, against the rush and pressure of decision-making. It says 'seize the day' but it also says everything about the fleeting nature of time. It's an inspired choice."

So perhaps the Obamas' art does say more about them than the president's iPod or bookshelves. It is not difficult to read meaning into almost every artwork, but that is the whole point. As Morris says: "This collection is hugely impressive; it's been thought about."