If I Could Choose Art for the White House

Detail: Peaches & Butterfly by Adriaen Coorte 1693–1695

I’ve long had a fantasy of being President, not for the office, but to define the art that is hung in the White House. This is not a comprehensive list. I would commit an act of sacrilege by including European artists and I would make no apologies. For instance, I would definitely hang Francis Bacon’s, “Figure with Meat” from the Chicago’s Art Institute front and center, perhaps opposite a Rothko dark plum painting. Speaking of plums, I would include a Chardin. I once saw a plummy Ellsworth Kelly triangular painting too. A long gentle curve with impossibly sharp angles. A silent scream. Yes, I’m going dark.

There would be an Ad Reinhardt, perhaps one of his blue paintings, a Frank Stella black stripe painting, a Twombly, and an early Agnes Martin. You can’t forget de Kooning (sorry Jackson), especially an early black & white enamel painting. Yeah, not much color yet, I know.

I’m from L.A. so I would want a Diebenkorn, “Ocean Park” painting, full of big complex color. Then there’s a painting that’s redder than red. Sorry National Gallery of Art but I would steal Vermeer’s, “Woman with a Red Hat”. I would also juxtapose a Joseph Marioni wet red monochrome painting with Brice Marden’s, “Dragons”. Loads of color.

If angels could paint they would paint like Adriaen Coorte. I would love to have his “Three Peaches and a Butterfly” painting in my bedroom along with a Stieglitz photo of Georgia O’Keffe’s hands. Another wondrous still life painting I would take is Norton Simon’s Zurbaran, “Still Life with Lemons” with me too. I love you Pasadena.

Sometimes art is about breathing, about stillness and oxygen. Imagine the air in the room with a few Turner watercolors and Ingres drawings together. Then there’s the contemporary intimacy of Wes Mills and Vija Celmins, lest we not forgot that works on paper can be momentous too, like Jasper John’s, “Diver”.

Sometimes art is about the lack oxygen, like the bracing art of Neo Rauch. I would also steal (forgive my hyperbole) one of the greatest works of art of the 20th century, Robert Rauschenberg’s, “Canyon”. Then there’s this tiny little Mondrian from MOMA. It’s perfect. Which Basquiat would I choose? There are so many artists that are not big hits but are equally important. I would include Albert Pinkham Ryder, Giorgio Morandi, Forest Bess, Albert York, Myron Stout, Blinky Palermo, Ruth Duckworth, & Francesca Woodman.

I love the photograms by Adam Fuss and the inkblot drawings by Bruce Connor. Imagine these two artists in the same room with a wax work by Medardo Rosso. There is Jake Berthot and his underrated, “Lovella’s Thing” and his equally persuasive, “At Noontide”.

Does the White House need a Van Eyck, a Holbein, and a Petrus Christus? Hmm, I don’t think so. The National Gallery is just down the street. I’ll let Kansas City keep their Caravaggio too but, oh my…

My White House art collection would be heavy on paintings but photography is undeniably powerful. I’m thinking of a certain photo from Todd Heisler’s, “Final Salute” series. If a President is going to kill he better be able to look at it. There’s another photo that speaks volumes about the world by Frank Breur, “Industrial Hall (Nike)”.

Could the White House handle a Philip Guston painting? You know which ones. Sometimes I think I should push all of the buttons. Still, I would be happy with one of Guston’s early mandarin paintings. Baby steps or go for broke? David Hammons is a must but which works by him? Art can shake the foundation of what it means to be human but people are too weak to confront their own demons. It’s easier to match colors to the living room sofa.

Speaking of controversial, I would be reviled for including only one Presidential portrait in the White House; Gilbert Stuart’s, “George Washington” (The Athenaeum Portrait) 1796, from the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. It’s unfinished, just like Washington’s story… and just like us.

One confounding sculpture I would love to show is Roni Horn’s, “Pair Object Vll” from the Donald Judd Foundation. It’s a lesson in seeing. Then there is Eric Fischl’s, “Late America”. Oh, the transgression. I would include a transgressive Degas too. I’m not sure if I could stomach Jeff Koon’s, “Bunny Rabbit” in the White House. My affair with Warhol is complicated too.

I would “do” pretty, magnificent pretty, like a Rodney Graham oak tree. Imagine having a, “White House Noguchi Garden”. Bob Irwin did something incredible at the Getty Museum too.

There is much to learn and I would give voice to early indigenous Indian and Mexican art. Also imagine Japanese kyusu by Yamada Jozan lll next to Ted Muehling candlesticks. The West separates utilitarian objects from fine art. The rest of world, not so much. There are histories, important and sacred, that must take center stage. Isn’t the world beautiful?

Art is not supposed to be pretty. Art is supposed to educate and often education is uncomfortable, like Paul Pfeiffer’s, “The Long Count”. America has a love affair with violence but not with sex. This needs to change. I would include a Mapplethorpe and an Andres Serrano, yes, that one. Then, of course, there’s Balthus. You know which painting I’m talking about. Art is a force and it is too often sanitized. I said I was going dark.

Some art would not be for the eyes of children. Then again, adults are children. They need to grow up and look at art like adults. All of these artists seem disparate at first glance but what they all have in common are hands sensitive to touch. They handle paint, light, color, and form like Beethoven sets notes to music. Many “celebrated” artists have relevant messages but they lack feel. Every detail matters.

Instead of golf I would spend my time with art. I would say, “good morning” and “good night” to each and every one of these masterpieces. Now… what about the furniture?