Friday, November 06, 2009

White House Caves

UPDATE: ArtNews' Robin Cembalest first broke this story with some simple, old-fashioned journalism work...she compared the lists: "there had been another quiet cultural move in the White House. Watusi (Hard Edge), which had been the only painting listed for the East Wing-and reportedly destined for Michelle Obama's office-was no longer on the list."
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Even though they're insisting that it simply didn't fit, and that the decision had nothing to do with the wingnuts' epic ignorance about Alma Thomas' work, it's hard to believe that the White House is sending this particular painting back because there is nowhere in the entire First Family's home that this
47 5/8" x 44 1/4" work can be installed. I mean, I can understand not letting petty distractions get in the way of moving the country forward (educational opportunities apparently being as sacrificial as spinal columns), but at least call it that. Artinfo.com explains:
The White House generated discussion and debate last month when it released the list of works it borrowed from public collections to hang in its residential space. Alma Thomas’s Watusi (Hard Edge), in particular, received attention from some conservative critics, who insisted it was a crass rip-off of a classic Matisse cutout entitled The Snail. Now it is reported that the work won’t be hung after all.

The first lady’s office confirmed reports that the painting not been hung on the walls of the East Wing, though a spokesperson denied that the controversy had anything to do with the decision. “The reason why it was moved was because it didn't fit the space right,” Semonti Stephens, the first lady's deputy press secretary, told the Washington Post. Stephens went on to emphasize that the Obama’s continue to appreciate the work of Alma Thomas, noting that the artist’s Sky Light painting continues to hang in the White House.

Thomas’s presence on the list of works included in the White House piqued the interest of many art critics. New York Times critic Holland Cotter, for example, championed the selection, arguing that the work was pivotal to Thomas’s development as an artist. “[T]hrough copying Matisse,” Mr. Cotter wrote, “she began to work out a format she would use again and again.”
Of course, as we know, every such setback also represents a larger opportunity. Greg Allen nails this one (and gets in a little snark as well):
So now that the White House has returned Alma Thomas's 1968 painting, Watusi (Hard Edge) to the Hirshhorn amid a flurry of interest in its making and in the artist herself, I assume the museum will quickly put it on public view. Probably with a bit of explanatory text about how and why the aged, arthritic Thomas appropriated her composition from The Snail, one of last works Matisse managed to create before he died.

Maybe they'd even put it alongside some Matisse paintings, which demonstrate the early modernists' bold innovation of appropriating motifs and forms from African art.

Or maybe they could go all out and borrow The Snail from the Tate, so it could hang alongside Thomas's painting, allowing a careful examination of what she saw, but also of what she changed.

I'll be waiting by my inbox for that press release.
Again, I understand removing the petty distractions the wingnuts seem reduced to sniffing out in this winter of their irrelevance, but the White House should also issue a statement explaining why those making the charges of "crass rip-off" are embarrassing the rest of the nation.

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26 Comments:

Blogger joy said...

j'agree. thanks for posting Ed.

11/06/2009 09:34:00 AM  
Blogger joy said...

in fact... now that I'm actively seeking examples of visual referencing for teaching my course on 'art and open source', this shouts out -- a really great example! -- especially with the link to the M.Malkin post, which reveals a particular kind of shallow thinking -- the very kind of shallowness I'm taking aim at.

11/06/2009 09:42:00 AM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

What? Art can't play off of art? Idiots.

You know the political types are desperate when they have to go after artists to raise a stink.

11/06/2009 09:42:00 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

Ed, it is sad that the extent of the dialog surrounding White House support of the visual arts amounts to what did or did not get hung in the White House. This is how far off of the radar meaningful federal support has moved. There is so much more that could be/should be talked about and yet, this is what we have. The only positive outcome could be that since support is so minimal, maybe this could be an opportunity to start over. Of course, we would first have to find someone in the Federal Government willing to actually take up the cause/discussion in a meaningful way ....

11/06/2009 10:35:00 AM  
Blogger Brent said...

In these days of hyper-politicization, it seems that the eating of a sandwich for lunch will be interpreted as a political act that will polarize the politico-sphere.

Rather than say "we didn't like it" which is likely to generate a whole other tempest-in-a-teapot, quietly returning it and saying "it didn't fit" may have been the most polite option.

Since the President's name would really improve a piece's provenance regardless of the stature of the artist - I cannot imagine what it would do to be publicly rejected by him for a reason of subjective judgement.

That being said -
It will be nice when having lunch will simply be having lunch, and a piece of art can be seen in its own context and on its own terms.

My vote is they just didn't like it.

11/06/2009 12:38:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Compare the two with the Alma Thomas rotated 90° to match the Matisse

11/06/2009 01:33:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has had to overcome while trying to succeed." - Booker T Washington

It's ok to appreciate an artist's achievements and still not want to live with a particular painting isn't it?

11/06/2009 02:41:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

The idea that, of all the artworks on the originally published list, the ONLY ONE that was returned was the one the wingnuts were up in arms about, being a coincidence seems highly unlikely to me.

11/06/2009 02:49:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

I'm curious, what's the opinion here on why this painting was singled out?

11/06/2009 03:07:00 PM  
Blogger joy said...

it seems that the eating of a sandwich for lunch will be interpreted as a political act

oh crap: I hope my chicken salad on sourdough will go down the right way.

11/06/2009 04:18:00 PM  
Blogger mikesorgatz said...

No surprise here, conservatism by definition triumphs tradition over innovation. Bottom line - it's just another way to take a cheap shot at the White House.

It's great that people have opinions about art, but the world is bigger than Thomas Kinkade.

11/06/2009 04:43:00 PM  
Blogger Mery Lynn said...

I really want to be positive about our President but he backs down on everything so easily. The last one never backed down. Does the pendulum always have to operate in extremes?

11/06/2009 04:55:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Unless we are assuming the right wing lacks taste, I don't think this is entirely a political issue. Is it possible that the Alma Thomas painting isn't up to snuff? In my opinion the painting is just an exercise. There's no harm in that but I question its choice for display in the White House. Its similarity to "The Snail" by Matisse is a bit too close and may have even ended up being a distraction. I think removing it was a reasonable decision.

11/06/2009 06:14:00 PM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

George asked "... why this painting was singled out?"

Some cultural and political conservatives appreciate Modern Art, but others believe it's a century-long scam - a rotten joke foisted on the public.

If you can find anything that remotely resembles "evidence" of this scam in the Obamas' choice of artworks, then you can paint them with the same brush. They're deceivers, in league with all the other Liberal/Modernist liars who are out to destroy our culture and our nation.

For those who practice a paranoid style of politics, everything - including the enemy's taste in art - has to fit together neatly.

(I offer this explanation as someone who is, culturally and politically, more conservative than liberal.)

11/07/2009 10:09:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

Tom, I suppose, but the painting was a really bad choice in the first place. Look at it compared to the Matisse (see the link in my earlier comment) It is nothing more than a bad copy, a poor choice to represent Alma Thomas.

Leaving politics out of it (impossible I know) it was worth flaming on purely aesthetic grounds.

11/07/2009 12:14:00 PM  
Blogger tony said...

I imagine that almost every painter at one time or another has, consciously or not, produced work so close to that of another that it could be taken as appropriation. In this instance I think Thomas made a professional error in not directly acknowledging her evident debt to Matisse's "Snail"; an acknowledgement which could have been so easily done by adding 'Hommage To HM' to her own title. As for the rest - it seems more a matter of little people venting their spite.

11/08/2009 05:14:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Tony, I agree. I don't fault Thomas for the attempt but I do find fault that someone else would recommend the painting for the White House.

Thomas missed big-time when he broke up the blue background with the white stripes. Everything else closely mimics the Matisse and screwing up the background is a big mistake in my opinion.

11/08/2009 06:58:00 PM  
Blogger CAP said...

You'd think they'd have taken some measurements before requesting the work. If the excuse really is that 'it didn't fit'.

Next time I'm in Michelle's office, I must remember to bring my laser tape measure.

11/09/2009 12:47:00 AM  
Blogger joy said...

Alma Thomas, a woman, an African American, remixing a Matisse. The colors reversed, the composition tipped. What does it say? If I had students right now I would ask them to write about it. Subtle changes can be powerful. The reference to Matisse should be so obvious as to not require a label. Homage is a trap to be avoided. The way Alma Thomas changed the piece -- and what she didn't change -- is the work, the point. Call it playful, conceptual; be bored or elated. Take it or leave it. Get it or don't get it.

Nothing is original. The insistence on homage is a slippery slope that comes, not out of a respect for authorship, but out of the property-obsessed state of our culture -- the Dictatorship of Property in which we now dwell. In this case, some would have Matisse give each and every one of his cut-outs a descriptive label offering homage to the anonymous African textile masters, many of them probably women. We could play this game with every painter who ever lived.

On a more immediate, pragmatic level: in caving (speaking of caving) to the erroneous idea of 'originality', homage ties a work to its referent, and in so doing closes down the possibility for other readings and interpretations.

11/09/2009 09:07:00 AM  
Blogger tony said...

To Joy:

"The reference to Matisse should be so obvious as to not require a label."

Only a teacher could come up with the narrow-end of the telescope view that the
reference to Matisse would be "so obvious". I"m wondering about the millions who have never heard of Matisse - let alone never seen 'The Snail'.

Ivory-towers apart, when a work seems dependent to such a degree on that by another artist it seems a matter of curtesy to tip one's hat out of respect - if nothing else,

11/09/2009 11:50:00 AM  
Blogger joy said...

tony: it's actually *that* obvious -- really -- to anyone with eyes in their head. and if it isn't, it doesn't really matter. enjoy the colors while you can enjoy life. and finally: courtesy smurtesy, matisse doesn't really give a crap. that's a ploy used by lawyers.

;-)

11/09/2009 02:09:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

I find this whole discussion hilarious. If "Watusi" had been made by a white male would we be having this discussion? The painting is inferior to the Matisse in every way. It could only be called "conceptual" in hindsight, and only by rewriting history. Yes she fiddled around with the colors and lost the struggle there as well.

Again I don't fault Alma Thomas for making the painting, I find fault with its selection for the White House. Was there no other painting available by Alma Thomas which would have been more reflective of her body of work?

One cannot assume that visitors to the White House are ignorant of Matisse and his achievements and having this particular Alma Thomas painting would be a distraction.

11/09/2009 02:44:00 PM  
Blogger tony said...

Perhaps you're right, Joy. Maybe I'm oversensitive on the 'The Snail'. I first saw it at the age of 16 & I must have seen it 100 times & more since then & each time I have come away with an extraordinary
sense of affirmation in life & art.

11/09/2009 04:30:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Damn wingnuts telling Michelle what she can and can't put on her own damn walls!! Uh, what's that again...you say Michelle made the decision? Oh, nevermind.

11/10/2009 06:42:00 PM  
Blogger michael edelman said...

There's nothing political in noticing that the painting is a blatant ripoff of Matisse, for goodness sake. Claims of "homage" and the like just give credence to the notion that the emperor indeed has no clothes.

11/11/2009 11:22:00 PM  
Anonymous Aaron said...

My interpretation is probably one that has already been mentioned and I can't read through all the comments now but...

Considering the title and the time period of the painting, I would have to affirm Greg Allen's view that the piece is a commentary on the appropriation of African art by Europeans, and specifically refers to the appropriation of the music of Black Americans to create Rock n Roll. The painting is clearly a "cover version" of the original version, with the alteration of the color and the orientation being a way of mocking what White musicians contributed to the musical lexicon.

It reminded me of the Isley Brothers releasing "Givin' It Back" in 1971:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Givin%27_It_Back

11/15/2009 12:06:00 PM  

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