November 4, 2009

Oy. White House Sends Alma Thomas Painting Back To The Hirshhorn

alma_thomas_watusi.jpg

I guess I can understand if the White House saw the rightwing faux-controversy over Alma Thomas's Watusi (Hard Edge) as an unhelpful distraction, and it's not like the country elected Obama to be curator-in-chief, but that doesn't mean their people need to make shit up about it.

Randy Kennedy reported tonight on the NY Times' ArtBeat blog that the painting has been returned to the Hirshhorn Museum. Watusi is well-known [at least as well-known as a painting by Alma Thomas, an African American woman in DC who only began painting abstraction and exhibiting her work after she retired from teaching, can be] as a deliberate appropriation and alteration of a late cutout painting/collage by Henri Matisse. Some critics of the Obamas ignored this history and strategy and decided the work was plagiarized and that Thomas was either a fraud or a hack.

I read the every comment on the original FreeRepublic.com thread about this controversy, and I wrote that the criticisms were grounded in longstanding conservative views on the primacy of craft and originality in the evaluation of art. In contemporary art terms, the critics of Thomas's work rejected the pared down abstraction of both her and Matisse [without noticing or caring about the differences in technique: painting vs. collage], and they rejected the validity of appropriation as an artistic strategy [without noticing or caring about the significant differences Thomas introduced]. But it's now obvious that this controversy is not about Alma Thomas or even about art; it's about politics.

Which is the only explanation I can think of for why the White House misrepresented the painting's fate:

Semonti Stephens, the deputy press secretary for Mrs. Obama, said that the painting had been intended to go in the first lady's office and that the the decision not to put it there was made only because its dimensions did not work in the space in which it was to hang.

"This piece just didn't fit right in the room," Ms. Stephens said, adding that the first lady continues to admire the work of Alma Thomas and is happy to have one of her works in the White House. "There's no other reason," she said of the other painting. "It really has nothing to do with the work itself."

As long as you equate "decision not to put it there" with "decision to take it down," that statement is technically true. But the implication that the painting was not hanging in the First Lady's office is completely false. It was, and it was there for quite some time. The office is small, and the painting is big, but it certainly seemed to fit fine until a bunch of wingnuts pitched a fit over it.

Off The Wall: White House Drops [i.e., Changes Mind] About Painting [nyt]
Previously: On Wingnuts on Alma Thomas

Since 2001 here at greg.org, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting greg.org that time.

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first published: November 4, 2009.

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