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October 8, 2009

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White House experiences art cultural revolution

YOU can't see it, but there's a quiet cultural revolution under way at the White House.

The Obamas are decorating their private spaces with more modern and abstract artwork than has ever hung on the White House walls. New pieces by contemporary African-American and Native American artists are on display. Bold colors, odd shapes, squiggly lines have arrived. So, too, have some obscure artifacts, such as patent models for a gear cutter and a steamboat paddlewheel, that now sit in the Oval Office.

Works by big names from the modern art world -- Jasper Johns and Mark Rothko -- are rubbing shoulders with lesser-known artists such as Alma Thomas, an African-American abstract painter of the 1960s and 1970s.

Thomas' "Watusi (Hard Edge)" now hangs in the East Wing, where Michelle Obama has her offices. The acrylic on canvas, on loan from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, shows a jumble of geometric shapes in bright reds, blues and greens.

Glenn Ligon's "Black Like Me No. 2," a Hirshhorn loan now hanging in the first family's living quarters, is a "text painting" that 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.

Ligon, a black artist from New York, said in an interview that the painting's theme fits with President Barack Obama's efforts to create a dialogue between the races.

"It's a really important part of what he's about and symbolically what he's done," Ligon said, adding that it was "intensely flattering" for the Obamas to want his painting to hang in their private spaces.

The Obamas got to work selecting new artwork for the White House even before the inauguration.


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