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A Ruscha for the situation room?

Mark Mardell | 09:17 UK time, Thursday, 8 October 2009

What paintings do the Obamas hang on the walls of the White House? I would have guessed large, bold, clean abstracts, with a nod maybe to someone like Ellis Wilson.

But I am indebted to Sunlen Miller's blog to learn the rather startling truth.

Eleven of the 33 paintings in the part of the White House that the Obamas call home are 19th Century paintings of Native American Indian life on the plains. George Catlin's work has titles like "Buffalo Chase with Accidents" and "Ball-Play Dance, Choctaw".

His portraits pack a punch, but the paintings of frontiersman plains the Obamas seem to have chosen leave me cold.

Catlin apparently admired Native American culture and felt he was recording a great culture on the edge of destruction, so perhaps they are making a political point. But Catlin was a controversial character.

The second-most favoured artist, with four paintings is a much better choice. William H Johnson was known for his portrayal of Harlem life, with bright stick-like figures, although to my mind his Van Gogh-like paintings are a hundred times more powerful.

Don't worry, I will abandon art criticism and go back to politics in a minute.

The Obamas have one work by pop artist Edward Ruscha on display, but surely it should hang not at their home, but in the situation room, where the President has been holding a series of meetings to discuss the future of his Afghanistan and Pakistan policy.

The work they have is entitled "I think I'll...". On a red-and-pink canvas are the words: "Maybe...Yes..." "wait a minute!", "on second thought", and "maybe... no..."

But I really hope they are saving up their cents for his 1979 work to put in that space. It's called "It's OK - Everything's OK".


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