Monday, March 30, 2015

Presidential Art at Hofstra University

Andy Warhol (American, 1928-1987)
Vote McGovern, 1972
Screenprint on paper
41 11/16 x 41 11/16 in.
Courtesy of Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Kenneth Walker, 1992.125
Image: © 2014 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual 
Arts, Inc./Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York
The Hofstra University Museum curated an interesting exhibit on portraiture of the American presidency called From Portraits to Tweet: Imagery, Technology and the U.S. Presidency. You can read about the exhibit here.
The exhibit begins chronologically with a portrait of President George Washington by Gilbert Stuart and ends with a portrait of Present Barrack Obama made with hundreds of shaded images of Abraham Lincoln. The exhibit focuses on the changing technology of portraiture craft. Indeed, when one imagines the time it took to create the Stuart portrait of Washington compared with a selfie tweet with Vice President Joe Biden and President Barrack Obama, it is clear that we have had a progression of technology on how we represent ourselves and our leaders.

Pitcher (Theodore Roosevelt), ca. 1910
Lenox porcelain
7 5/8 x 6 1/2 x 5 1/2 in.
Courtesy of Collection of The New-York Historical Society, 
Gift of Dr. Arthur H. Merritt, 1961.342
Image © New-York Historical Society
The exhibit also contains a fair amount of images of the presidents used in campaign materials. Roosevelt's image of an optimistic outdoorsman for example provided ample material for propagandists for and against his leadership. Campaign buttons, bandanas, and mugs have been used throughout our nation's history to promote candidates. Today, many of these materials are valuable cultural artifacts.

The exhibit also contains a number of photographs and films that show different aspects of the presidency. Importantly, photographs started to show the Presidents as real people. Lincoln had a carefully crafted image that showed him as a thoughtful, although pained, president. This is largely because it was next to impossible to get a candid photo of Lincoln given the photographic technology of the day. Yet in our modern era, images of presidents tripping off an airplane stairway (President Ford) or trying to leave a stage via a locked door (President G.W. Bush) show the presidents as somehow more human and real--even though their images may suffer as a result of the realness.

Alex Guofeng Cao (Chinese, b. 1969)
Lincoln vs. Obama, 2009
Chromogenic print with Dibond Plexiglas
60 x 40 in.
Courtesy of the artist
It is worth noting that some of the greatest artists in the U.S. focused on the Presidency as a theme. Besides the noted Stuart portrait in the exhibit, there are pieces by Warhol and Rauschenberg. The Warhol piece is a portrait of President Richard Nixon and was commissioned by the Democratic National Committee. It is a fascinating piece in that it uses Warhol's distinct style of using existing images with silk screen color overlays to create an almost nauseous feeling of Nixon. The Rauschenberg piece focuses on Kennedy and the 1960's. His use of multiple layers of images to represent time and space work well to capture the sentiment of the time. The complex mixing of pop culture imagery communicates the key historic elements of the era in a complex graphic image that presaged Google Image Search functions. The piece is perhaps the most striking image in the entire exhibit in communicating the complexities of a particular time and a particular presidency.

While the focus of the exhibit is largely on the changing technology used to represent the American presidency, it also provides an opportunity to reflect on how our country has changed in the almost 250 years of our existence. In many ways the changing representation of the American presidency represents the changes in our society. We have indeed gone from portraits to tweets not only in the representation of the presidency but also in the representation of ourselves. Now that we are a country that embraces the fast culture represented by tweets, what will this mean for the future of the American presidency and our country?

The exhibit is in the Emily Lowe Gallery on the Hofstra Campus until May 8th. For more information, click here.

Joe Biden (JoeBiden) “The First Selfie.”
April 16, 2014, Twitter Post

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