Rob Pruitt’s Massive Obama Installation to Debut at Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit

Rob Pruitt will paint Obama 2,922 times, once for each day of his presidency.

obama-signing-document-art-history
President Obama signing a document.

Every day since President Barack Obama’s inauguration on January 21, 2009, Rob Pruitt has had a routine: arrive at the studio, Google image search the previous day’s photos of the president, and dash off a quick painting of the one he finds most compelling. On May 15, the ongoing project, titled “The Obama Paintings,” will finally be revealed to the public at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD).

“I wanted it to parallel his presidency,” Pruitt told artnet News of the ambitious project. Inspired by the surge of enthusiasm and optimism surrounding Obama’s election, both among the artistic community and the country at large, Pruitt felt a “need to channel that exuberance into what was coming next—the day-to-day issues running the country.”

The paintings, each done in expressionistic white brushstrokes over a muted blue, lilac, and red ground, take about 20 to 30 minutes for the artist to complete. The gradient background, a recurring visual element in Pruitt’s work, is applied using the sort of pressurized spray guns used to paint cars—an unintentionally fitting coincidence, given the project’s destination in the Motor City (see US Automakers Pledge $26 Million to Save Detroit Institute of Arts). The images of Obama are done entirely by hand, with paint Pruitt described as “mixed the old-fashioned way, with pigments.”

“Being able to witness all eight years at one time is very exciting to me,” said Pruitt.

At its completion, “The Obama Paintings” series will feature an impressive array of 2,922 two-foot canvases. When the paintings make their debut at MOCAD, there will be between 2,200 and 2,300 of them displayed in a massive grid, with Pruitt sending each day’s new piece along to the museum.

The undated works will be arranged randomly—a necessity, Pruitt admitted, since “they got mixed up from the very beginning.” He thinks it is better that way, because it removes the temptation to find some kind of narrative arc, with “people reading it like lines of type.” Each day, Pruitt said, will be “equal and present on the same plane.”

There aren’t enough walls for all of the paintings at MOCAD, so the museum is installing freestanding ones, with bookshelves built into the back to store the overflow, which visitors will be able to thumb through.

artnet News got a sneak peek at the monumental project at Gavin Brown‘s Harlem brownstone, where the artist has installed about 500 canvases, or about a quarter of his Obama output to date, in preparation for the MOCAD show.

The sheer accumulation of the daily snapshots is overwhelming, and the difficulty in singling out watershed moments among them is striking. The Washington Post, for instance, has compiled a list of no less than 23 different events that have been referred to by the president’s detractors as “Obama’s Katrina.”

None of those so-called disasters are in evidence here—but neither are the president’s accomplishments. Good luck finding, for instance, the famous War Room shot of the president monitoring the SEAL Team Six mission that took out Osama bin Laden. Tellingly, if understandably, the images tend to run together, offering a monument not to one specific achievement, but to the presidency as a whole.

“I can’t necessarily track my own life in these at this point,” Pruitt said. A habit-forming endurance project appealed to Pruitt for practical reasons. Starting a new painting is like “jumping off of a cliff each time,” he said. “I don’t know if it will succeed.”

By comparison, the concept is already in place for the Obama paintings, leaving nothing to rethink or worry about.

Pruitt sees Detroit as emblematic of the American experience over the last seven years, a city that was “superlative in its tumble” during the recession that affected the US as a whole. Despite the recently-concluded historic bankruptcy proceedings (see Detroit Institute of Arts Will Contribute $100 Million to Fund City Pensions), Pruitt believes Detroit possesses a “positivity that is inspiring to the whole country.”

“I think it will resonate with people,” MOCAD executive director Elysia Borowy-Reeder, the exhibition curator, told artnet News. “I want people to examine their relationship to the government and the president and celebrity culture.” She admires the extreme discipline of what she’s dubbed a “durational performance piece,” that explores “the intersection of art and politics.” She added, “it’s going to be visually stunning.”

Both Pruitt and Borowy-Reeder hope that Detroit will be the first stop on a national tour for the exhibition. For the painting’s permanent home, Obama’s presidential library, which will be housed in Chicago, seems like a natural choice. Though he hasn’t yet reached out to the president’s office about such a possibility, Pruitt said he “would be honored.”

Rob Pruitt’s “The Obama Paintings and The Lincoln Monument” will be on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit on May 15–August 2.


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