John Orrell, public affairs director of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum knew he had a hit on his hands last weekend when he saw so many fans from the Final Four (that’s Dallas-Speak for the college basketball championship attended by 200,000 people) lining up in droves to see the former US president’s portraits of world leaders in an exhibition titled “The Art of Leadership,” which opened on April 5. In fact, such a media frenzy is just short of miraculous for a presidential library, Orrell, notes, since the idea of including the former president’s paintings was a way to get visitors to “see all these artifacts that tell the story of his time as president.”
The artifacts are the booty or swag that came from other world leaders during Dubya’s eight years in office. And they answer a question that is perhaps even stranger and more compelling than his paintings: What could possibly be a suitable gift for the supreme leader of the world when one is invited to the Crawford ranch? Australian prime minister John Howard brought a pair of custom-made cowboy boots, fashioned from crocodile, kangaroo, and emu hides, as well as a whip and, curiously, pewter coasters of native Australian flowers. Jose Maria Aznar, the president of Spain from 1996–2004 (whose treasurer, Luis Bárcenas has recently been in the news for apparently amassing a $66-million slush fund while in office), brought a humidor made of rare wood, with a portable chess set inlaid on the lid. Václav Havel, the Czech playwright and first president of the Czech Republic from 1993–2003, donated a set of seven tomes of his writings in Czech. He dedicated the set to “George W. Bush” and accompanied his signature with a heart shape, “Václav Havel♥.”
The anthropological grouping of the objects surrounding each painting, along with photos of the president and his subject, and an accompanying panel documenting how many times Bush saw the subject, both at the ranch or at the White House, CREATE TABLE IF NOT EXISTS IF NOT EXISTS IF NOT EXISTS IF NOT EXISTS IF NOT EXISTS IF NOT EXISTSaux, however unintentional, that are strangely reminiscent of the last Venice Biennale, “The Encyclopedic Palace,” which took a broad-brush approach to the visionary urges of numerous outsider and amateur artists.
It would appear that Bush is on track in his new career as a “Former World Leader Who Paints,” although Richard Phillips—in a discussion with gallerist John Runyon at the Dallas Contemporary on Saturday—opined that the former president is creating a fiction of himself as a painter. A fascinating idea, especially since, before entering the exhibition, visitors are asked to watch a seven-minute documentary of the president’s artistic development created especially by the History Channel.
Todd Levin, über art adviser, made the Bush exhibition his first stop upon touching Texas soil remarked that the president’s paintings were not that skilled, but also that he has only been painting since 2012. Gracie Mansion, who represents the quirky works of the late Fluxus artist Al Hansen, was more favorable: “His paintings are strangely compelling and remind me somewhat of Alice Neel.” She found his Vladimir Putin painting “haunting” and also liked the portrait of Dubya’s dad, which, incidentally, is also the artist’s favorite.
With the Dallas Art Fair in town last weekend, it is clear that George W. Bush’s paintings will be getting a more critical review, but whether he can cross the aisle and extend beyond his red state appeal remains to be seen.
“The Art of Leadership: A President’s Personal Diplomacy” continues at the George W. Bush Presidential Center through June 3, 2014.Follow artnet News on Facebook.