From Chuck Close to Shepard Fairey, How Artists Captured Obama’s Historic Presidency

Artsy Editorial
Jan 6, 2017 8:19PM

From Ancient Egyptian sculptures of Pharaoh to Andy Warhol’s Pop portraits of Mao, artists have a long history of depicting political figures. Whether sponsored by the government or critiquing the establishment, these artworks can be instrumental in shaping the public perception of our leaders.

While many presidents have been the subject of art (with one—George W. Bush—recently becoming an artist himself), President Barack Obama has been a particularly popular muse for artists. His historic presidency has inspired an outpouring of artworks, from both amateur and established artists. From snapshots of President Obama as a college freshman to the first 3-D-printed bust of a sitting president, we bring you some of the most memorable artworks of our outgoing commander-in-chief.

Lisa Jack, 1980

At 20 years-old, Barack Obama (then known to his friends as “Barry”) posed for the aspiring photographer Lisa Jack in her living room near Occidental College. Jack needed subjects to expand her undergraduate portfolio, and Barry was a friend of a friend who agreed to be shot. Working in black-and-white, Jack portrayed the college freshman as a man of style and self-confidence, laughing on the couch and smoking a cigarette in a leather bomber jacket, straw Panama hat, and flared jeans.

Jack, who is now a psychology professor and therapist, had all but forgotten about these images until early 2008, when friends accused her of lying about going to school with the presidential candidate. Seeking evidence, Jack rummaged through boxes of old negatives in her basement and unearthed the now-iconic roll of film. Refusing to sell the images to the tabloids (the smoking shots could potentially be damning to his campaign), she placed them in a safety deposit box until after the election. She eventually published the portraits as part of TIME magazine’s “Person of the Year” spread in December 2008, and exhibited them at M+B gallery a year later. “I’m the 49-year-old woman who wanted to be a photographer but didn’t follow through,” Jack has joked about her artistic comeback story. “I’m the Susan Boyle of the photography world.”

Mariana Cook, 1996

Barack and Michelle Obama, Chicago, Illinois, 1996
Steven Kasher Gallery

In 1996, Mariana Cook interviewed and photographed Barack and Michelle Obama at their home in Hyde Park as part of a photography project about couples in America. Obama, who was a community organizer in Chicago when the photograph was taken, would go on to be elected Illinois State Senator that same year. Evoking a striking sense of nostalgia, the informal black-and-white photograph provides a humanizing window into the life of a young couple 12 years before they moved to the White House. Cook captured the duo looking understated in casual clothing, seemingly enjoying earlier, carefree days. Around the room are spoils from the couple’s travels, including a small African sculpture and three stone temple rubbings from Thailand. Their first child, Malia Obama, would be born two years later.

While Cook excluded the image from her book on the project, Couples: Speaking from the Heart (2000), she eventually released the photograph, along with its accompanying interview, in The New Yorker one day before Obama’s inauguration in 2009. (Today, the image is housed in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)  “There is a strong possibility that Barack will pursue a political career, although it’s unclear,” Michelle told Cook in the interview. “There is a little tension with that. I’m very wary of politics.”

Martin Schoeller, 2004

In 2004, Barack Obama took the stage at the Democratic National Convention as a little-known Illinois State Senator supporting the John Kerry-John Edwards ticket. The politician’s rousing 17-minute-long keynote address turned him into a national celebrity and sparked rumors about a presidential run. It also landed him on the pages of GQ Magazine that December as one of the publication’s “Men of the Year,” for which he was photographed by the the leading German portraitist Martin Schoeller. Schoeller captured Obama in his campaign office, in the artist’s signature close-up format. As he does with many other celebrities, the photographer aligned the height of the camera with Obama’s eyeline to foster a sense of intimacy between the viewer and the sitter.

Interestingly, the image published in GQ is slightly different from the one Schoeller would later exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. in 2008. While the magazine chose a photograph of Obama smiling, at ease with his status as a fast-rising politician in 2004, Schoeller selected a more stoic version, casting the presidential candidate as a formidable figure in our nation’s history.

Shepard Fairey, 2008

“I wanted strong. I wanted wise, but not intimidating,” Shepard Fairey said of his iconic poster design for Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, arguably the most influential artwork in any recent political election. Fairey reached out to the Obama campaign about a potential collaboration in the middle of February, a few weeks before Super Tuesday. The street artist had previously been arrested for vandalism, and did not want his posters to be an “unwelcome distraction.” With the campaign’s approval, Fairey began by producing 700 prints of the presidential nominee looking into the distance, cast in a patriotic palette of red, white, and blue. Fairey plastered half of the prints on the street and sold the other half on his website for $45 each, gaining funds to produce 10,000 more. Responding to the growing demand for the image, Fairey put a free download of the graphic online—and the rest is history. Soon it was on t-shirts, bumper stickers, and buttons everywhere. The image had become inseparable from the campaign.

In 2009, The Associated Press accused Fairey of using one of their copyrighted photographs to create the image. Fairey sued the agency, claiming that he worked from a different photograph, though he later admitted that he lied in order to cover up his mistake. While the case could have been instrumental in providing clarity to the murky arena of fair use and copyright law, it was settled for undisclosed financial terms in 2011.

Rob Pruitt, 2009–2016

Installation view of Rob Pruitt’s “The Obama Paintings,” 2016. Photo courtesy of Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York.

Every morning since Obama’s inauguration, Rob Pruitt has gone online to find a recent image of the president and recreated the shot in shades of red, white, and blue on a 2’-by-2’ canvas. The project, called “The Obama Paintings,” consists of nearly 3,000 images, and ends on January 19th. With a faint, wistful quality to his application of paint, Pruitt has rendered Obama dancing with the First Lady Michelle, standing smiling alongside his daughters Malia and Sasha, or playing with his dogs outside the White House, among thousands of other painted snapshots. “The big moments of the administration didn’t really interest me that much,” Pruitt told the Guardian. “I like imagery of the downtime, when the image is cropped so closely where you get no idea of timing and context.” Gavin Brown’s enterprise, which represents Pruitt, has committed to selling the works only as a complete unit, rather than individually.

Pruitt is not the most prolific artist to capture the 44th president, however. Over the past eight years, the official White House photographer Pete Souza has taken over two million photographs of the commander-in-chief, providing Americans with a behind-the-scenes look into his daily life. Some of these photographs likely served as the basis for Pruitt’s daily paintings.

Mark Seliger, 2010

Barack Obama, The White House, Washington, D.C, 2010
Steven Kasher Gallery

It took American photographer Mark Seliger five minutes to photograph President Obama for the cover of Rolling Stone’s October issue in 2010. To be fair, Seliger only had about six and a half minutes to work with. While the magazine wanted a conventional cover image—the president standing outside the White House, wearing his standard red tie, hands resting in his pockets—Seliger was determined to take some less commercial shots as well.

After quickly photographing Obama for the cover, Seliger grabbed his Pentax camera and asked the president to stay a minute longer, staging him in front of a white background he had set up nearby. “I told him I wanted to do a diptych, so I shot a couple frames from the front, then asked him to turn around,” Seliger recalls. “After about five frames he said, ‘Okay, that’s enough art.’” While it didn’t make the cover, the paired-down image of Obama standing with his back towards the viewer is without a doubt the most memorable work from the six-minute shoot. The silhouette of the president has a certain timelessness and monumentality, portraying Obama as a political icon, even though he was just two years into the job.

Chuck Close, 2012

While many artists supported Obama’s run for reelection in 2012, none made as big of a splash as Fairey’s HOPE poster four years earlier. Still, the portraits created by American master Chuck Close made a sizable impact. Close, who joined Obama’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities in 2010, had offered to make a portrait of Obama in 2008, but received no response from his campaign. In 2012, as fundraising for his reelection was in full swing, Close finally got his call back. The artist came down to Washington D.C. to photograph the president in the Jefferson hotel (photographs taken in the Oval Office cannot be used for a reelection campaign). While Close was given eight minutes to photograph Obama, he ended up working with the commander-in-chief for over an hour. “People kept coming in and telling him he had to go, but he was in such a good mood, and so charming,” Close recalls.

With the input of the president, Close chose two of the large polaroids—one with a smile, the other without. He then transformed the shots into larger-than-life tapestries, one of which he debuted at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina, during the Democratic National Convention. To raise money for the campaign, Close produced a total of 10 tapestries (priced at $100,000 apiece), 10 large prints ($50,000 apiece), 40 medium prints ($25,000 apiece), and 200 small prints ($5,000 apiece). The proceeds of the sale may have raised over $3,000,000 for the campaign. Close didn’t stop there. He also reproduced the images as woodburytypes, using an antiquated photography technique invented by Walter Bentley Woodbury around 1864. The last woodburytype of an American president ever made was of Abraham Lincoln in 1881.

Smithsonian, 2014

Image courtesy of the Smithsonian.

Close’s woodburytypes are not the only artworks linking President Obama to President Lincoln. In 2014, the Smithsonian Institution produced the first-ever 3D portrait of a sitting president, finding inspiration for the project in Lincoln’s life masks. Created in 1860 (one year before Lincoln took office) and 1865 (two months before his assassination), the life masks provide snapshots into the changing face of the president, from a relatively youthful 51-year-old man to an aging president marked by the horrors of the Civil War. To create these sculptures, scholars believe Lincoln’s face and beard were covered in grease, followed by a thin coat of plaster paste. For the next 15 minutes, the president would have to breathe through a straw as the plaster dried. While the process was painstaking, the resulting sculpture captured Lincoln’s exact likeness.

Obama’s 3D portrait was much swifter. He sat still for 90 seconds, enduring one second of flashing light. The data gleaned translated into a master file of about 15 million triangles. Recalling the marble sculptures of presidents past, the 19-inch, 13-pound bust of Obama was printed in pure white. As part of the project, the Smithsonian also 3D-printed Lincoln’s life masks, exhibiting them in the same vitrine as a life mask of President Obama, suggesting a kinship between the two visionary leaders who have helped to shape this nation.

Sarah Gottesman

Artsy Editorial