Dubbed ‘the art world’s Jonathan Swift’, New York-based artist Jonathan Horowitz (b. 1966) satirises American politics through a range of materials and mediums, from photography and sculpture to installation and video.
Obama ’08 (estimate: US$100,000-150,000), a suite of 43 replicas of official presidential portraits, takes its title from the name of the most recent White House incumbent. The work was the main installation at the Gavin Brown Enterprise gallery in New York from 18 October through to 18 November 2008. At its installation ahead of the American presidential election, 42 portraits were hung in a line, organised chronologically. A portrait of Barack Obama leaned against the wall, awaiting the election’s outcome.
Not to be confused with ‘political art’, which asserts a specific position, Horowitz instead takes the media frenzy that surrounds the government machine as his subject. As curator and critic Sue Spaid has written, ‘Horowitz is a dyed-in-the-wool conceptualist, driven more by connecting, abutting, and playing with mass media than by some urge to scourge’.
Appropriately, given this interest in media influence, Horowitz saw the gallery space as the perfect place to screen campaign coverage. As part of the installation, two oversized television sets were hung back-to-back, live-streaming CNN and Fox News. The room itself, carpeted half in red and half in blue, underscored the increasing party polarisation. Upon the announcement of Obama’s win, red, white and blue balloons were released and the president-elect’s portrait was hung on the wall. Had John McCain — the Republican contender — been victorious, the balloons would have been left to deflate and Obama’s portrait would have remained on the floor; no portrait of McCain was prepared.
Each image in the suite is a photographic reproduction of a painted presidential portrait. These pieces were often commissioned to mark the end of a president’s tenure; viewed together, they reveal the changing styles and fashions in portraiture. John F. Kennedy’s picture depicts the former president with his head downturned, referencing his untimely death. Woodrow Wilson’s portrait notes the passage of the 19th Amendment, which extended suffrage to women nationwide; Lyndon Johnson’s highlights the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The portrait of Obama prepared for the 2008 installation — a reproduction of a campaign photograph — indicated his relative newness.
In his Artforum review of the Gavin Brown show, critic and curator Joshua Decter described Obama ’08 as ‘cynical, hopeful, soulful, empty, celebratory, critical, complicit, engaged, fatalistic, satirical, stupid and thoughtful’. The work is indeed multifaceted, capturing the range of conflicting emotional states prompted by election season.
Obama ’08 was recently reinstalled as part of the Occupy Greenwich exhibition at The Brant Foundation, no doubt underlining for many viewers the extraordinary media circus that has characterised the 2016 presidential election season.
In recent months, Horowitz has displayed a new version — updated to include Obama’s presidential portrait — in which Hillary Clinton’s portrait is set against the wall, as Obama’s was in 2008. (This version will not be offered at Christie’s.) He has also produced an election poster, available for download on his website.
Obama ’08 will be offered at Christie’s New York as part of the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 15 November. The installation will be on view at Christie’s Rockefeller Center from 5 November, ahead of the auction.