Given the title of his braggadocious 1987 book The Art of the Deal, we know the concept of art has occurred to Donald J. Trump. It’s just that — like any greedy plutocrat — he equates art with raking in money. He approvingly quoted Andy Warhol’s claims that “making money is art” and “good business is the best art.” But what about Trump’s personal taste (or lack thereof) in visual art? We know he’s obsessed with a “big, beautiful” wall, a dominant element in The Brand. So what does art on his walls suggest about the man? Well, clearly, he’s no elitist connoisseur of fine art. Instead, we could conclude he’s a collector of self-aggrandizing kitsch.
Let’s first dispense with Oval Office décor, most likely chosen by others to symbolize gravitas and imply a link to past leaders of the Republic. Portraits of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, along with busts of Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King, Jr., adorn the room. Most notably, Trump’s former campaign strategist Stephen Bannon convinced Trump that his populism reincarnates Andrew Jackson’s man-of-the-people approach. So Trump, who bragged “I’m a fan” of Jackson’s shake-’em-up style, gives pride of place to a portrait of Old Hickory. No student of history, Trump is apparently oblivious to Jackson’s character flaws, like his support for slavery and cruel banishment of Native Americans on the Trail of Tears in 1830, which caused thousands of deaths.
A quick peek at Trump’s three-story Trump Tower penthouse reveals a lot about his aesthetic choices. The late designer Angelo Donghia selected a Versailles-inspired gold palette to mirror Trump’s monarchist tendencies. Gilded Corinthian columns, marble floors, huge crystal chandeliers and faux-mythological paintings and a ceiling fresco create a King Midas vibe. (Casino designer Henry Conversano also contributed to the ka-ching! décor.)
In Melania Trump’s office, there hangs a reproduction of Renoir’s painting La Loge (the original is in London’s Courtauld Gallery). Which brings up Trump’s repeated (and repeatedly debunked) claim that a painting (an original Renoir, he boasted) on his private jet and later hung in the penthouse is worth $10 million. The claim is fake news. The original painting, Two Sisters (on the Terrace), belongs to the Art Institute of Chicago.
It’s no wonder that Renoir’s fleshy females are favored. We know that Trump, serial adulterer and beauty pageant impresario, appreciates female beauty. But besides his dalliances with beautiful women, Trump evinces a streak of vanity about himself, saying in 2007, “The beauty of me is that I’m very rich.”
Now to hone in on two paintings that epitomize Trumpian values: The Visionary, a portrait of a heroic Adonis-Donald that hangs at Mar-a-Lago, and a print called The Republican Club spied outside the Oval Office. We know that Trump got in trouble for buying a six-foot portrait of himself using funds from his Donald J. Trump Foundation. But The Visionary (1989), by the late Ralph Wolfe Cowan, apparently pleased Trump so much that he paid for the oil sketch himself.
Cowan specialized in fawning portraits of royalty and celebrities, and this image of Trump as an uber-WASP, proudly displayed on a wood-paneled wall in the Trump resort’s bar, takes obsequiousness to a laughable level. The youngish Donald, attired in tennis whites, basks in a ray of celestial light. (Perhaps the image influenced Trump’s recent twitter-twaddle about himself as the “second coming of God” and anointing himself “the chosen one.” Cluelessness is next to godliness for our gonzo president, it seems.) In the portrait, he resembles a deeply bronzed Abercrombie and Fitch model, a sporty Master of the Universe exuding self-satisfaction. The sycophantic portrayal of the former reality star is about as far from reality as Jeff Koons’s shiny balloon dogs are from actual canines — all glowing surface with no substance inside.
But the fakest of the fake is The Republican Club, a print that riffs on the goofy Dogs Playing Poker poster, substituting Republican presidents for mongrels sitting around a table. Trump has referred to the White House as “a real dump,” so he must have felt this print would spiff up the place. (It was glimpsed in Lesley Stahl’s 2018 interview with Trump for 60 Minutes.)
Sitting smack-dab in the center of presidents like Lincoln, Reagan and Eisenhower is a beatifically grinning, incredibly svelte Trump, as painted by self-taught Missouri artist Andy Thomas. Analyzing this work as art would make a mockery of criticism. The sheer fact that it was there boggles the mind, suggesting that no flattery is too excessive for Trump (as Kim Jong-un has realized in his bromantic love letters).
In the spirit of full disclosure, I should acknowledge that the White House Office of the Curator requested from the Guggenheim Museum a real work of art for the White House residence, a landscape by Vincent Van Gogh. The museum declined to loan the work, offering instead Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan’s 18-carat gold toilet. The 2016 work, titled America (Cattelan’s acerbic comment on income inequality), had been on display (and in use) at the Guggenheim. The White House declined the offer.
In a 2016 Instagram post after Trump’s election, Guggenheim chief curator Nancy Spector posted a photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe of a tattered American flag. She wrote then, “This must be the first day of our revolution to take back our beloved country from hatred, racism and intolerance.” She added, “Don’t mourn. Organize.”
Presumably, if the Cattelan piece had been accepted, it would have been a short-term loan terminating in 2020, a hoped-for relief for Dump-Trumpers.
Let’s close with two lines from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, containing a sobering thought for Golden-Boy autocrats everywhere:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.