In a quiet ceremony on Friday, November 20, the outgoing First Lady Melania Trump unveiled a new artwork at the White House Rose Garden — Isamu Noguchi’s 1962 sculpture “Floor Frame.” The acclaimed sculptor is the first Asian-American artist to enter the national collection.
The White House Historical Association acquired the two-part bronze for $125,000 at a Sotheby’s auction in March. The acquisition comes as a rare show of elegance considering the First Lady’s interesting aesthetic choices of Christmas decorations and her much-criticized redesign of the Rose Garden in summer.
“The art piece is humble in scale, complements the authority of the Oval Office, & represents the important contributions of Asian American artists,” Melania Trump tweeted on Saturday.
A White House press release states that Noguchi viewed the sculpture “as the intersection of a tree and the ground, taking on the qualities of both an implied root system and the canopy of a tree.”
“In order to reconnect viewers to the planet, he envisioned the sculpture placed directly on the ground,” the statement continues. “The sculpture placement on the terrace in the Rose Garden allows visitors to happen upon it, giving it a found quality.”
However, Brett Littman, director of the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum in Long Island City, tells Hyperallergic that in spite of widespread reports, Trump did not select nor purchase the artwork.
“Nikki Pisha, a curator at The White House Collection (an AAM accredited museum) found and selected Floor Frame, which for sale at Sotheby’s in March 2020, and then presented the work to the Committee for the Preservation of the White House,” he explained. While Melania Trump is “the honorary chair of the committee […] it is officially chaired by the Director of the National Park Service with other federal members including the Director of the National Gallery of Art; the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution; the Chair of the Commission of Fine Arts; and the two White House staff members, the Chief Usher and the Curator.”
“[“Floor Frame”] was purchased with funds from the White House Historical Association, an independent non-profit established to raise funds outside government on behalf of The White House Collection,” he continued.
Noguchi was born in Los Angeles in 1904 to an American mother and a Japanese father. After the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, he became a political activist, co-founding Nisei Writers and Artists Mobilization for Democracy. The group was dedicated to raising awareness of the patriotism of Japanese-Americans. He later voluntarily entered the Colorado River Relocation Center (Poston) internment camp in Arizona, where he remained for six months in order to create a more humane design for the camp and organize workshops and lectures on Japanese art. His work at Poston was the subject of the 2017 exhibition Self-Interned, 1942: Noguchi in Poston War Relocation Center at the Noguchi Museum in New York.
In sharp contrast, when Donald Trump, who made the detention of immigrants a hallmark of his presidency, was asked in 2015 if he might have supported the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, his answer was: “I certainly hate the concept of it. But I would have had to be there at the time to give you a proper answer.”
Editor’s note 11/24/2020: This article was updated to include a quote from Brett Littman, director of the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum. The original title of this article stated that Melania Trump acquired the statue for the White House collection, but it has since been changed.