No wonder Heather worries. Though her childhood was cultured, she was hardly schooled in the high-fashion -- and big-money -- realm of contemporary art. If Tony's art infatuation developed gradually, Heather's blossomed overnight.
"Did I go from zero to 1,000?" she says, referring to her art involvement since meeting Tony. "No. I went from 5 to 1,000."
Heather and Tony Podesta in their Falls Church home with Louise Bourgeois' "The Arch of Hysteria."
(Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
Heather now talks about conspiring with "Julie" (as in Roberts, a major painter in museum collections worldwide) on a portrait of Tony she commissioned for his birthday. She mentions seeing "Olafur" (as in Eliasson, a Danish-born photographer whom the Podestas hold in depth) at an opening.
Still, Heather recalls the day, just weeks into her relationship with Tony, when she traveled to Chelsea with him to look at art. A gallerist presented a photograph by a well-known German artist, chirping about the work's reasonable price. The piece cost $45,000.
"There are times when I'm the daughter of an academic, in sneakers," Heather says of her sticker shock. "I'm just that geek completely out of place. I felt it then."
Tony and Heather don't shy away from discomfort -- especially when they can inflict it, ever so gently, on others.
The pictures ringing Tony's ninth-floor office at PodestaMattoon deliver an unusual welcome. A suite of arresting computer-manipulated photographs by Dutch artist Margi Geerlinks serves as a cautionary tale of genetic engineering. One shows a boy seemingly born from a sewing machine. Another finds a young girl knitting her own hair. A third has a naked woman immersed in blood-red liquid.
It's not hard to imagine the jolt that executives from biotech concerns such as Genentech or Serono get when they walk into the room -- and they're clients.
"Some people think it's a little weird," Tony says of his choices. "But that's their problem."
Steeped in liberal politics, Tony favors art with in-your-face nudity and social critique.
"We're not trying to confront sexism and racism in our art collection," he insists. "Though occasionally they intersect. Some people's politics are other people's aesthetics."
And some people's aesthetics are other people's embarrassments. Tony's younger brother John (yes, that John, Bill Clinton's former chief of staff and current president of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress) admires his choices in art but recognizes that not everyone gets it. Says John, "I don't think Tony focus-groups his art."
Though pictures rotate on and off the walls of the couple's homes, a piece in the Woodley Park living room stays. Called "Soliloquy VII," the nearly eight-foot-tall color photo by British artist Sam Taylor-Wood is an update of a late-15th-century painting of the dead Jesus. Taylor-Wood faithfully replicates the original's composition, here photographing, in vivid color and minute detail, a young man laid out on his back. Just one thing: Taylor-Wood omits the shroud, displaying his subject in all his nakedness.
Though often politely ignored, "Soliloquy VII" is rarely forgotten. Tony and Heather love it. They crane their necks to hear the whispers generated when the pols stop in. Tony often uses the work to launch into a story about Hillary Clinton's visit, when she ducked and tiptoed around the work lest any photo opportunity capture her alongside the naked figure.