In 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously noted, with regard to what exactly constituted “obscenity,” “I know it when I see it.” Similarly, among some art historians, collectors and other experts, just what can or should be considered “folk art” often has been a subject of criteria-questioning debate.
In Europe, for example, where “folk art” originated as a field of investigation in the late 1800s, it was generally associated with artifacts from peasant communities closely linked to specific places and bound by strong familial, ethnic, religious or cultural ties.
Scholars emphasized the contrasts between such groups’ handcrafted, tradition-informed creations and the machine-made products of mass culture. However, in the U.S., as the influential curator Holger Cahill noted in the early 1900s, “folk art” referred to works “produced by people who have little book learning in art techniques and no academic training, [those] whose work is not related to the established schools.”
For Cahill, the kind of training artists had received — or not — was more of a concern than their roots in particular traditions or communities. In the U.S., too, folk art was regarded as having been produced in the pre-industrial past. For some purists, that meant paintings, sculptures or objects that had been made in young America’s original, northeastern states.
Now, with Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum, a new exhibition in New York (on view at the American Folk Art Museum through August 17), the leading institution in its field in the U.S. is offering a survey of folk art that may again shake up the discussion about this category of artistic expression.
Self-Taught Genius has been underwritten by a generous grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, which will allow the exhibition to travel to six other cities following its New York debut. Such support is an expression of confidence in the value of AFAM’s mission at a time when folk art is not particularly big on the art establishment’s radar screen. Money, though, always is, as evidenced by a recent New York Times article about the just-opened Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney Museum, which dutifully detailed the whopping expenses associated with buying and presenting that contemporary art-product fabricator’s exercises in bombast.
By contrast, it’s hard to imagine mainstream media outlets whipping themselves into a froth over the quiet, clever accomplishments of generations of often anonymous American artisans. These include ingenious signs, quilts, decorative objects and everyday, useful inventions, like the Indianan Hosea Hayden’s late-19th-century folding chair, or not-so-useful concoctions, like the Italian-American Marino Auriti’s “The Encyclopedic Palace,” a 1950s-era model of a never-erected museum dedicated to humankind’s greatest achievements, from the wheel to satellites.
If the Whitney’s Koons extravaganza is just another monument to hype, by contrast, AFAM’s offerings often convey, among other values and emotions, an abiding sense of hope — about how they can illuminate their users’ understanding of the material world or some spiritual realm, or human beings’ relationships with nature or with each other, or an individual’s or a community’s role in the nurturing of a democratic society.
Stacy C. Hollander, AFAM’s deputy director for curatorial affairs, chief curator and director of exhibitions, conceived the main themes that structure Self-Taught Genius. She co-organized the show in collaboration with Valérie Rousseau, the museum’s curator of art of the self-taught and art brut. “This exhibition shows that the notion of who or what is a ‘self-taught’ artist goes back a long way,” Hollander told me during a recent interview. “This term and this idea did not emerge only recently and primarily as an alternative way of referring to what many call ‘outsider art.’”
Citing another of the exhibition’s main themes, Hollander added, “With this selection of works from the eighteenth century to the present, and representing a wide spectrum of creativity among people who were mostly self-tutored when it came to making art, we’re also exploring the idea of ‘genius’ and where it may be found.”
In her essay in the exhibition’s catalog, Hollander notes that “the concept of ‘self-taught genius’ […] has changed dramatically over time” from the 1700s to today. She notes, “The idea of ‘self-taught’ in America is entrenched in a culture of self-actualization that was fundamental to the revolutionary temperament and critical to the growth and success of a new nation.”
Hollander also points out that Enlightenment-era thinkers in Europe debated whether or not genius was something innate or God-given, a state of being or a psychological phenomenon. Whatever it was or wherever it originated, it became swept up in the heady vapors of Romanticism. Hollander writes that, in “liberating genius from God and classical precedent, [and] by placing it within the life spark of man,” Romantic and Enlightenment ideas “opened [up] the possibility for freedom” of the self and the individual.
In other words, however much certain objects tagged as “folk art” might have been shaped by particular cultures or communities, or however much their forms might perpetuate or emulate certain well-established models (traditional baskets, ceramics, furnishings or painting genres, for instance), often there is a lot of self-expression packed into them, too — and it’s just waiting to be recognized and appreciated.
It’s there, to be sure, in the bold contrast of black background and bright-red cloth in Ammi Phillips’ oil-on-canvas “Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog” (1830-1835), the most emblematic of AFAM’s treasures, whose sitter’s unflinching gaze is as enigmatic as Mona Lisa’s smile. In his time, Phillips (1788-1865), an itinerant New England portraitist, promoted his skill at creating “correct likenesses.” Most artists perform some kind of interpretative function when they depict their subjects, and in Phillips’ “Girl” there is a certain form-teasing audacity as vivid as her dress.
In the Ohio draftsman David Cordier’s “Birth Record for Hana Oberholtzer” (watercolor and ink on paper, 1816), a quote from Psalms and the details of a child’s birth, in hand-lettered Gothic script, fill a heart-shaped form surrounded by heads, flowers and birds in a swirling, decorative frenzy that anticipates psychedelic poster design a century-and-a-half later. In “Laedy Waschington” (watercolor and ink on paper, circa 1780), the so-called Sussel-Washington Artist, who presumably was active in Pennsylvania, depicted the first U.S. president’s ruddy-cheeked wife on horseback in a thickly-lined, simply-colored picture that brings to mind stained glass — and imparts a somewhat regal air. That latter impression might not have been accidental, Hollander suggested, noting that early-American artists used imagery and symbolism to create visual icons that helped give a new country a sense of its emerging, national-cultural identity.
Hollander and Rousseau have divided Self-Taught Genius into seven thematic sections. Referring to the functions, purposes or character of the works and the people who made them, these groupings bear such titles as “Achievers,” “Encoders,” “Messengers” or “Reformers.” Still, that level of curatorial ordering might not really matter in the face of the broad range of exuberantly expressive, often remarkably sophisticated forms of image-making or design problem-solving that is on view. Among them: the San Francisco-based draftsman Achilles G. Rizzoli’s elegant architectural rendering, “Mother Symbolically Represented/The Kathredal” (ink on rag paper, 1936, with its title intentionally misspelled), or John Bunion (J.B.) Murray’s untitled, late-20th-century painting in pen, ink, crayon and watercolor on paper, showing animated daubs of color and a rhythmic, handwriting-like scrawl skipping across the sheet. Murray was an illiterate, black, retired farm worker in Georgia who believed the Holy Spirit moved his hand.
Self-Taught Genius also features “Flag Gate,” another signature piece from AFAM’s collection. A painted-wood gate in the form of the Stars and Stripes, it was crafted by an unknown artisan in upstate New York around 1876 and donated to the museum by the legendary American collector Herbert Waide Hemphill, Jr. (1929-1998). An adventurous collector, curator and author, Hemphill opened new pathways in the appreciation and understanding of American folk art, not only by amassing all kinds of objects more conventionally-minded collectors had long overlooked or ignored — a statue of Groucho Marx with a mandolin; a carved head from a Coney Island ball-toss game; a tree limb painted pink, with polka dots, that resembled an octopus — but also by championing 20th-century makers of the items he favored, which, in effect, demolished the traditionalist dictum that folk art had to date from the pre-industrial past. For many American folk art specialists, there was a time before Hemphill — think de rigueur needlepoint samplers and Chippendale highboys — and a time after Hemphill.
Carol Crown, a professor at the University of Memphis who teaches courses about various aspects of folk art, especially with regard to the American South, acknowledges that the field’s parameters have evolved, especially its understanding of the notion of “self-taught.” In a written interview, Crown observed, “My students, many of whom are majoring in the fine arts, do not understand why fine art and folk art are studied separately. They appreciate the endeavors of both kinds of artists, saying, ‘Art is art!’”
Echoing the AFAM show’s expansive outlook, Crown added that her students readily understand the term “self-taught,” which, she explained, “easily links the art of the past with the art of the present; the work of self-taught artists spans the centuries.” She noted, “Students can also deal with ‘folk art’ (traditional and contemporary) and ‘vernacular art’ but they get terribly confused when other terms are thrown into the conversation, such as ‘outsider’ or ‘primitive’ or ‘visionary’ art. Newcomers to the field want clarity of meaning — black and white — not nuances. After they gain some understanding, they’re more willing to deal with what’s grey.”
John Foster, a St. Louis-based graphic designer and one of the best-known collectors of folk art and outsider art in the U.S. today, told me in an interview that, as he sees it, “self-taught genius comes from a very singular place.” How does it reveal itself? Foster replied, “In an artist’s unique visual language that is so very rare that, when it appears, often it is misunderstood and can remain unrecognized for years. It takes collectors or curators with vision to understand that what they’re seeing represents a new language.” Although certain artists might not have been formally trained, Foster noted, their most memorable creations tend to “push the limits” of the art-making modes they explore. Such are the kinds of works that fill AFAM’s show.
In a recent e-mail exchange, Hollander shared an additional observation. She wrote, “I also think that our discomfort with [the term] ‘folk art’ is based in part on the fact that it was retroactively applied to expressions that already [had] existed. The beauty of ‘self-taught’ is that it emerged as a contemporaneous term loaded with meaning, and its use has persisted unbroken into the present.” As Self-Taught Genius makes clear, for those who know what they like when they see it, it is also a label that often reflects an unabashed feeling of awe.
Self-taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum continues at the American Folk Art Museum (2 Lincoln Square/Columbus Avenue at 66th Street) through August 17.
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