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Smithsonian American Art Museum Acquires Nearly 100 Works by Self-Taught Artists

The Margaret Z. Robson Collection is the institution’s largest acquisition of its kind in two decades.

James Castle, "Untitled" (nd), found paper, color of unknown origin, and soot (courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Margaret Z. Robson Collection, Gift of John E. and Douglas O. Robson)
James Castle, “Untitled” (nd), found paper, color of unknown origin, and soot (courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Margaret Z. Robson Collection, Gift of John E. and Douglas O. Robson)

This week the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) announced its largest acquisition of work by self-taught artists in 20 years. The Margaret Z. Robson Collection comprises 93 works by major figures like James Castle, Judith ScottThornton Dial Sr., and Bill Traylor, as well as 11 artists previously unrepresented in the SAAM collections. The museum has concentrated on folk and self-taught art since 1970, far ahead of many institutions, beginning with James Hampton’s grand “Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly,” constructed over the course of 14 years from foil and discarded lightbulbs.

William Edmondson, “Untitled (Bird Bath with Figures)” (c. 1932–40), carved limestone (courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Margaret Z. Robson Collection, Gift of John E. and Douglas O. Robson)

The Robson Collection includes paintings, drawings, sculptures, and mixed-media works by 48 artists. The objects range from William Edmondson’s 1930s carved limestone bird bath to a stack of 1,265 railroad spikes painted by Albert “Kid” Mertz, once part of an elaborate built environment.

Robson “selected these works from many places and over many years, much of it in an era when collectors and preservationists were the only ones ensuring this work didn’t end up in the scrap heap,” Leslie Umberger, SAAM’s curator of folk and self-taught art, told Hyperallergic. “Museums, for the most part, were slow to the table, so it is hard to overestimate the value of a carefully gathered group of artworks such as this one.”

Gifted by Margaret’s son Douglas O. Robson following her death in 2014, the collection follows other significant additions to SAAM’s holdings of work by self-taught artists. A group of Bill Traylor’s silhouettes of his sharecropper life was acquired earlier this year, ahead of a planned 2018 retrospective. A 2013 acquisition of 54 soot and spit drawings by James Castle later supported a traveling exhibition, and another that same year featured the hand-drawn albums of a fictional soul singer named Mingering Mike from the 1960s and ’70s.

Bill Traylor, “Untitled (Seated Woman)” (c. 1939–42), pencil and opaque watercolor on paperboard (courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Margaret Z. Robson Collection, Gift of John E. and Douglas O. Robson)

Visitors to SAAM can already view several suspended assemblages by “Healing Machine” builder Emery Blagdon from the Robson Collection. Other works from the acquisition will go on display in 2017, with the five Traylor paintings included in his 2018 retrospective. SAAM also noted that an exhibition concentrating on the Robson Collection is being planned for some time in the future, and that the new trove will allow for increased rotation in the museum’s permanent collection galleries.

“Today this kind of art is more important than ever,” Umberger stated. “It reveals a multifaceted and complex America in which there is no single narrative or historical truth, and it reveals a manifestly human spirit for reshaping a challenging world into one that is beautiful and meaningful.”

Ulysses Davis, “Untitled” (1942), painted and carved wood (courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Margaret Z. Robson Collection, Gift of John E. and Douglas O. Robson)
Sister Gertrude Morgan, “Fan” (c. 1970), paint and ink on card (courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Margaret Z. Robson Collection, Gift of John E. and Douglas O. Robson)
Leroy Person, “Untitled” (c. 1975), polychrome carved wood and metal (courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Margaret Z. Robson Collection, Gift of John E. and Douglas O. Robson)
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