Published: January 10, 2012
When folk art dealer Mary Allis died in 1987, her clients Alvan and Claude Bisnoff took out an advertisement in this publication. “She made beautiful rooms,” it read.
Allis, who enlivened rustic, cozy interiors with bold silhouettes and colorfully painted furniture, came toward the end of the great trajectory of taste described by Elizabeth Stillinger in her new book, A Kind of Archeology: Collecting American Folk Art, 1876‱976.
What is surprising is that this taste was already largely coded by the time the scholar Holger Cahill (1887‱960) opened his traveling exhibition “American Folk Art: The Art of the Common Man, 1750‱900” at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1932. Cahill’s display †which included a “Peaceable Kingdom” by Edward Hicks, a magnificent cigar store figure and shapely Windsor chairs †could double as the booth of a high-profile folk art dealer, circa 2012.
A past editor of The Magazine Antiques and the author of five books, Stillinger is best known for her 1980 work The Antiquers, the essential reference on the pioneering collectors of American decorative arts, 1850 to 1930. In 2003, she collaborated on the National Gallery of Art catalog, Drawing on America’s Past: Folk Art, Modernism and the Index of American Design. Together, these two volumes foreshadow A Kind of Archeology, Stillinger’s most exhaustive effort yet. Heavily illustrated and just shy of 450 pages, the book is a sweeping, De Mille-style epic populated by dozens of dealers, collectors, curators and museum directors, many of them remembered for their strident disdain for convention.
In her always lucid prose, Stillinger identifies the players and their key contributions to the field’s evolution. Her intent, as she says in her preface, is to “provide some insight into how our ideas about ourselves as a people and a nation have evolved over the generations.” The title of her book is drawn from Cahill himself, who argued that, where the often anonymous craftsman was concerned, digging was required to recover the past.
The term “folk art” has been heatedly debated almost since the time that it was coined, probably by the German critic Alois Riegl in 1894. It may have been the prescient collector of Modern art Albert Barnes (1872‱951) who first distinguished between “primitive” and “folk” art, a distinction promoted by the pioneering dealer Edith Halpert (1900‱970) and Cahill. Between 1930 and 1932, Cahill brought folk art to a broader public with three pivotal displays: “American Primitives” and “American Folk Sculpture,” both at the Newark Museum, and his 1932 show at MoMA.
One of the book’s many gems is a story told by Tom Armstrong, the late director of the Whitney Museum of American Art and a past curator of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center at Colonial Williamsburg. Visiting the Massachusetts home of Nina and Bert Little, perhaps the greatest folk art collectors of all time, Armstrong rhapsodized over the “formal artistic qualities” of the work. The Littles were silent. When they did speak, it was not of aesthetics, but of history and of the way that objects spoke for the people who made and used them.
Armstrong’s story illuminates a key difference between folk art and antiques. Whereas the impulse to collect antiques is essentially conservative, traditionalists and nontraditionalists alike have been drawn to folk art. Even today the folk art collecting world divides into two camps, writes Stillinger, with admirers of Outsider art favoring personal narrative over shared, communal values. She argues that Massachusetts dealer Isabel Carleton Wilde (1877‱951) was the only New Englander to have forged a connection with the early Modernists, “undoubtedly because of her participation in avant-garde intellectual, rather than conservative old-line, circles in Cambridge and New York.” Occasionally the movements merged, as in the summer of 1920, when haute Modernists Elie and Viola Nadelman (1882‱946 and 1878‱962) rented Beauport, the house of antiquarian Henry Davis Sleeper (1878‱934).
Over time, a third path †one exemplified by Alexander Girard (1907‱995) and Charles and Rae Eames (1916‱988 and 1907‱978) †developed. Stillinger regards these designers as the precursors of “a new category popularly called ‘country,'” which introduced color, pattern and handicraft into essentially modern, often white-walled interiors.
A Kind of Archeology splits folk art enthusiasts into four camps: ethnologists and antiquarians, Modernists, decorators and designers, and patriots and nationalists. The story begins in England, where Horace Walpole (1717‱797) created the richly romantic Strawberry Hill, and moves quickly to Pennsylvania, home to some of America’s earliest collectors and dealers, among them Henry Chapman Mercer, the Landis brothers, Edwin AtLee Barber, Sarah Sagehorn Frishmuth, J. Stogdell Stokes, Titus Geesey, George Horace Lorimer, May Bourne Strassburger, Arthur Sussel and Hattie Brunner. Turning her eye to New England, Stillinger profiles Clara Endicott Sears, Edward D. and Faith Andrews, Charles C. Adams, John S. Williams, Edna Greenwood and Nina Little.
“Improbable as it may seem, folk art emerged as a recognized category of American art because of the artistic revolution in France in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries,” writes the author, who discusses Wilde, Hamilton Easter Field and his Ogunquit Colony, Marguerite and William Zorach, Juliana Force, the Nadelmans, Charles Sheeler, Barnes, Jean Lipman, Cahill, Halpert and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller.
Henry Francis du Pont, Electra Havemeyer Webb and Sleeper were gifted originals who used folk art to create compelling interiors. Patriotic impulses motivated the Van Alstyne sisters, Maxim Karolik, and Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch. Stillinger writes at length about the organizers of the Index of American Design and the founders and promoters of the New York State Historical Association at Cooperstown (Stephen Clark and Louis C. Jones) and the Museum of American Folk Art (Burt Martinson, Adele Earnest, Herbert Hemphill and Robert Bishop).
In her view, the contemporary era began when book dealer Harry Stone opened his Primitives Gallery on Madison Avenue in 1942. “Primitives were destined to become the next great Americana collecting vogue,” Stone had perceptively noted a few years before.
The individual who may have done the most to get out the message was the editor, author and collector Jean Lipman (1909‱998). “Jean Lipman is the reason a lot of us are in the field. Through her books and other writings she is responsible for forming the public awareness,” Nancy Druckman, head of Sotheby’s American folk art department for nearly 40 years, said in 1981.
Many view “The Flowering of American Folk Art” as the beginning of an extraordinarily fertile period. Stillinger instead sees the landmark exhibition and catalog †organized by Lipman and Alice Winchester, editor of The Magazine Antiques, at the Whitney Museum in 1974 †as the end of an era. “It summed up the taste and opinions Lipman had developed over 35 years,” writes the author, noting that the show, which set a new record for attendance, was the most comprehensive display on the subject since Cahill’s “The Art of the Common Man” 42 years earlier. Writing in The New York Times , art critic Hilton Kramer argued that Modernist designer Marcel Breuer’s presentation forced viewers to regard individual pieces as art, not relics.
Stillinger associates the beginning of the bull market, and the point at which folk art collecting crossed over into the mainstream, with the sale of the Garbisch collection, conducted by Sotheby’s between 1974 and 1980. The last session was conducted at Pokety, the Garbisches country house on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Even furniture authority Harold Sack got into the action, buying a carved and painted Bellamy eagle plaque for an unprecedented $39,000.
A Kind of Archeology rarely strays from New England and the Mid-Atlantic states. Stillinger drops a few tantalizing hints about the collecting climate elsewhere in the country, parallels that deserve further exploration. “The South is just as full of folk art as the North,” wrote Cahill, who spent 18 months in the 1930s scouring Dixie on behalf of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. Santa Fe, N.M., and other select spots in the Southwest were strongly influenced by localized versions of the Arts and Crafts Movement and the Colonial Revival. Edwin AtLee Barber’s love of Pennsylvania redware grew out of his early study of Pueblo pottery. Another Pennsylvania collector, George Horace Lorimer, collected Navajo and Hopi blankets.
Some readers will be disappointed that Stillinger, who prefers writing about the past, refrains from discussing the present generation of dealers and collectors, many of whom came of age with the “Flowering of American Folk Art” or shortly after. But inexplicit as she is about today’s market-makers, she has identified with precision the sources of their received wisdom. It is hard to conceive of a more thoughtful or thorough guide, or one more infused with affection for the field.
In conjunction with the 58th Winter Antiques Show, Stillinger will sign books and speak on Friday, January 20, at 4 pm, at the Tiffany Room of the Park Avenue Armory in New York City. Her talk is titled “From Down East to the Downtown Gallery: Some Early Collectors and Dealers in American Folk Art.”
A Kind of Archeology: Collecting American Folk Art, 1876‱976 is available for $65 from University of Massachusetts Press. For information, 800-537-5487 or www.umass.edu/umpress .
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