NEW YORK CITY – As , the exhibition “American Anthem Part II: Masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum” showcases a significant selection of highlights from the museum’s renowned holdings. On view through January 5, the exhibition takes a fresh look at aspects of this country’s cultural heritage through the museum’s permanent collection and includes major new acquisitions donated in honor of the opening of the new building.
Organized in loosely chronological, contextual settings, the innovative installation explores the aesthetics of American folk art. By grouping together works that demonstrate commonly held ideas or influences of a particular period as interpreted across different media — including paintings, watercolors, furniture, quilts, sculpture and pottery — the exhibition views American culture from the colonial period through the present day. About one third of more than 225 objects in the exhibition are devoted to Twentieth Century self-taught artists, placing their work in a historical continuum with traditional folk art from the permanent collection. The exhibition also reflects the expanded collecting interests of the museum. By introducing examples of Twentieth Century European art brut, visitors can draw visual connections between American artists and their European counterparts to come to a deeper understanding of the specific identity of American folk art.
“For the first time in the 40-year history of the museum, we are able to present to the public a cross-section of three centuries of American folk art from our greatly enhanced permanent collection,” says Gerard C. Wertkin, director of the American Folk Art Museum. “This exhibition not only celebrates the dedication and vision of a long line of passionate collectors who helped the museum become what it is today, but offers a unique opportunity to locate ourselves as people deeply rooted in American culture.”
“Folk art almost invariably holds cultural clues, but these often become elusive when the artworks are removed from the context of their creation,” states Stacy C. Hollander, senior curator of the American Folk Art Museum. “This exhibition takes a new approach to the permanent collection, one that illustrates folk art’s significance as a major American art tradition but also reconnects the material with its own history and its role as a carrier of our cultural inheritance.”
“This is the first time that the museum is presenting masterpieces from the collection by Twentieth Century self-taught artists alongside folk art from earlier centuries in a continuous timeline,” adds Brooke Davis Anderson, co-curator of the exhibition and director and curator of the museum’s Contemporary Center. “This installation traces the evolution of artistic exploration by self-taught artists. It demonstrates how Twentieth Century folk art found precedence in earlier techniques or media, but also how means of expression changed over time, along with the ideas or beliefs they interpret.”
“American Anthem II: Masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum” provides an unconventional framework for the objects on view, showing works not by medium or theme, but by placing together materials that draw upon the same references. Historical and visual relationships between disparate object become apparent, offering insight into patriotic values, religious beliefs, or community concerns as well as aesthetic ideas commonly held in a particular period and the myriad interpretations they received across different media. In the colonial period in New England, for example, a strong English influence was obvious both in construction techniques and visual vocabulary, such as Mannerist conceptions, that had migrated to the colonies with English craftsmen and were reinterpreted and adapted. Symmetrical displays of rosettes, palmettes, scrolling vines, pinwheels and tree of life designs became characteristic elements of colonial New England visual culture, from printed broadsides, to women’s needlework and bedcovers, to paint-decorated utilitarian forms such as furniture and boxes.
At the turn of the Nineteenth Century, a new classical iconography infused the decorative arts, suggesting associations between the ancient Greek republic and a newly established, independent American nation founded on democratic ideals. Needlework was embellished with classical female figures, which also proliferated on furniture, ceramics and textiles, as did motifs or urns, paterae, musical trophies and other images recalling ancient times and ideals.
Folk art often documents an individual’s response to critical moments in America’s history, such as war or a time of national celebration. Symbols of liberty, for example, became part of the common language as soon as the nation had declared its independence. Liberty figures, American flags and the Great Seal were among the images adapted in forms such as weathervanes, textiles, and schoolgirl and decorative arts.
The roughly chronological organization of the exhibition demonstrates how American folk art adapted to and reflected the challenges of each age. By the middle of the Nineteenth Century, for instance, industrialization and changing patterns of immigration constituted powerful new influences. Handmade utilitarian forms were replaced by mechanical processes and artists and craftsmen were forced to adapt to shifts in demands and trends. As a response to changing technologies and contemporary events, folk art increasingly became a vehicle for singular, individualistic expressions. The exhibition concludes with works by contemporary self-taught artists that speak to changing times and concerns.
Highlights include icons such as the Flag Gate (circa 1876), the museum’s first accession, which evokes the patriotic spirit at the time of the nation’s centennial and remains one of the most celebrated works in the permanent collection. Among the major new acquisitions presented for the first time is the Reiter family album quilt, a pristine and vibrant historic textile made by a mother and daughter who were Eastern European Jewish immigrants. The graphic quilt blocks document the loss of two family members.
A serene portrait by the renowned Connecticut artist John Brewster painted during the era; a “Dave” jug, a significant piece of pottery (1853) by the slave potter Dave Drake; and an intricate scrimshaw birdcage exemplify the range of Nineteenth Century folk art objects.
Self-taught artists who worked between the years 1890 and 1940 include painters Horace Pippin, Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses, Charles A. A. Delschau and sculptor Clark Coe. “Outpost Raid: Champagne Sector,” 1931, a recent gift and the first Pippin to enter the collection, is a dramatic war narrative by this important African American painter. During the first half of the Twentieth Century, a number of artists were involved in exploring a new individualistic aesthetic, most often expressed in painting and sculpture. Among these are the Brooklyn, N.Y., artists Morris Hirshfield with his masterpiece “The Artist and His Model” (1945) portraying his fantasy of painting a nude model, as well as an animated architectural drawing and a classic dog image painted on cardboard by Bill Traylor, an evocative “Death Cart” by George T. Lopez and an “Expulsion” scene in wood by the Kentucky sculptor Edgar Tolson.
The second half of the Twentieth Century features works by visionary and isolate artists such as Henry Darger, Eugene Von Bruenchenheim and James Castle. Von Bruenchenheim’s “Portrait of Marie in Sweater and Pearls” (circa 1940s) is a hand-tinted, adoring photograph of his wife. He also explored a variety of media such as chicken bones, ceramics and paintings, all dedicated to his beloved.
The 1990s looks at the work of artists such as Lonnie Holley and Georgia Blizzard, whose ceramic “Mourning Urn” (1998) is one of the most recent objects in the museum’s collection. The exhibition closes with a section devoted to the new global direction of the museum with works by artists such as Adolf Wölfi whose “Holy St Adolf Tower” (1919), a decorative pencil and color-pencil drawing that the Swiss artist made in exchange for pencils, paper and tobacco, and Indian artist Nek Chand and his tinted concrete figurative sculpture.
The exhibition is accompanied by a 432-page catalog, American Anthem: Masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum by Stacy C. Hollander, Brooke Davis Anderson and Gerard C. Wertkin. Published in association with Harry N. Abrams, Inc, the catalog features 576 illustrations, including 293 in full color, of treasures from the museum’s permanent collection, ranging from American folk art from the colonial days through the present. Together with its two companion volumes, American Radiance: The Ralph Esmerian Gift to the American Folk Art Museum and Darger: The Henry Darger Collection at the American Folk Art Museum, the book documents the inaugural series of exhibitions in the museum’s new building at 45 West 53rd Street. The publication includes a foreword by Wertkin, essays by Hollander and Anderson, and discussions of each individual work presented in the exhibition by the authors as well as Lee Kogan, director of the Folk Art Institute; and Elizabeth V. Warren, the museum’s consulting curator.
Founded in 1961, the American Folk Art Museum is a leading cultural institution dedicated to the collection, exhibition, preservation and study of traditional and contemporary folk art from the United States and abroad. Over the years, the museum has played a pivotal role in broadening the definition of folk art to embrace the culturally and artistically diverse work of Twentieth Century self-taught artists. With the opening of the museum’s new building, the institution fulfilled its long-term goal of establishing a permanent home for the study and appreciation of folk art — from traditional folk art of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries to the work of contemporary self-taught artist from the United States and abroad. Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects’ first major public project in New York City, the new building quadruples the museum’s exhibition space, enhances education and programming facilities, and expands public amenities and services. The new facility allows the museum to display a substantial number of artworks from its permanent collection of 4,000 objects, and is home to the museum’s Contemporary Center.
The museum continues to mount exhibitions at its Eva and Morris Feld Gallery at Lincoln Square. On view through January 5 is “Jacob Kass: Saws.”
The American folk art museum, 45 West 53 Street, is open Tuesday to Sunday, 10 am to 6 pm; Fridays until 8 pm. Admission is $9; students and seniors $5. Admission is free on Fridays between 6 and 8 pm. For information, visit www.folkartmuseum.org or call 212-265-1040.