Published: October 8, 2002
By Laura Beach
NEW YORK CITY — The most succinct and visible expression of change in the field of American folk art may be the American Folk Art Museum itself, which opened its small but dazzling new headquarters last December. Not a scrap of gingham is to be found in this sleek boutique of an art palace; no lingering trace of the “country-style” movement that three decades ago launched a craze for quilts and baskets, weathervanes and whirligigs. The new American Folk Art Museum prizes geometry, revels in texture and the innovative use of materials, and is impeccably well-versed in the ways of the academy. It is “insider” architecture at its best.
Visitors occasionally assume that the American Folk Art Museum is an extension of its next-door neighbor, the Museum of Modern Art. The impression is not correct, but not entirely far-fetched, either. In 1932, Holger Cahill, MoMA’s acting director, organized “American Folk Art: Art of the Common Man, 1750-1900.” MoMA has been questioning the meaning of “high” versus “low,” elite versus popular, progressive versus traditional ever since.
Neither the proximity of the two museums, nor the decades-old dialectic between their contents, satisfies Frank Maresca and Roger Ricco, whose new book, : New Discoveries in Folk, Self-Taught, and Outsider Sculpture, gages change in the folk art field over the past two decades. Insisting on equal opportunity for nonacademic art, the authors write, “It has been comfortable for dealers, critics and collectors to champion this work under constricting labels, almost solely according to concepts of primitivism and authenticity. They set up a simple — and, we believe, spurious — opposition between vernacular and mainstream art.”
For most of their careers as dealers, Frank Maresca and Roger Ricco have played the taut, uneasy line between the vernacular and the mainstream. It is a balance they negotiate daily at the Ricco/Maresca Gallery, which occupies the entire third floor of a nondescript former warehouse on West 20th Street in Chelsea, the new center of the contemporary art world. A commercial zone cluttered with the dreary remnants of taxi garages and a dingy view of the West Side Highway, it is not a block the uninitiated would venture down with much enthusiasm, but looks are deceiving. The building, No. 529, has 23 tenants, most of them art galleries, some with big names like Feigen and ACA. There is a suitable rawness about the Ricco/Maresca Gallery, which uses poured concrete, exposed beams and gray industrial carpeting to set off boldly lettered trade signs, powerful carvings and vivid African American quilts of purely abstract design.
Experts have debated the definition of folk art for decades. After the publication of Roger Cardinal’s book Outsider Art in 1972, the discussion became even more complex. Today, folk, self-taught and outsider art are generally understood to represent points along a continuum of work created without the benefit of academic training. Twenty years ago, notes Lyle Rexer, who wrote the brief but thoughtful chapter introductions for , “self-taught was everything untutored, and outsider was the eccentric, alienated fringe.” The situation is considerably more complex today, Rexer observes: “From Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring to Susan Rothenberg and Jim Nutt — not to mention the host of German artists who sought to resurrect expressionism — [artists] deliberately adopted imagery and methods that recast the idea of ‘outsider’ and ‘primitive.'”
As imprecise as the definitions are, the market has a way of creating its own categories, pragmatically based on price and audience. Anonymous, Nineteenth Century figures of animals, decoys, canes, carnival and circus figures, weathervanes and whirligigs — all chapters in American Vernacular — are typically treated as folk art. Twentieth Century self-taught and outsider art, often signed or attributed, are regarded as something else.
Sometimes objects slip the confines of their labels. “Crossover,” the phenomenon of folk, self-taught and outsider art achieving recognition in the fine arts mainstream, “is the most exciting development in our field in years,” says Maresca. When crossover occurs, it is often reflected in the market. In 1999, Christie’s put up for sale Morris Hirschfield’s “Girl With Her Dog,” a self-taught painting of 1943 that had been illustrated in Hemphill and Weissman’s pioneering volume, Twentieth Century American Folk Art and Artists. Estimated at $10/15,000, the canvas sold for an astounding $563,500, almost certainly not to a collector of quilts and baskets.
At Ricco/Maresca Gallery, the distinctions between fine and folk art have ceased to have much meaning. “Gaggles, Flocks and Covies: Further Exhalations and Murders,” Ricco/Maresca’s summer show, was a democratic assemblage of painting, sculpture, photography and mixed-media pieces chosen by members of the gallery’s 11-person staff. Included were works by Joel Peter Witkin, who, having been recently honored by the Guggenheim Museum with a retrospective, is very much an insider. The well-known photographer and mixed-media artist, who admires visionary art and sometimes incorporates elements of it in his own work, left the powerhouse Pace Gallery, where he had been for 19 years, to come to Ricco/Maresca Gallery because he admires the dealers’ sensibilities.
Frank Maresca was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1948. Robert Bernet, the high school teacher to whom is dedicated, introduced him to photography, which Maresca says he was “good at, maybe partly out of fear that I wasn’t good at anything else.” Bernet, who died a few years later, encouraged Maresca to see the world around him in a new way. He also reassured the budding artist’s alarmed parents, “who didn’t get it at all.”
Bernet took Maresca to his first jazz club. “I was 17, couldn’t drink, and there I was, sitting with my high school teacher, listening to Mabel Mercer.” Profoundly affected by the experience, Maresca considers it his first introduction to “the world of self-taught, to African American tradition.”
Maresca went on to study at the Fashion Institute of Technology and Pratt Institute. He taught photography at New York’s School of Visual Arts and became a successful fashion photographer before eventually discovering American primitive art. His business partner, Roger Ricco, followed a similar path, studying painting at the University of Wisconsin before winning the prestigious Prix de Rome. Ricco was living in New York, supplementing his earnings as an artist by working as a restorer, when Bert Hemphill ambled into his studio one day.
Many consider Hemphill, a founder of the American Folk Art Museum whose collection went to the Smithsonian before his death, as the father of Twentieth Century American folk art. Ricco and Maresca’s pantheon of greats also includes Adele Earnest, Gerald Kornblau, Ed Fuller and James Kronen, all dealers who saw rare beauty in the humble artifacts of everyday life. “Sidney Janis is one of my all-time heroes. I’ve tried to model myself after him,” adds Maresca, with a nod to the New York fine arts dealer who championed Morris Hirschfield and Patrick Sullivan, among others.
Ricco and Maresca became dealers in 1979. Since then, through books and exhibitions, they have promoted a broad range of visionary artists, from Thornton Dial and William Hawkins to Bill Traylor, Henry Darger and Judith Scott. Upcoming books include Chance, a visual essay on found objects that is intended to be an inspirational guide for artists and designers. “There is so much about the concept of chance and surface that relates, in particular, to folk art,” says Maresca.
Maresca’s collection of vernacular photography, which he donated to the Newark Museum, is to be the subject of a traveling exhibition and catalog at the New Jersey institution. The dealer is also interested in producing a definitive book on African American art. He considers Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980, published by the Corcoran Gallery in 1982, one of the most influential volumes in the folk art literature. “It was softcover and black and white, but it very much changed things for me,” says the dealer, who envisions an expanded sequel to the classic.
Roger Ricco and Frank Maresca have not changed much in two decades, not in their appearance, demeanor or in their contagious enthusiasm for self-taught art. At lunch recently at a refurbished parking garage on 10th Avenue at 17th Street, Ricco picks up a pen and begins doodling on the paper tablecloth. Maresca, peering through round, black spectacles that would be at home on the nose of architect Philip Johnson, fixes his gaze and begins to speak.
” is about loving something and wanting to communicate it to others,” he says. “It is not meant to be an academic survey. It’s our own take. Virtually all the material in it is previously unpublished. We’ve tried to push forward into the modern and contemporary arena.”
Anyone who knows Ricco and Maresca know their taste for objects that are overtly sculptural and covertly psychological, often disturbing in some subtle way. Dismissing the idea that they are old-style connoisseurs of formal virtuosity, Maresca explains, “We look for magic, mystery and design. An Alessi teapot by Michael Graves stands on its own but it is not art. Art has to take you to another place.”
“Our interest has much more to do with an artist’s impulse,” adds Ricco, who continues to sketch as he speaks. “We don’t care about factory weathervanes. We do care that someone took the time to make something that he considered beautiful, something glorious and tangible, something with a little ego even.”
Maresca and Ricco bring a decidedly artistic sensibility to the presentation of folk art, both in their gallery and in their books. Recognizing that context — from the way pieces are labeled to how and where they are shown — has everything to do with how art is perceived, they have envisioned as a kind of fine arts gallery within a dust jacket. There are minimalist overtones in the black cover and smooth, oversized white pages that are as stark as sheets. It is crossover on the printed page.
is collage art along the lines of Joseph Cornell; a fascinating, highly telling composition created by the juxtaposition of curiously compelling objects. On the title pages, for instance, a folk carving of a horse, its saddle cheerfully decorated with a heart, faces an outsider doll by Judith Scott, a mentally disabled artist with the intensity of Anselm Kiefer. The comparison is an itinerary for the next 300 pages. An optician’s trade sign faces the first page of text. The sign is a non-verbal invitation to consider what follows with an open eye; it may even be a rebus for Maresca himself, the seer who leads others. On the book’s back cover is an American flag trade sign, made incandescent by dozens of light bulbs. Folk art fits happily into the American myth, we discover. As Rexer explains, “American eccentricity, withdrawal from community and extreme individualism segue naturally into outsiderness, especially when physical isolation give them a push.”
Companion essays, nicely symmetrical in their content, by Margit Rowell and Joseph Jacobs preface what is otherwise a well-designed picture book. Rowell’s high-art credentials are impeccable. An independent curator living in New York and Paris, she worked at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and as chief curator of prints and drawings at the Museum of Modern Art. She was unfamiliar with American self-taught and outsider art until she accepted an invitation to visit the gallery from Maresca, who promptly converted her.
Rowell’s essay, “Familiar, Yet Somehow Unfamiliar…,” tackles the theoretical assumptions that have kept folk art out of the fine arts museum, noting that the works themselves “resist most organized attempts to contextualize them” and present “serious obstacles to scientific study, conservation and connoisseurship.”
In his well-written essay, “Folk Art and the Fine Art Museum,” Newark Museum Curator Joseph Jacobs provides a useful historical overview, beginning with the Ogunquit art colony’s discovery of American folk art and concluding with the recent collecting activities of institutions like the High Museum of Art and the Milwaukee Art Museum. Jacobs offers some interesting details. He speculates, for instance, that MoMA’s preoccupation with Surrealism accounted for its mounting a solo show of the Nashville self-taught sculptor William Edmondson in 1937. He adds, “Dorothy Miller, the show’s curator, was likely attracted to Edmondson’s sculpture because formalistically it was a tour de force. But it is hard to believe that the museum staff, following the racial stereotyping of the time, was not equally drawn to the work because it had been made by a self-taught artist who was also a little-educated African American.” For those who are especially interested in the conjunction of folk art and Modernism, “Drawing on America’s Past: Folk Art and the Index of American Design,” opening December 1 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, will expound on the theme.
To the dealers’ credit, includes objects from nearly 90 public and private collections (more than 750 pieces were photographed over four years.) About 25 percent of the objects illustrated passed through Ricco/Maresca Gallery; only one, a John Scholl snowflake, is currently for sale. The dealers have pointedly included competitors’ material. While the list of contributors makes fascinating reading (everyone from Robert and Katherine Booth to Susan and Jerry Lauren and Julia Louis-Dreyfus is named) it is disappointing that only with great effort can a reader determine who owns what. The streamlined photo captions no doubt flatter the page, but they disregard the importance of provenance in an emerging category of collecting.
laments that folk, self-taught and outsider art are too often excluded from serious consideration by the fine arts community, which treats untutored work as fine art’s illiterate relation. One could just as easily argue that parity has already been achieved; that fine and folk art are two halves of the compelling whole that broadly constitutes American art. After all, without outsiders there could be no insiders.
: New Discoveries in Folk, Self-Taught, and Outsider Sculpture by Frank Maresca and Roger Ricco. Introduction by Margit Rowell. Bulfinch Press, 2002, 304 pages, 450 color illustrations, $75 hardcover.
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