Published: August 22, 2000
Cyril I. Nelson’s Gifts to the MAFA
NEW YORK CITY – One of the most important supporters of the Museum of American Folk Art, Cyril Irwin Nelson, has been actively engaged in folk art as a collector, a book editor and a museum trustee. Over the past 20 years, he has contributed frequently and generously to the permanent collection and most recently, in anticipation of the museum’s new building on 53rd Street, he has promised many additional works.
The exhibition “: Cyril I. Nelson’s Gifts to the Museum of American Folk Art,” on view September 2 through January 7, 2001, highlights approximately 60 examples, half of which are quilts and textiles, and honors the donor.
Consulting curator Elizabeth Warren’s selection includes many of the traditional forms of folk art – portraits and landscape paintings, sculpture, painted and decorated furniture, schoolgirl art, quilts, coverlets and blankets dating from the early Nineteenth to the mid-Twentieth Century – that reflect Nelson’s discerning eye and his deep knowledge and appreciation of the field.
While varying in form, all the objects in the exhibition represent the refined taste of a collector. Almost all come from the northeastern United States, particularly New England, where Nelson had family ties. Many of the works have been donated to the museum in memory of family and friends or in honor of colleagues and fellow folk art collectors and scholars who have shared Nelson’s love of Americana. In this way, each artwork not only represents a gift to this institution, but also pays homage to friends and family past and present.
Nelson’s affection for art and antiques can be traced to his childhood, but his scholarly interest was sparked by a painting, a family legacy, that came from his grandmother’s birthplace in Deerfield, N.H. In the mid-1960s, in an effort to discover who the artist might be, he brought the watercolor to Mary Black, then director of the Museum of American Folk Art, who attributed the portrait to J. Evans, also of Deerfield. The painting descended in Nelson’s family through his grandmother Elinor Irwin (Chase) Holden.
In 1998, Nelson promised this exquisite likeness of a mother and daughter of the Chase Family, circa 1831, to the museum and it is included in the exhibition. The first work by the artist J. Evans to enter the collection, the delicate watercolor features a decorative flowered floor covering that echoes the stenciled elements of the original frame.
As an editor for almost 50 years at E.P. Dutton Publishers (now Penguin Books USA) – and as the originator and compiler each year of the popular Quilt Engagement Calendar – Nelson has been in a position to see, and often publish, many of the most important examples of American folk art. His fascination with quilts and coverlets began with the 1971 exhibition “Abstract Design in American Quilts” at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Shortly after, he published America’s Quilts and Coverlets by Carleton Safford and Robert Bishop, still considered a seminal book in the field.
Among the more than 110 works of art Nelson has donated to the museum, the outstanding group of textiles is notable. “I’m attracted by color and design,” he commented to Warren. “I’m also attracted to fine needlework.” Included in the exhibition are a richly colored and glazed Harlequin Medallion calimanco quilt from 1800-1820, a stunning turn-of-the-century Log Cabin quilt made by a tailor, a pot of flowers rug, and several woven and embroidered blankets and handwoven coverlets.
In 1972, Nelson published American Painted Furniture 1660-1880, by Dean A. Fales, Jr. and Robert Bishop, illuminating another abiding interest. The exuberant blanket chest-on-chest from Maine with its extraordinary paint surface of wood patterns in black on red, is illustrated in this authoritative book and on view in the exhibition.
Thursday evening programs at 6 pm arranged by the education department include a curatorial tour by Elizabeth Warren on September 21, a lecture by senior curator Stacy Hollander on October 12, and a collectors and collecting symposium on November 9
A quilt day on Saturday, October 21, begins with an 11 am exhibition tour with Lee Kogan, director of the Folk Art Institute, and afternoon quilt demonstrations by five metropolitan area quilt guilds.
The museum is at Two Lincoln Square, Columbus Avenue between 65 and 66 Streets. Admission is free. For information, 212/595-9533.
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