Published: February 11, 2003
Folk Art, Modernism and ‘The Index of American Design’
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Index of American Design helped hundreds of artists through the Great Depression and produced a pictorial survey of Americana that may never be surpassed. The National Gallery of Art is currently celebrating the 60th anniversary of its 1943 acquisition of the Index with the exhibition, “: Folk Art, Modernism and the Index of American Design.” On view in the West Building through March 2, the exhibition includes 80 of the finest watercolor renderings of American folk, popular and decorative art in the Index, along with a selection of nearly 40 of the original objects they represent — reunited for the first time since the 1930s. The objects range from quilts, weathervanes and hand carved toys to carousel animals, tavern signs and cigar-store figures.
“The Index renderings document our common cultural identity and have an uncanny power to make us see the all-too-familiar articles of ordinary life with unaccustomed clarity,” said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art. “This is the first major exhibition on the Index since 1984 and the first to be accompanied by a comprehensive, scholarly exhibition catalog. We are indebted to the Henry Luce Foundation for providing the generous support that allowed us to realize this exhibition and its catalog.”
“The original idea for the Index of American Design was formulated by two women,” states Virginia Tuttle in her essay, “Picturing a ‘Useable Past,'” Ruth Reeves and Romana Javitz. Reeves, an innovative textile designer, member of the American Union of Decorative Artists and Craftsmen and socialite in the New York art circles, teamed up with Javitz, who controlled the New York Public Library’s Picture Collection and was frustrated with the poorly represented American materials in the files.
“In spring 1935 the inauguration of the Federal Art Project was a prime topic of conversation among the New York art circles,” writes Tuttle, ” and in 1935 Javitz wrote a formal proposal describing the Index project.” Reeves brought the plan to Frances Pollack, head of educational programs for New York’s Temporary Emergency Relief Fund and a “limited version of what would become a national Index of American Design thus began in October 1935 under Pollack’s direction as a local New York City project.”
A vast pictorial archive of American folk, popular and decorative art from the time of European settlement to around 1900, the Index was subsequently produced by a government-supported, New Deal art project between 1935 and 1942. The more than 18,000 watercolor renderings in the Index portray such archetypal Americana as weathervanes, quilts, figureheads, toys and cigar-store Indians — the humble arts and crafts of Americans’ ancestral “common man.”
Although the Index of American Design documents the nation’s material past, it was not intended to be an antiquarian project. Its creators were dedicated modernists who found evidence of an American cultural identity in the simple, abstract design of Index artifacts. During the Great Depression, the project offered employment to impoverished artists who recorded images of fragile works in imminent danger of loss. Moreover, it was the goal of the Index founders to familiarize Americans with what was then a little-known part of their cultural heritage. They believed that widespread recognition of a national style of design in these objects would lead to the development of a distinctly American modernism. The new art they aspired to promote would be highly democratic, breaking down the barriers between the fine and the industrial arts to create inexpensive, manufactured rdf_Descriptions serving as modern art for the everyday life of all Americans.
The Index renderings are not only accurate documents but compelling works of art in their own right. To achieve their intense realism the artists minutely contemplated the objects’ tactile qualities, luminosity and most subtle gradations of color, texture and form, and then employed all their extraordinary technical skills to represent this data in the challenging medium of watercolor.
The New Deal art projects, including the Index of American Design, came to an end when the United States entered World War II and unemployment was no longer the country’s preeminent problem. Many of the original objects have been lost or damaged since they were depicted in the Index. Even more important, the Index succeeded in familiarizing Americans with their country’s folk art and with the idea — still current today — that America’s true cultural identity might be discovered in these artifacts.
This exhibition reunites — for the first time since the 1930s — 80 of the Index renderings with nearly 40 of the original artifacts they represent. In the first introductory room, the magnificent Angel Gabriel Weathervane, now in a private collection, appears alongside the rendering that made this object a true icon of the Index of American Design. Also on display is a “demonstration drawing” indicating the step-by-step process the artist used to create this rendering. Period photographs show Index artists at work on two of the watercolors displayed in this room. Additional renderings reflect the wide scope of the project, from Southwestern Indian baskets and African American ceramics to both German and Hispanic works from Texas and New England Shaker textiles.
The second room is filled with watercolors of toys, carousel animals, a sled, roller skates, a little girl’s dress and a comical Quaker whirligig. A real carousel rooster from a private collection strides through the center of this space, accompanied by a toy horse, a partial set of nine pins, a carved poodle and several other rdf_Descriptions that will delight children, all paired with their original Index renderings.
The third and largest space displays renderings and objects meant for the domestic realm. Fabulous quilts and crewel embroideries from the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Wadsworth Atheneum are installed beside their renderings and are joined by furniture, Pennsylvania German ceramics, early stoneware, a sampler and other artifacts borrowed from private collections and the Bucks County Historical Society, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the New-York Historical Society.
Shop, tavern and inn signs, figureheads, decoys and a steamship’s paddle wheel cover occupy the next room, both in the form of rendered images and actual objects. A Civil War drum, lent by the Chicago Historical Society, stands beside its painted portrait, and a unique and highly inventive carved gate with agricultural tools, now the property of the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, Conn., is reintroduced to its 1940 Index rendering. A secular Madonna of Liberty, carved and painted by an Italian immigrant and borrowed for the show from the Shelburne Museum in Vermont, compares with its watercolor image.
A concluding space pairs three outstanding late Nineteenth Century cigar-store figures with their 1930s Index renderings. The pompous Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines, from a private collection, is stationed beside a baseball player — possibly a portrait of Mike “King” Kelly — and Dapper Dan, both promised gifts to the American Folk Art Museum in New York.
The exhibition is organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. The exhibition and catalog were made possible by the Henry Luce Foundation.
“We are delighted to help bring this exhibition to the National Gallery of Art,” said Ellen Holtzman, program director for the arts at the Luce Foundation. “Our sponsorship of the exhibition and its accompanying catalog underscores the foundation’s commitment to innovation and scholarship in the field of American fine and decorative arts.”
Curator and Catalog
The curator is Virginia Tuttle Clayton, associate curator of old master prints for the National Gallery. A fully illustrated and informative catalog, : Folk Art, Modernism and the Index of American Design, accompanies the exhibition and is available in either hardcover or softbound. In three essays, Clayton, Elizabeth Stillinger and Erica Doss explore and examine the issues of folk art, national identity and modernism, and explain the history and lofty ambitions of this intriguing New Deal project. They examine the day-to-day functioning of the Index project, its relationship to American art between the two world wars, and the role it played in forming present notions of what is American in American art. It is the perfect sister publication to the wonderful original volumes of the Index of American Design.. The catalog is published by the National Gallery of Art and is available for $25 (softcover) and $45 (hardcover) in the Gallery Shops, from the website (www.nga.gov) and by phone at 202-842-6002 or 800-697-9350.
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