Published: August 12, 2015
A scholar of collectors and collecting, historian Elizabeth Stillinger is perhaps best known as the author of The Antiquers, chronicling the lives of American antiques enthusiasts active between 1850 and 1930. In A Kind of Archeology: Collecting American Folk Art, 1876–1976, a companion book published in 2011, Stillinger explored the passions and motivations of the tastemakers who discovered and popularized self-taught art. With editor and writer Ruth Wolfe, her frequent collaborator, Stillinger serves as guest curator of “Folk Art and American Modernism,” at the American Folk Art Museum (AFAM) in New York through September 27.
How did the show come about?
After the publication of Expressions of Innocence and Eloquence: Selections from the Jane Katcher Collection of Americana, Volume II, the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., organized a related exhibition and symposium to go with it. Jane then proposed that she support a series of exhibitions and symposia on American folk art. David Schorsch knew that Ruth and I had developed an exhibition in the 1990s that had never come about. He told this to Jane and the Cooperstown people and they approached us. The original exhibition was too large for the space, so we adapted one chapter for “Folk Art and American Modernism,” which opened at Fenimore Art Museum last fall.
Ruth has a deep background in folk art, does she not?
Yes, Ruth went to work for Jean Lipman at Art in America around 1970. Jean and her husband, Howard, were very involved in the Whitney Museum. They collected Modern sculpture as well as folk art. Howard became a Whitney trustee and Jean served the Whitney as curator of several folk art exhibitions, often working with Ruth. The names Jean Lipman and Alice Winchester appear on the cover of The Flowering of American Folk Art. While they selected the objects for exhibition, it was Ruth who wrote much of this seminal volume, published in 1974. Ruth subsequently edited David Schorsch’s catalogs and the two books on the Katcher collection.
How is the show presented?
The installation, by designer Michael Morris, is striking and successful. The show is roughly chronological. It begins with the Ogunquit group in the 1910s and ends with the Lipmans and the Index of American Design in the 1930s. The focus is on the early American Modernists, what aspects of American folk art attracted them and what they collected. This show, like the book that inspired it, is about collectors and collecting.
What’s new about the AFAM show?
We worked with Stacy C. Hollander, AFAM’s deputy director for curatorial affairs, chief curator and director of exhibitions. She persevered in securing some wonderful objects that were not in the Cooperstown show, about a third of which didn’t travel. Thanks to Stacy’s commitment and interest, we were able to get some superb things. We are particularly grateful to have gotten from Yale one of the great interiors Sheeler painted of his house. He was one of the first artists to depict folk art in American domestic settings. The Museum of Modern Art lent us a painting by Joseph Pickett, who was discovered by Holger Cahill, and “Woman at the Piano” by Elie Nadelman. The Nadelman is a huge coup. We have a 1941 Arnold Newman portrait of Yasuo Kuniyoshi with a rooster that looks quite a bit like a weathervane that Kuniyoshi owned. Also in the show is “Girl in Garden,” illustrated here, an anonymous portrait of about 1840 that is the cover of my book. The portrait belonged to Juliana Force and is now at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum at Colonial Williamsburg.
Accompanying publication and related programs?
A Kind of Archeology is the chief reference. As part of the Folk Art Pioneers series at AFAM, Avis Berman is speaking on Juliana Force on September 10; Wendy Jeffers on Holger Cahill on September 16; Lindsay Pollack on Edith Gregor Halpert on September 21; and Stacy Hollander will speak on continuing traditions in self-taught art on September 17.
What’s next for you?
A trip to Bangkok with my friend Liza Gusler from Colonial Williamsburg, then on to Hong Kong. I’m drawn to Asia because it’s so removed from everything in my daily life and because it’s a place where there is still so much handcraft. From folk art to jewelry and clothing, the workmanship can be beautiful. On the professional front, I contributed an essay to the new book Making It Modern: The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman, published by D. Giles Ltd in association with the New York-Historical Society. I’d like to research Harry Stone, an early dealer in American folk paintings. He sold to the Garbisches and was Jean Lipman’s favorite dealer. She got some of her best paintings from him.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm