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Folk Art and American Modernism
July 18 - September 27, 2015
American Modernist artists, together with a group of collectors, dealers, curators and scholars whose pioneering interest in traditional folk art gave rise to a disciplined branch of study within the continuum of art history, is the focus of an exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum from July 18 through September 27, 2015. "Folk Art and American Modernism" sheds light on how portraits and paintings, carvings, painted furnishings, hooked rugs and even duck decoys, all made by America's earliest self-taught artists, influenced American Modernist art in the 1920s and 30s, at the same time fostering a new field of discourse in art, and creating a new market. The exhibition is organized by the Fenimore Art Museum, with Elizabeth Stillinger and Ruth Wolfe as co-curators.
More than 80 works are on view, organized in groupings around such early Twentieth Century figures as Hamilton Easter Field and Robert Laurent, William and Marguerite Zorach, Juliana Force, Charles Sheeler, Elie and Viola Nadelman, Isabel Carleton Wilde, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Holger Cahill, Edith Gregor Halpert, Jean and Howard Lipman, and others.
"It is remarkable to see and understand why early American works made by self-taught artists remain bold statements of independence to this day," said Dr Anne-Imelda Radice, executive director of the American Folk Art Museum. "Were it not for those spotlighted in this exhibition, the field of study that we know as folk art, and the works of art we so treasure, would probably not exist."
Andy Warhol (1928-1987), an avid folk art collector, called the work of early decorative painters in the US "America's first abstract expressionism" while French-born, American sculptor Robert Laurent (1890-1970) was fascinated by the carved wings of a duck decoy made by an anonymous self-taught artist. Sculptor Elie Nadelman (1882-1946) found in early American folk art the pure lines and abstracted, streamlined forms that informed his work.
Laurent's, Nadelman's and a handful of other artists' interest in folk art in the early Twentieth Century gave rise to the first documented, public discourse in this area of art history, along with attention from curators who recognized its aesthetic power, scholars who understood its historic importance, individuals who sought to build important collections of this unconventional American art and dealers who recognized its value.
"Folk Art and American Modernism" is organized around these first connoisseurs of early American folk art, in groupings that highlight the paintings, sculpture and aesthetic objects made by modernist artists who were inspired by this art by the self-taught; and in groupings of works that were collected those who recognized its historic and aesthetic value. The exhibition documents how their collective nascent interest grew into today's established museums and prestigious repositories for study and exhibition of early American folk art.
Antiquarians and ethnologists of the late 19th century were interested in American folk art, but it was not until the 1910s, when American Modernist artists and art critics began to celebrate unpretentious, locally made objects for their formal artistic qualities -- that these "folk" works were recognized as art. The objects included furniture and decorative works; portraits made in the years before photography became widespread; duck decoys and trade carvings; weathervanes, whirligigs and toys; textiles; and other works made throughout the 18th and 19th centuries by members of diverse immigrant groups, many of whom brought with them and maintained traditions from their respective cultures.
Curators, collectors and artists who shared this interest in folk art accumulated such material as inexpensive furnishings, and viewed them as a rebellion against the strictures of the established art academy. The artists saw connections between American folk art and the powerful visual movement they had observed and studied in Europe -- modernism, marked by bold use of color, flattened and streamlined forms and other attributes. In regarding their folk objects as art -- and as art that shared characteristics with their own work -- these artists were seeking to document a continuous American artistic tradition of which they could consider themselves a living part.
The antiquarians and ethnologists who began collecting folk art in the 19th century were joined in the 1910s by Modernist artists who began to collect American folk art for its artistic qualities. These artists-and the dealers, curators, art critics, and collectors who shared their interest in folk art-established a collecting tradition different from that of their predecessors, accumulating furniture, hooked rugs, paintings, and sculpture such as weather vanes and decoys both as furnishings and as examples of indigenous American art. The artists valued these objects for their formal artistic qualities, rather than for their associations with a famous person or place or for their ethnological significance, and they made analogies between American folk art and the Modernist art they had studied in Europe and were pioneering in America. Additionally, they viewed the straightforwardness and simplicity of the rural American furnishings and paintings they collected as evidence of a uniquely American character. In regarding their folk objects as art-and as art that shared characteristics with their own work-these artists were seeking to document a continuous American artistic tradition of which they could consider themselves a part.
"Folk Art and American Modernism" looks at the following artists, collectors, dealers, curators, and art critics who, in the first half of the 20th century, identified, helped to codify, and fostered appreciation of American folk art:
Institutional and private lenders to the exhibition
Checklist for the exhibition
To view the checklist for the exhibition, including extended object labels, please click here.
Wall panel texts
To view wall panel texts for the exhibition please click here.
For checklist, object label and wall panel definitions, please see Definitions in Museums Explained.
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For further biographical information on selected artists cited in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.
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