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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:

The Ogunquit Modernists, who summered at a colony established by artist and teacher Hamilton Easter Field at Ogunquit, Maine, in 1911.
William and Marguerite Zorach, who were friends with many Ogunquit Modernists members and were also early folk-art enthusiasts.
Juliana Force, director of the Whitney Studio Club and first director of Whitney Museum of Modern Art, and Charles Sheeler, who were pioneer collectors of Shaker furniture.
Elie and Viola Nadelman, he a Polish sculptor who emigrated to the United States in 1914, and she a wealthy young widow, who amassed what was undoubtedly the most impressive folk-art collection in America in the 1920s and early 1930s.
Isabel Carleton Wilde, a passionate collector, who amassed such a notable collection of folk, possibly rivaling that of the Nadelmans.
Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Holger Cahill, and Edith Gregor Halper, who formed the triumvirate that put folk art on the road to acceptance as art rather than as quaint historical artifact. With Mrs. Rockefeller as patron; Cahill as theorist, folk-art finder, and curator; and Halpert as dealer and promoter, these three introduced art-conscious Americans to folk art and made collecting it respectable -- even, in some circles, fashionable.
Jean and Howard Lipman, who began to buy folk art in 1937 to furnish their Connecticut farmhouse. Jean was an art historian and editor-in chief of Art in America magazine. Her conviction that their folk art was serious art led to the publication of American Primitive Painting in 1942, the first significant book on the subject and the first of Jean's many books and articles on folk-art topics
The Index of American Design, an encyclopedic collection of images of American folk and decorative art that is now at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The Index was a unit of the Depression-era Federal Art Project (FAP) directed by Holger Cahill.


Institutional and private lenders to the exhibition

Institutional Lenders
Brooklyn Museum
Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
Columbus Museum of Art
Fenimore Art Museum
Hancock Shaker Village
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Museum of Modern Art
National Gallery of Art
New-York Historical Society
Newark Museum
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Shelburne Museum
Smith College Museum of Art
Whitney Museum of American Art
Yale University Art Gallery
Private Lenders
Bunty Armstrong
Kendra and Allan Daniel
Ann and Andrew Dintenfass
Jane and Gerald Katcher
Eric J. Maffei
Jeffrey Tillou Antiques
Jonathan Zorach
Tim Zorach

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.


Editor's notes:

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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