Folk Art and American Modernism

July 18 - September 27, 2015


Wall panel texts from the exhibition


Introductory wall panel text


The early twentieth century saw a revolution in the art world. Representational art, which had dominated in the West for nearly five hundred years, was cast aside in favor of a more conceptual approach?one that reflected dramatic social, cultural, and technological changes. Recognizable subjects, realistic perspectives, and subtle shading gave way to modernism, a movement characterized by new visual languages that included bold colors and simplified shapes flattened onto the picture plane. A focus on nontraditional, nonacademic, and non-Western art now embraced folk and indigenous expressions from many parts of the globe: Japanese prints, African masks, children's drawings, and European peasant art.
The radical European art exhibited in New York City at the 1913 Armory Show, or International Exhibition of Modern Art, had a profound effect on the development of modern art in the United States. American artists and collectors, many of whom had become acquainted with this new art in Paris, were eager to search out their own national artistic heritage. They found it in pre-twentieth-century folk art: ancestor portraits, weathervanes, decoys, hooked rugs, and simple furniture, which were relatively inexpensive and easy to find and were quintessentially American. Several modernist artists took this yearning to be part of an American tradition one step further, seeking a deeper rapport with folk art by employing early methods of working with local materials. They produced paintings on glass, tinsel paintings, hooked rugs, needlework, and sculptures carved directly into wood or stone with no preliminary models.
The artists, dealers, curators, critics, and collectors who shared a passion for American folk art met with one another in New York City and in Maine during the summer months. Together they forged a new path that bypassed the academic values of previous generations and celebrated unpretentious American objects for their formal artistic qualities. The artists saw analogies between folk art and the modernist art they had studied in Europe and were pioneering in America. Additionally, they viewed the straightforwardness and simplicity of rural furnishings and paintings as evidence of a uniquely American character. Folk art, with its abstracted forms and delight in color, both influenced American modernism and achieved increased status from it.
The folk art in this exhibition was collected by a group of pivotal modernists, including artists whose works are shown alongside the folk art that inspired them. In regarding folk objects as art and as evidence of a "usable past," these trailblazers led their generation in preserving and defining a continuous American artistic tradition of which they considered themselves a living part.
Elizabeth Stillinger and Ruth Wolfe
The exhibition is supported in part by Becky and Bob Alexander, Joyce Berger Cowin, the David Davies and Jack Weeden Fund for Exhibitions, the Leir Charitable Foundations, public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, and Marvin and Donna Schwartz.

Further wall panel texts


The Ogunquit Modernists
Hamilton Easter Field (1873-1922) was born in Brooklyn Heights to a genteel and well-to-do Quaker family with a long history of supporting the arts. Field was an artist as well as a critic, and served as an arts editor for Arts and Decoration and for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle before founding The Arts magazine in 1920. While studying in Europe, Field became an enthusiastic convert to modernism. Upon his return to the States, he recognized that young American artists needed a patron who understood the revolution that was occurring in the arts. In 1911, with the assistance of his protégé, the sculptor Robert Laurent (1890-1970), whom he had met in Concarneau, Brittany, France, he opened the Summer School of Graphic Arts in Ogunquit, Maine. To furnish the weathered-board fishing shacks bordering Perkins Cove south of Ogunquit, which Field acquired to serve as students' studios and living spaces, the two men began to buy simple pieces of what they called "early American" furniture, paintings, sculpture, and colorful hooked rugs. These both complemented the rough interiors and reflected the Maine environment: Field believed in participating in the community and urged his students to "live in touch with native Ogunquit life."
Among the young modernist artists whom Field initially invited to attend the summer school were Bernard Karfiol, William Von Schlegell, Niles Spencer, Preston Dickinson, Charles Demuth, Wood Gaylor, and Adelaide Lawson. Later came Marsden Hartley, Stefan Hirsch, Samuel Halpert, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, and Katherine Schmidt, among others. Most of them joined in the hunt for early furnishings and accessories, especially folk portraits, decoys, weathervanes, and hooked rugs. Field was particularly interested in the latter, and published an article about them in The Arts.
Laurent led the search for early portraits, of which he had a large collection. For that reason, and because his family has remained interested and accessible, these portraits and other family objects are today the most easily documented examples of the Ogunquit group's folk art collecting.
Elie and Viola Nadelman
Elie Nadelman (1882-1946) was a Polish-born sculptor who was closely engaged with the avant-garde in Paris before moving to New York in 1914. There he met Mrs. Viola Spiess Flannery (1878-1962), an affluent and European-educated American widow with a long-standing interest in antiques and a distinguished collection of textiles and laces. The couple were married in 1919. Together, the Nadelmans collected folk art -- both European and American -- first for their house overlooking the Hudson River in Riverdale, New York, and from 1926 on, for the museum they built on their property.
The Nadelmans had several goals in collecting: to show the European antecedents of American folk art, to foster an appreciation of the aesthetic merits of this art, to explain the original function of utilitarian objects in the collection, and to demonstrate the development of form over time. Elie once observed that their museum exhibitions showed "how processes of improvement have changed bulky objects into things of grace and beauty." By the late 1920s, the Nadelmans' folk art collection was the largest and most varied in America, and the only one containing objects of both European and American origins. The Depression forced the Nadelmans to sell their collection and close their museum. By late 1937, they had sold most of their objects to the New-York Historical Society. Other works from their collection are now at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Williamsburg, Virginia; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York; the Shelburne Museum in Vermont; and elsewhere.
It has often been stated that the attenuation, simplified masses, and graceful curves of Nadelman's series of sculptures depicting contemporary society men and women were inspired by dolls and folk art forms. He would certainly have seen folk art during his formative years in Europe, but he began this series some years before launching his own collection, and it is unclear whether folk art directly influenced the figures or not.
Marguerite and William Zorach
William Zorach (1887-1966) was born in Lithuania and immigrated to Cleveland with his family at the age of four. After apprenticing as a lithographer, he moved to New York City to study at the National Academy of Design. Marguerite Thompson (1887-1968) was born in California and exhibited artistic talent from a young age. In 1908 she went to France to study art rather than attending Stanford University as one of a select group of women admitted that year. She and William Zorach met in Paris, where they were part of the avant-garde art scene, and experimented with fauvism and cubism; they were married in New York in 1912. The following year, both participated in the landmark 1913 Armory Show and established reputations as American modernists. Although they never attended Hamilton Easter Field's Summer School of Graphic Arts in Ogunquit, Maine, the Zorachs knew and were friends with Field as well as many of the artists who attended the school. Like the Ogunquit artists, they were drawn to the folk and vernacular art they encountered in the New England countryside.
Despite several lean years, the Zorachs began to collect folk art in 1914, inspired by an encounter with an old woman making a hooked rug. The pace of their collecting picked up in 1923 when they bought the John Riggs House, an old sea captain's dwelling near Bath, Maine. They collected simple, early American furniture and other objects that, as William said, "were [not only] more beautiful than the regular manufactured products but they were also much cheaper. . . . Hunting antiques was great sport and lots of excitement." The Zorachs filled the house with folk art: hooked rugs, ceramics, and carvings that inspired William's use of cherry wood and the direct-carving method to create sculptures, and Marguerite's original hooked rugs and other textile arts.
Juliana Force and the Whitney Studio Club
Juliana Force (1876-1948) was an early and ardent champion of both modern art and American folk art. Under her direction, the Whitney Studio Club in Greenwich Village, which was founded in 1918 by the wealthy sculptor and patron of the arts Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, became a lively gathering place for young artists dissatisfied with the traditionalist National Academy of Design. The club offered its members sketch classes with live models, a library, a billiards room, and exhibition space.
Force was a legendary hostess whose gatherings fed many a hungry artist, and her apartment over the Whitney Studio Club was an inspired mix of Victorian furnishings, folk and modernist paintings, flowered carpets, and flamboyant eagle chandeliers. She began collecting American antiques and folk art around 1914, when she and her husband bought an old house in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. She later acquired another country house in South Salem, New York, which she named Shaker Hollow and furnished with Shaker pieces and other American antiques.
Force promoted American folk art through her striking interiors and through exhibitions at the Whitney Studio Club and its successor, the Whitney Museum of American Art, founded in 1931 and of which she was the first director. Early American Art, held at the Studio Club in 1924, is now recognized as the first public exhibition of American folk art. Organized by artist Henry Schnakenberg (1892-1970), it was one in a series of six exhibitions conceived by artists associated with the club, and its artworks were borrowed from other members including Force, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, and Charles Sheeler. In 1935 Force invited the early Shaker collectors Faith and Edward Deming Andrews to curate Shaker Handicrafts, the first exhibition of Shaker material in a major museum.
Force's extravagant lifestyle left her perennially short of money. Over the years she sold much of her folk art; today, many examples are in museums and private hands. The large collection of nineteenth-century folk paintings, watercolors, and pastels that she gave to the Whitney Museum no longer remains intact. It was sold after Force's death, when the museum shifted its focus to contemporary art.
Early American Art at the Whitney Studio Club, 1924
In 1924 Juliana Force, director of the Whitney Studio Club, asked Henry Schnakenberg (1892-1970), a painter and club member, to organize an exhibition based on a theme of his choice. Later, Schnakenberg recalled: "As earlier American folk art had begun to interest some of my painter friends I selected this as my subject." Several of those friends were artists who summered at the Ogunquit art colony and began collecting folk art there.
Of the forty-five works Schnakenberg chose for his exhibition Early American Art, by far the largest category was paintings in oil on canvas, but there were also paintings on glass and velvet and in watercolor and pastel, as well as a cigar store Indian, a ship's figurehead, an iron bootjack in the shape of a woman, woodcarvings, scrimshaw, a chalkware cat, and a pewter pitcher and sugar bowl. The simple eight-page exhibition catalog included photographs of four paintings taken by Whitney Studio Club member Charles Sheeler.
Many local newspapers reviewed the exhibition. The Brooklyn Eagle's art critic, Helen Appleton Read, wrote: "These paintings of perfect steamboats and steam-engines, of impossible ladies, anatomically speaking, must always provoke a smile. Nevertheless there is frequently found in them that unconscious sense of design . . . that makes them enjoyable from an esthetic point of view. And which makes them of value to the young painter who is trying to express himself in a simple and direct manner." The exhibition at the Whitney Studio Club is now acknowledged as the first public presentation of American folk art. Three of the paintings included in Early American Art have been located and are exhibited here.
Charles Sheeler
Charles Sheeler (1883-1965) grew up in Philadelphia and studied at the School for Industrial Arts and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, a dual training that left him with a deep appreciation of craft traditions. He began collecting antiques as early as 1910 to furnish an eighteenth-century stone house that he rented in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. There, he was introduced to Pennsylvania German folk art by Henry Mercer, who was one of the earliest to collect such material. "don't like [antiques] because they are old but in spite of it," Sheeler told his biographer, Constance Rourke. "I'd like them still better if they were made yesterday because then they would afford proof that the same kind of creative power is continuing."
In 1918 Sheeler moved to New York City and found kindred spirits in Juliana Force, director of the Whitney Studio Club, and artists at the club, many of whom shared his interest in American folk art. He helped organize exhibitions, served as the house photographer, and for a time lived in an apartment over the club. Sheeler lent two portraits and a landscape to the club's 1924 exhibition Early American Art and took photographs for the catalog.
Tiring of city life, in 1926 Sheeler and his wife, Katharine, rented a cottage in South Salem, New York, a rural hamlet about fifty miles north of New York City; they later moved to a house in nearby Ridgefield, Connecticut. Around this time Sheeler began concentrating on Shaker furniture and handicrafts, buying directly from Shaker communities and through a trusted local dealer. He valued Shaker craftsmanship for its union of beauty and utility.
Sheeler inspired an interest in Shaker collecting in both Juliana Force and Edith Halpert, who became his art dealer in 1931. It was Sheeler who helped Halpert find and furnish a pre-Revolutionary farmhouse in Newtown, Connecticut, using pieces from his collection of American antiques and Shaker furniture. After Sheeler's death in 1965, Halpert brokered the sale of his Shaker collection to the recently established museum at the site of the Shaker community in Hancock, Massachusetts.
Isabel Carleton Wilde
Her professions were antiques dealing and old-house restoring, but Isabel Carleton Wilde's (1877-1951) true passion was collecting American folk art. Wilde was educated and made her home in Massachusetts and is the only collector included in this exhibition not based in New York, although she did live and work there for a period in the 1930s. She opened an antiques shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1925 and told a reporter that she was interested in folk art "not from the point of view of the antiquarian, but rather as exemplifying the art of a pioneer people."
Wilde wrote that she did not want to sell her folk art pictures, as they were "an increasingly interesting and valuable collection, which I should like to keep intact for purposes of exhibition and loan to museums or historical societies as well as art galleries." Selections from Wilde's collection were included in various exhibitions during the 1920s and '30s. Hard times engendered by the Depression struck the Wilde family in 1931, and Mrs. Wilde was forced to sell some paintings and sculptures, primarily through Edith Halpert of the Downtown Gallery and the American Folk Art Gallery in New York City. According to Halpert's partner, Holger Cahill, Wilde's folk art collection, when it was still intact, ranked with the Nadelmans' as the biggest and best in America.
Wilde's belief in the connection between folk art and modern art may have begun in 1927 with An Exhibition of Early American Paintings, the Loan Collection of Isabel Carleton Wilde at the Whitney Studio. That space was adjacent to the Whitney Studio Club, where she would have become acquainted with many modernist artists. Her association with Halpert and other modernist dealers during her years in New York no doubt strengthened her conviction. Back in New England, she kept reproductions of modernist works on hand, she said, to educate the customers who came to buy antiques.
By the 1940s, Wilde had sold most of her folk art. She thought she was most influential as a collector of weathervanes and theorem paintings on velvet, which she believed she had introduced to the American public. As time went on, Wilde and her splendid collection were largely forgotten. Her legacy survives in the collections of others?at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Williamsburg, Virginia; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Shelburne Museum in Vermont; and in private collections throughout the country.
Holger Cahill
Edgar Holger Cahill (1887-1960) was born in Iceland and immigrated with his parents to North Dakota via Canada. After his father abandoned the family, Cahill was boarded out as a farmhand and later worked on railroads and freighters, somehow acquiring enough education to become a journalist. He arrived in New York City in 1913, the year the seminal Armory Show introduced modern art to America, and quickly found a place in the art world as a critic, publicist, exhibition organizer, and curator.
In 1926 Cahill visited Samuel Halpert and his wife, Edith, at the artists' colony in Ogunquit, Maine. Inspired by the folk art they saw there, Cahill and Edith Halpert opened the American Folk Art Gallery in New York in 1931. Cahill scoured the countryside from New England to Pennsylvania for folk art, sometimes assisted by Halpert, who managed the gallery. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, whose interests embraced both modern art and folk art, became their most important client.
Cahill worked at the Newark Museum and then at the newly founded Museum of Modern Art. He organized the first major museum exhibitions of American folk art: American Primitives (Newark, 1930-1931), American Folk Sculpture (Newark, 1931­1932), and American Folk Art: The Art of the Common Man in America, 1750-1900 (Museum of Modern Art, 1932­-1933), which traveled to six cities and brought folk art to a national audience.
From 1935 to 1942, Cahill served as director of the Federal Art Project (FAP) in Washington, DC, where he proved to be a brilliant administrator and put thousands of unemployed artists to work across America. After FAP was disbanded during World War II, Cahill devoted himself to writing and lived with his wife, Dorothy Miller, in a Greenwich Village apartment where folk art mixed comfortably with modernist paintings and sculpture. As the first curator of the Museum of Modern Art, Miller was influential in forming its permanent collection and championing young American artists of the postwar era.
Edith Gregor Halpert
At the age of six, Edith Gregor (1900-1979) immigrated to New York City with her sister and widowed mother to escape pogroms in Odessa, which was then part of Russia. In her mother's Harlem candy shop, young Edith showed an early knack for merchandising. An interest in art led her to drawing classes at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students' League and to galleries, exhibitions, and artists' gatherings. At the age of eighteen, she married the much older modernist painter Samuel Halpert (1884-1930). To supplement their income, Edith took a job at Macy's and went on to a lucrative career in merchandising and finance.
In 1926 Edith Halpert opened the Downtown Gallery at 113 West 13th Street, presenting modernists from the Whitney Studio Club and the Ogunquit group. Hers was one of a handful of New York galleries devoted exclusively to living American artists and the only one owned by a woman. According to her biographer Diane Tepfer, "The Downtown Gallery transformed the American art market . . . by adapting innovative mass marketing techniques from department stores. . . . The Gallery waged aggressive publicity campaigns, maintained low prices [to attract young collectors], sold art on the installment plan." Halpert's roster came to include many of the most important names in twentieth-century art; among them were Max Weber, Stuart Davis, Charles Sheeler, John Marin, Ben Shahn, Georgia O'Keefe, and Jacob Lawrence.
Halpert formed a partnership with the critic and curator Holger Cahill in 1931 to launch the American Folk Art Gallery, which had its own space over the Downtown Gallery. The opening exhibition, American Ancestors, was the first of an annual series that featured folk paintings and sculptures as predecessors of American modernist art. Principally because of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller's patronage, the American Folk Art Gallery thrived in spite of the Depression. Halpert once quipped that during those lean years, folk art was her "sugar daddy," keeping both galleries afloat.
Cahill and Halpert agreed to dissolve their joint venture in 1938, but Halpert continued to sell folk art to important collectors of the postwar era, such as Electra Havemeyer Webb, Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, and Maxim Karolik. Cahill was the scholar and theorist of American folk art in the partnership, but without Halpert's entrepreneurial skills the field probably would never have advanced so far, so fast.
Abby Aldrich Rockefeller
The triumvirate of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Edith Halpert, and Holger Cahill put American folk art on the road to acceptance as art rather than quaint historical artifact. With 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?and even, in some circles, fashionable.
Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (1874-1948), the daughter of a United States senator and wife of John D. Rockefeller Jr., was one of the founders of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1929. Despite her husband's aversion to modern art, she collected the work of living American artists, which led her to Halpert's Downtown Gallery and Halpert and Cahill's American Folk Art Gallery. She shared their conviction that folk art was an integral part of American art history and collected it as a background for the modernist art she was buying from Halpert. Rockefeller displayed both genres in a private gallery on an upper floor of her Manhattan townhouse. The sleek and modern interior was designed by Rockefeller's favorite architect, Duncan Candler, and by Donald Deskey, who created the art deco interiors for Radio City Music Hall in Rockefeller Center.
In the late 1930s, Mrs. Rockefeller began giving her folk art to Colonial Williamsburg, a restoration project funded by her husband. Cahill arranged a selection of the folk paintings and sculptures in the Ludwell-Paradise House located in the restoration area, and Halpert prepared a catalog. Rockefeller employed Cahill to search for Southern folk art to supplement her primarily New England and Pennsylvania collection. She kept many of her favorites -- children's portraits, paintings on velvet, and needlework pictures -- to furnish Bassett Hall, the Rockefellers' Williamsburg residence. After Mrs. Rockefeller's death in 1948, her husband built a museum for the folk art collection, which in 2007 was absorbed into Colonial Williamsburg's DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum. Bassett Hall remains very much as the Rockefellers left it and is now open to the public.
Index of American Design
The Index of American Design was a unit of the Depression-era Federal Art Project directed by Holger Cahill from 1935 to 1942. Cahill and his Index colleagues became the ultimate folk art collectors, identifying and documenting work from the participating thirty-four states and the District of Columbia. Each project had a local director who worked with museums, historical societies, collectors, and dealers to find "material of historical significance which has not heretofore been studied and which . . . stands in danger of being lost." The Index flourished in New England and the mid-Atlantic states and introduced regional styles such as those of the Shakers, the Pennsylvania Germans, and the Spanish Southwest to a national audience.
The Index of American Design became an invaluable pictorial archive of American folk, popular, and decorative arts. Like other arts projects of the Works Progress Administration, the main purpose of the Index was to provide work for artists rather than relief payments. Index artists were given high-quality materials, worked according to specific guidelines, and were paid according to the local cost of living. Often the artists created in museums and made "renderings" from direct observation, if not from photographs. The preferred medium was watercolor, sometimes with graphite, crayon, or chalk. Over the course of six years approximately 1,000 artists produced some 18,000 renderings.
The Index reflected Cahill's belief in the importance of the folk arts of the "common man" and his conviction that in a democracy, art should be for everyone. Exhibitions of Index renderings were held throughout the country, inspiring pride in American achievement and spurring interest in folk art study and collecting. The Index's goal of making the renderings permanently available through a series of publications, however, was never realized. World War II brought an end to all the Federal arts projects. Today the Index is preserved in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, but is seldom on display.
Throughout this exhibition, Index renderings are displayed alongside the original works that served as models. These renderings demonstrate the remarkable quality and verisimilitude achieved by the best of the Index artists.
Jean and Howard Lipman
Jean Lipman (1909-1998) was the editor-in-chief of Art in America for most of her thirty-five year association with the magazine and the author of the first serious book about American folk painting, American Primitive Painting (1942), as well as numerous other publications on American folk art. With her husband, Howard Lipman (1905-1992), she formed two large collections of folk art and another of American modernist sculpture that principally featured works by Alexander Calder, David Smith, and Louise Nevelson. The Lipmans' country home in Connecticut was a dramatic blend of their dual interests, with folk art filling the interiors and modernist sculptures on the lawns.
Frederic Fairchild Sherman, the founding editor of Art in America, helped the Lipmans find an old farmhouse in Wilton, Connecticut, which the young couple furnished with American antiques and folk paintings similar to those in Sherman's collection. "All our vacations were antiquing trips," Jean reminisced. After Sherman's death in 1940, Lipman became editor-in-chief and transformed the scholarly journal into a popular magazine covering the current art scene. She also encouraged and published research on folk art -- much of it by collectors rather than academics. The Lipmans sold their first folk art collection to Stephen C. Clark, a collector of modern art and old masters, who acquired it for the New York State Historical Association in Cooperstown. The Lipmans immediately began a second collection, with an emphasis on folk sculpture and paint-decorated furniture. When they moved to Arizona in 1980, the Lipmans sold their folk art again, this time to the American Folk Art Museum in New York City, which retained major pieces and sold the others at auction.
Jean Lipman's acquaintance with important folk art dealers, collectors, and scholars well equipped her to organize The Flowering of American Folk Art for the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1974. The most comprehensive and influential exhibition of folk art since Holger Cahill's Art of the Common Man (1932-1933), it launched a new era of interest in the field. In 1980, again at the Whitney, she presented American Folk Painters of Three Centuries, an exhibition devoted to thirty-seven individual artists whose stories had been preserved by the dedicated folk art research she encouraged and practiced during her long career. In collaboration with curator Elizabeth V. Warren, Lipman was the prime motivation behind two major exhibitions at the American Folk Art Museum: Young America: A Folk Art History (1986) and Five-Star Folk Art: One Hundred American Masterpieces (1990).


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