Folk Art and American Modernism

Liberty and Washington, 1800-1810. By an Unidentified Artist, oil on canvas, H: 73" x W; 43 7/8", N0525.1948. Gift of Stephen C. Clark, Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York. Photograph by Richard Walker.

September 18–December 31, 2014

Curated by Elizabeth Stillinger and Ruth Wolfe, this exhibition, presents approximately 70 folk art objects, among them paintings, carvings, weathervanes, decoys and furnishings collected by Modernists, plus examples of the work they produced in response to folk art. Also included are vintage photographs that illustrate how these artists and collectors lived with and displayed their folk art. This talented and diverse group played a central role in the rediscovery and appreciation of American folk art.

This exhibition is based on the "Folk Art and Modern Art" section of Elizabeth Stillinger's book, A Kind of Archeology: Collecting American Folk Art 1876-1976.

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 includes the following artists, collectors, dealers, curators, and art critics who, in the first half of the 20th century, identified, defined, publicized, and fostered appreciation of American folk art:

  • The Ogunquit Modernists. Notable among this group are the artists who summered at the colony that artist and teacher Hamilton Easter Field established at Ogunquit, Maine, in 1911. Robert Laurent, Field's protégé, was perhaps the most avid of these artist-collectors, but his friends Bernard Karfiol and Yasuo Kuniyoshi were among those who joined him in searching the surrounding countryside for antique treasures with which they furnished their homes and studios—many of them converted fishing shacks. When they returned to New York at the end of the season, they often took folk art with them, exposing their friends and acquaintances to this new category of collecting.
  • William and Marguerite Zorach, while not part of the Ogunquit summer colony, were friends with many of its members and were also early folk-art enthusiasts. They filled their old sea captain's house in nearby Bath, Maine, with hooked rugs and simple country furniture; Marguerite stenciled folky patterns onto the walls of the kitchen and living room. The work of both Zorachs was influenced by folk art—Marguerite in her use of brilliantly colored woolen yarn for hooked rugs and tapestries and William in the employment of the direct-carving method in his sculpture.
  • Juliana Force, the Whitney Studio Club, and Charles Sheeler. Juliana Force, director of the Whitney Studio Club, was an early and ardent folk-art collector who introduced many others in the New York art world to the genre. Under her auspices the artist Henry Schnakenberg put together the first exhibition of American folk art, shown at the Club in 1924. Force and Charles Sheeler, also a Whitney Studio Club artist, were pioneer collectors of Shaker furniture, examples of which appear in Sheeler’s paintings and photographs of interiors of the 1920s and 1930s.
  • Elie and Viola Nadelman, he a Polish sculptor who emigrated to the United States in 1914, and she a wealthy young widow, formed what was undoubtedly the most impressive folk-art collection in America in the 1920s and early 1930s. Many of the objects in the collection echoed the supremely simplified, uncluttered lines of Nadelman’s sculpture. Formed in both Europe and America to illustrate the influence of the old world on the new, the collection was displayed on the Nadelmans’ Riverdale, NY, estate in a specially built stone museum from 1926 through 1937. Reverses caused by the Depression forced the couple to begin selling individual objects in the early 1930s; in 1937 they sold their entire collection to the New-York Historical Society.
  • Isabel Carleton Wilde was a passionate collector who amassed such a notable collection of folk paintings, watercolors, weather vanes, and carvings that it may be said to rival that of the Nadelmans—if not in size, certainly in quality. Wilde was also a dealer in antique household furnishings and an old-house restorer, advertising in 1926 that she had moved her shop, opened the previous year, to an old house she had just renovated near Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She later had a shop on Sutton Place in Manhattan, and pieces from her collection were exhibited in several New York galleries, but the Depression and her husband's illness forced her, too, to part with her beloved folk art in the 1930s and 1940s. Much of it was bought by the dealer Edith Halpert and through her found its way into important collections of folk art.
  • Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Holger Cahill, and Edith Gregor Halpert made up the triumvirate that put folk art on the road to acceptance as art rather than as history or ethnology. 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 the newly recognized genre and made collecting it respectable—even, in some circles, fashionable. The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Williamsburg, of which Mrs. Rockefeller’s collection was the foundation, is a tribute to the vision of all three.
  • Jean and Howard Lipman began to buy folk art in 1937 to furnish their Connecticut farmhouse. Jean was an art historian and editor of Art in America magazine; her conviction that their folk art was serious art led to the publication of American Primitive Painting in 1942. This was the first significant book on the subject and the first of Jean's many books and articles on folk-art topics. Important parts of the Lipmans' collections are now at the Fenimore Art Museum and at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City.
  • The Index of American Design, an encyclopedic collection of visual images of American folk and decorative art that is now at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, was a Depression-era project created both to give work to unemployed artists and to fill the need for an archive of indigenous designs. Holger Cahill, in his capacity as head of the Federal Art Project of the WPA, stated his goals for the Index: to clarify "the native background of the arts," and to get "people all over the United States interested in art as an everyday part of living and working." Holger Cahill and his Index colleagues became the ultimate folk-art collectors, documenting work from the participating 34 states and the District of Columbia. Folk and vernacular art, particularly of New England and the Middle Atlantic states, was recorded in artists' "renderings," colored drawings often so beautifully executed as to be works of art in themselves. Numerous exhibitions of the Index renderings were held throughout the country, bringing American folk art to new audiences.