Folk Art & Modernism

Federal Sideboard Table, New England 1810-1830, Photo by John Parnell

Federal Sideboard Table, New England 1810-1830, Photo by John Parnell

Between now and September 27th, if you’re over by Lincoln Center,  be sure to stop in the American Museum of Folk Art.  Their current Exhibit, “Folk Art and American Modernism”  has works owned by collectors, artists, and dealers who were instrumental in bringing “folk art” to prominence.  These pieces – by American’s earliest self-taught artists – exerted a strong influence on the modernist artists of the 1920’s and 30’s.   The exhibition is grouped according to the individual collectors, showing paintings, objects and furniture in the same space, which takes a bit of getting used to, as you don’t have the thematic feeling you often get in museums.  But they all had an eye for the well-made. 

Some standouts for me:  In the collection of Jean and Howard Lippman, you’ll find painted wooden desks, bureaux and chests from 1760-1825, some of which employed faux grain, trompe l’oeil, as well as vinegar painting techniques. There are also several watercolors, portraits and landscapes from the 19th century.  I especially liked the watercolor and ink painting of the Oswego Starch Factory; it’s straightforward depiction clearly demonstrates the economic importance of this manufacturer, whose box factory, starch factory, carpentry shop, stables and storehouses seem to overwhelm the surrounding town.

Exotic Bird and Townscape, Montgomery County, PA, ca 1830-1835, attributed to Abraham Heebner

Exotic Bird and Townscape, Montgomery County, PA, ca 1830-1835, attributed to Abraham Heebner

The collection of Edith Halpert contains “Exotic Bird and Townscape” a watercolor and ink example of Fraktur art, a kind of illuminated manuscript, usually with calligraphy that was used for certificates and blessings, rather than the secular subject depicted here.

The Abby Aldridge Rockefeller collection includes an exquisite theorem painting (made using hollow stencils) by Matilda Haviland, a cast iron horse weather vane from 1875, and a set of 6 wooden toy animals.  Linger at Joseph Pickett’s “Manchester Valley,” a peaceful depiction of a high school, its surrounding town, and the train and stream that run through it.  By combining sand with oil paint, Pickett has created a subtle 3-D effect in the trees, stream and brick buildings.    

In the Ogunquit Modernists collection, the standout for me was “Woman with Red Shawl” by Ira Chafee Goodell.  It’s aptly named – but that shawl gets competition from the sitter’s blue, blue eyes.   The workmanship of the tulle lace bonnet and ruff are exquisite.

Exhibition “Folk Art and American Modernism” American Folk Art Museum, New York Photo by Caroline Voagen Nelson © American Folk Art Museum

Exhibition “Folk Art and American Modernism”
American Folk Art Museum, New York
Photo by Caroline Voagen Nelson
© American Folk Art Museum

Juliana Force was director of The Whitney Studio Club, and the first director of the Whitney Museum of American Art.  In this section, all of the pieces are outstanding, but I especially liked  “Baby with Cane” (notice the pose);  “Coryell’s Ferry” by Joseph Pickett (contrast his textured surfaces of the animals, water and trees with those of “Manchester Valley” cited earlier); and the surreal “Girl in a Garden” (contrast her with “Girl Seated on Bench” in the AA Rockefeller section).

On the wall with Elie and Viola Nadelman’s collection, you’ll find Asahel Power’s portrait of Dorothy Dandridge, otherwise known as Mrs. Patrick Henry (give me liberty…), with it’s subtle notes of gold in her necklace and the background ribbons a counterpoint to her somber expression.

There’s lots more in this exhibit – paintings, furniture, duck decoys, trade carvings, weathervanes, hooked rugs and a quilt.   

Take your time and see them all. 

The Museum will be hosting a talk on Monday, September 21st:   “Investing in Folk Art: The Remarkable Edith Halpert and her Downtown Gallery,” by Lindsay Pollock, Editor-in-Chief of Art in America.  On September 24th, they will host Dialogue & Studio on stencil painting, with artist Katarina Lanfranco.  You can find more information here

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