Modern sculptors and American folk art

Kevin D. Murphy

Kevin D. Murphy Art

“Do not bore. Do not be obvious.” That was the advice given by painter, teacher, and critic Hamilton Easter Field (1873-1922) to his students in the Ogunquit (Maine) School of Paint­ing and Sculpture, which he opened in 1911 with his protégé, the French-born sculptor Robert Laurent.1 For Field, Laurent, and their colleagues who passed through Ogunquit and who shared similar sensibilities—including Marsden Hartley, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Niles Spencer, William and Marguerite Zorach, gallery owner Edith Gregor Halpert, curator Holger Cahill, and others—an engagement with traditional American “folk art” could insure artistic originality.2 Although the significance of folk art collecting for early modernist artists in general has been long recognized, its importance for sculptors was especially profound, since the “naïve” work of carvers outside the academic tradition was considered both immediate and vital. Moreover, the appropriation of the folk on the part of modernists went well beyond art: for immigrants or first-generation Americans who were active in modernist culture, adopting the attitudes and artistic practices they associated with the folk was a means of bringing themselves closer to the traditional culture of the United States at a moment of extreme political tension over immigration. To adapt the words of the writer and critic Lincoln Kirstein (1907-1996), they engaged in “international folkfashioning.”3
In the minds of artists and critics at the turn of the twentieth century, folk traditions were more likely to be preserved in the country than in the cities, which had experienced extraordinary growth over the previous half-century. The idea that rural settings were especially conducive to art-making had its roots in nineteenth-century Europe. Field made this point to his students when he counseled them: “Open your eyes wide, get the local tang. There’s as much right here in Maine as there is in Monet’s Normandy. But to get it you must live in touch with the native Ogunquit life, just as Monet wears the sabots and peasant dress of Giverny.”4 Thus, Field constructed modest quarters for visiting artists around Perkins Cove in Ogunquit “out of parts of old barns which he picked up any and everywhere.”5

The equivalence between rural France and rural New England articulated by and for New York-based artists like Field made it possible for them to see themselves in the mold of European modernists. Laurent insisted on this correspondence when he wrote of Perkins Cove: “I at once fell in love with its attractive fishing village which reminded me of Brittany where I was born. Fishermen going to sea in sailboats—dories—rowing when the wind failed them.”6 Laurent’s view of Brittany was undoubtedly informed by Paul Gauguin’s (1848-1903) fascination with the region’s traditional culture, and he, in turn, projected that conception onto rural Maine. Late in his life Laurent told an interviewer, “I am a peasant and create sculpture like one.”7 No matter how modest his origins in Brittany may have been, by 1970 he was a retired Indiana University professor and renowned sculptor, but his identification with the folk persisted.

Laurent developed an approach to materials that was informed by the folk art he collected and studied.8 He perceived in folk carving a pleasurable and unmediated engagement with materials that he mirrored in his own work. Speaking about his collection of duck decoys, Laurent exclaimed to an interviewer, “Look at the way the wings are carved on this one. The fellow who did it enjoyed it, surely.”9 Undoubtedly, Laurent was attributing to the folk carver some of the sensations he himself experienced when sculpting a form: “Cutting into a resistant material is to me the most satisfying way of working—I like to work with different materials such as wood—stone and marble.”10 Direct carving presented an immediate encounter with the material that stood in contrast to the modeling and casting that characterized much nineteenth-century sculpture. In the United States between about 1910 and 1940 direct carving was the predominant mode for sculptors and was supported by the theoretical underpinnings of the English arts and crafts movement and by a simultaneous exploration by artists of non-Western—”primitive” in the parlance of the period—and folk carving traditions, both of which inspired Laurent.11 His ability to respond to the grain of the wood with which he was working is evidenced in Plant Form (Fig. 4), one of a number of similarly abstracted sculptures he made of naturalistic motifs in the 1910s and 1920s. He was also sensitive to the possibilities of alabaster as a material, noting that one had “to be very careful not to cut straight into the material, but more on the surface.”12 Laurent’s works in both wood and alabaster were exhibited in New York in the late 1920s, including The Wave (Fig. 6), in which he retained a sense of the block of stone while delicately working it to reveal the forms, as is typical of direct carving.

Similarly expressive of the stone from which it was carved is Elephant (Fig. 5) by John B. Flannagan, who was active in Greenwich Village and Woodstock, New York, in the 1920s. Like Laurent, Flannagan worked in both stone and wood and showed work in both mediums in his first major exhibition, held at the Whitney Studio Club in New York in 1925. The carved oak chest in Figure 7, which was among the pieces of furniture exhibited there, evidences his interest in both African carving and the British arts and crafts movement. Like that movement’s leader, William Morris (1843-1896), Flannagan produced furniture that recalled seventeenth-century English production and did not disguise its construction. Although his career was cut short by his early death, Flannagan was admired by such critics as Henry McBride (1867-1962), who wrote in the New York Sun: “Mr. Flannagan’s carvings are amazing. He carves in wood, but so fluently that sometimes one is embarrassed by the curves as one is by candy images that melt. They are immensely clever just the same.”13 

Among the immigrant artists who became interested in folk art through Field, Laurent, and their circle was the Lithuanian-born sculptor William Zorach. He later reminisced of the 1920s that “all of us were picking up early American furniture and early American paintings, because they were not only more beautiful than the manufactured products that were being sold, but they were also very cheap.”14 Zorach had seen carved African figures in Paris and in a shop in Provincetown, Massachusetts—where he and his family frequently summered—and recalled at one point having “spent the only $50 I had to my name on a book of twenty photographs of African carvings that Charles Sheeler had made.”15 What was important to Zorach about these works was not their cultural significance but their aesthetic appeal: “We have a consciousness of world Art from an Art point of view and not from the usual historical point of view,” he wrote.16 Zorach himself began to carve in wood in 1917 and in stone in 1921. Two years later he and his wife, artist Marguerite Thompson Zorach (1887-1968), purchased an old house in Robinhood, Maine, and William reveled in the immediacy of his contact with local materials, carving “directly in the glacial boulders of Maine.”17 His direct carving process recalls the non-Western and folk sculpture he and his circle collected. Two mahogany sculptures he carved in the early 1920s, Figure of a Child (Fig. 8) and Floating Figure (Fig. 10), are similar to Laurent’s contemporary works in that both men created sensuous forms by exploiting the warmth and softness of the wood in which they worked.

An even more enthusiastic collector of traditional carving was the Polish-born sculptor Elie Nadelman. Like other transplanted European artists, Nadelman had spent time in Paris, where he was exposed to non-Western art. After moving to New York in 1914 he experienced anti-Semitism, and as late as 1920 he was described in print as “this young Polish sculptor, a late-comer to our shores,”18 despite the success he had already enjoyed as a result of such works as Man in the Open Air of about 1915 (Fig. 2).19 Perhaps to engage more fully with the culture of the United States, and certainly with the aid of the funds he earned as a successful sculptor and accessed through his marriage in 1919 to the wealthy Viola Spiess Flannery (1878-1962), Nadelman amassed a folk art collection that quite dwarfed those of his contemporaries-and showed the Nadelmans to have been as voracious collectors as the legendary Henry Davis Sleeper (1878-1934), whose house, Beauport, in Gloucester, Massachusetts, they visited in 1920 or 1921.20

Nadelman’s sculptures like Circus Performer (Fig. 1) recalled for many the work of his European contemporaries—especially the stylized depictions of performers by Georges Seurat (1859-1891); but there is also a relationship to be observed between the figures Nadelman made and those he collected, such as the anonymous wood carving Harry Howard, Chief Engineer, New York City Volunteer Fire Department shown in Figure 11. Nadelman’s Tango (Fig. 15) also echoes the stylized mechanical waltzing figures on a windup toy he owned (Fig. 13). He captured his dancing couple as though they had stopped mid-movement, much like wound-down toy dancers so to speak, while Laurent in Flirtation (Fig. 9) similarly captured a man and woman in contemporary dress but suggested the figures’ stiffness and awkwardness rather than their gracefulness.   

The ability of sculptors to connect their work to an American tradition—through the concepts of honest craftsmanship and direct carving—remained an asset through World War II. Critic McBride, for instance, praised Laurent’s work in a nationalistic tone in 1941 when he wrote that it had “a definite relationship to some ancient New England ship-carvings,” an affiliation that to McBride suggested that “as a nation we are still on the up and up.”21 By the postwar period, however, and with the advent of minimalism, an association with folk art lost it potency for sculptors. Thus, the later sculptor Bernard Langlais, who moved between New York and Maine, was lambasted in 1962 by Donald Judd, who wrote disparagingly that Langlais’s reliefs (see Fig. 3) were “like folk art and craftsmanlike” and should “be rejected.”22 By that time direct carving and the almost primitivist assemblage technique that Langlais employed no longer assured a positive reception. Works like Dog (Fig. 14), which he assembled out of wood and carved and painted almost naively, put Langlais outside the development of abstract sculpture. Moreover, by focusing almost exclusively on animals (see Fig. 12), as had direct carvers of the previous generation, Langlais effectively marginalized himself at a time when the taste for figurative American sculpture of any period was at a low point. The moment of symbiosis between folk art collecting and modernist art-making had passed, itself relegated to history. However, now that new scholarly and curatorial attention is being directed to nineteenth-century American sculpture, much of which is figurative,23 the work of those sculptors who rediscovered traditional carving traditions after the turn of the twentieth century demands renewed appreciation.

I would like to thank Paula Burleigh for her research assistance and Thayer Tolles, Janis Conner, Joel Rosenkranz, Nancy Flentje, and the Laurent family for their help with this article.

1 Hamilton Easter Field, The Technique of Oil Paintings and Other Essays (Ardsley House, Brooklyn, N. Y., 1913), p. 64.  For more on Field, see Doreen Bolger, “Hamilton Easter Field and His Contribution to American Modernism,” American Art Journal, vol. 20, no. 2 (1988), pp. 79-107.  2 Henry Joyce, “Electra Havemeyer Webb and Edith Gregor Halpert: A collaboration in folk art collecting,” The Magazine Antiques, vol. 163, no. 1 (January 2003), pp. 184-191; Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser, “Marsden Hartley and folk art,” ibid., pp. 150-157; Donna M. Cassidy, Marsden Hartley: Race, Region, and Nation (University Press of New England, Hanover, N. H., 2005), p. 178.  3 Lincoln Kirstein, Elie Nadelman (Eakins Press, New York, 1973), p. 23; quoted in Roberta K. Tarbell, “Primitivism, Folk Art, and the Exotic,” in Ilene Susan Fort et al., The Figure in American Sculpture: A Question of Modernity (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, 1995), p. 121.  4 Field, The Technique of Oil Painting, p. 58.  5 Elsa Rogo, foreword to Hamilton Easter Field Art Foundation, Collection of Paintings and Sculpture Sponsored by the College Art Association (Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, 1934), n.p.  6 Robert Laurent, autobiographical note, undated, Robert Laurent Papers, microfilm roll 2066, frame 1416, Archives of American Art (AAA).  7 Robert Laurent, statement made to Roberta K. Tarbell, 1970; quoted in Tarbell, “Primitivism, Folk Art, and the Exotic,” p. 122.  8 Laurent, autobiographical note, frame 1419. Laurent’s collecting of American folk art became famous, as is indicated by a Maine publication that in 1941 commented, “He has a collection of early American paintings by ‘unknowns.’ Acquired some of them by swapping his own creations for them”; see “Famous Sculptor to Be Judge at Chicago Exhibition,” High Tide, vol. 18, no. 9 (August 23, 1941), Laurent Papers, microfilm reel 2, frames 1079-1081.  9 Laurent, autobiographical note, frame 1419. In 1931 Holger Cahill counted Laurent’s collection of decoys-which he saw as fine examples of folk carving-as among the best in the country; see Holger Cahill, “American Folk Art,” American Mercury, vol. 24, no. 93 (September 1931), pp. 44-45.  10 Robert Laurent, undated notes, Laurent Papers, microfilm roll 2066, frame 1152.  11 Judith Zilczer, “The Theory of Direct Carving in Modern Sculpture,” Oxford Art Journal, vol. 4, no. 2 (November 1981), pp. 44-49.  12 Statement by Robert Laurent quoted in Peter V. Moak, The Robert Laurent Memorial Exhibition, 1972-1973 (University of New Hampshire, Durham, N. H., 1972), p. 19.  13 Henry McBride, “Whitney Studio Discoveries,” New York Sun, December 19, 1925. For more on Flannagan, see Robert J. Forsyth, “The Early Flannagan and Carved Furniture,” Art Journal, vol. 27, no. 1 (Autumn 1967), pp. 34-39; Katherine Rangoon Doyle, “John B. Flannagan (1895-1942): A Reexamination of His Life and Work,” Ph.D. diss., Graduate Center of the City University of New York, 2004, pp. 33-37, 43-47, 62-63, 139-141, 257-258.  14 “Reminiscences of William and Marguerite Zorach,” typescript of interview with Louis M. Starr, 1957, p. 133, Columbia University Oral History Research Office Collection, New York.  15 Ibid., p. 191.  16 William Zorach, “Where Is Sculpture Today?” College Art Journal, vol. 16, no. 4 (Summer 1957), p. 329.  17 William Zorach quoted in Roberta K. Tarbell, William and Marguerite Zorach: The Maine Years (William A. Farnsworth Library and Art Museum, Rockland, Me., 1980), p. 31. For more on Zorach in Maine, see Jessica F. Nicoll, Marguerite and William Zorach: Harmonies and Contrasts (Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Me., 2001).  18 C. B., “The Sculpture of Elie Nadelman,” Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts of the City of Detroit (February 1920), p. 73.  
19 For more on Nadelman, see Barbara Haskell, Elie Nadelman: Sculptor of Modern Life (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2003), p. 73; Avis Berman, “Sculptor in the Open Air: Elie Nadelman and the Folk and Popular Arts,” in Suzanne Ramljak, Elie Nadelman: Classical Folk (American Federation of Arts, New York, 2001), pp. 46-79.  20 There is disagreement about the date. See Cynthia Nadelman, “Elie Nadelman’s Beauport Drawings,” Drawing 7 (November-December 1985), pp. 75-78, and Haskell, Elie Nadelman, pp. 151-152. Beauport is now operated as a house museum by Historic New England. For more on the Nadelmans as collectors, see Elizabeth Stillinger,”Elie and Viola Nadelman’s unprecedented Museum of Folk Arts,” The Magazine Antiques, vol. 146, no. 4 (October 1994), pp. 516-525.  21 Henry McBride, “Robert Laurent’s Sculpture,” New York Sun, April 5, 1941.  22 Donald Judd, “Bernard Langlais,” Arts Magazine, vol. 36, no. 10 (September 1962), p. 49. For more on Langlais, see Aprile Gallant et al., Bernard Langlais, Independent Spirit (Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Me., 2002).  23 The recent reinstallation of the Charles Engelhard Court in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, with an extensive collection of nineteenth-century sculpture, exemplifies this trend.

KEVIN D. MURPHY is the John Rewald Professor of Art History and executive officer of the PhD program in art history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.