Crossing borders, ignoring boundaries

Originally published in March/April 2014

For the past few years, while much of the art world has been gnashing its teeth over the fate of the American Folk Art Museum's former home in midtown Manhattan, the institution itself has continued to pursue its critical work of shaping the discourse in the field. Since decamping in 2011 from the soon-to-be-demolished Tod Williams and Billie Tsien-designed building that housed it for a decade to its Lincoln Center space, the museum has mounted nearly a dozen shows drawing on its incomparable permanent collection. Although those exhibitions were well-received, it is the forthcoming one, Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum, and its accompanying catalogue that may change the way we talk about folk and self-taught art. 

Reina by Martín Ramírez (1895-1963), Auburn, California, c. 1960-1963. Paint, crayon, graphite, and collage on pieced paper, 48 by 16 ½ inches. The works illus­trated are in the American Folk Art Museum, New York. Gift of the Family of Dr. Max Dunievitz and the Estate of Martín Ramírez © Estate of Martín Ramírez; photograph by Ellen McDermott. 

On view in New York from May 13 through August 17, Self-Taught Genius is comprised of more than one hundred examples from the collection. Last June the museum was awarded a $1.6 million grant by the Henry Luce Foundation to support the exhibition, which will travel to five other venues in the United States. That it will tour is especially significant given its premise. "This is specifically an American show and a peculiarly American story," says Stacy C. Hollander, deputy director for curatorial affairs and chief curator of the museum, who co-curated the exhibition with Valérie Rousseau, curator of art of the self-taught and art brut. "Ours is a self-taught country," Hollander says. "There was an entrenched culture of self-definition that provided a direction for most of the population in every area, from science to art." The term self-taught, Hollander explains, provides a "rational basis for the continuum of art-making from the past to the present." 

And so the works chosen to tell this story range from the late eighteenth century to the present and include landscape and portrait paintings, scenic overmantels, stoneware, quilts, embroidery, drawings, and assemblages by known and unknown makers. The dialogue is cross-departmental; conscious that they are assembling a mix of traditional folk pieces with the work of contemporary self-taught artists, Hollander and Rous­seau have grouped the works thematically, seeking common ground between them. "Some­times the connections are aesthetic, but the similarities are more in the creative process than in the results," Rousseau says. "Many people will be surprised that we are mixing these artists," she adds. "We're showing them as a group of people who rethought the world and, through their ingenuity, gave and give us a chance to reevaluate our conceptions of it."

Mourning piece for Sarah Elizabeth Burnham by Samuel Addison Shute (1803-1836) and Ruth Whittier Shute (1803-1882), probably Lowell, Massachusetts, c. 1831-1832. Watercolor, gouache, graphite, and ink on paper, with applied gold foil, 15 . by 19 inches. Gift of Ralph Esmerian; photograph © John Bigelow Taylor. 

It is also impossible to ignore the influence of these artists on those who operate inside the traditional academic and gallery structure. For that reason we have asked three notable contemporary artists to speak to their admiration for folk and self-taught art. They make it clear that the boundary between the two realms is an artificial one. Erasing that boundary is one of the curators' goals. "The debate over terminology is important but it's a really old debate," Rousseau says. "I think we should get past that." Self-Taught Genius ought to make that possible.

Handmade book by James Castle (1899-1977), Boise, Idaho, 1920-1950. Soot and saliva on found paper, bound with string, 12 by 10 ¼ inches (closed). Gift of Thomas Isenberg; Ash­worth photograph.


by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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