The Lanford Wilson collection of self-taught art

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, November/December 2012 |

It was meant to be a souvenir. It became a passion. Lanford Wilson (Fig. 4), the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright of Burn This!, Talley's Folly, and Fifth of July was in Natchitoches, Louisiana, in the late 1980s, watching the filming of Steel Magnolias (1989). Adapted from a successful play by native son Robert Harling, the movie tells the story of valiant southern belles facing life's challenges with love, laughter, tears, friendship-and good hair.

Born in Missouri, Wilson had come to New York in the early 1960s, where he became involved with the burgeoning Off-Off-Broadway movement. After 1964, when his The Madness of Lady Bright was produced at the legendary Caffe Cino, his career took off. Over the next decades, he became one of America's leading dramatists as his plays moved from the periphery to Broadway-and beyond Broadway to television with the adaptation of his The Hot L Baltimore (Fig. 1 photo of Wilson).1

While in Natchitoches, Wilson happened to attend a retrospective exhibition of the brightly colored works of self-taught artist Clementine Hunter (1886 or 1887-1988). A lifelong resident of the parish, Hunter had been the cook at the storied Melrose Plantation. Built in the nineteenth century by the Metoyers, free people of color, decades, he became one of America's leading dramatists as his plays moved from the periphery to Broadway-and beyond Broadway to television with the adaptation of his The Hot L Baltimore.1 (Fig. 1 photo of Wilson)

While in Natchitoches, Wilson happened to attend a retrospective exhibition of the brightly colored works of self-taught artist Clementine Hunter (1886 or 1887-1988). A lifelong resident of the parish, Hunter had been the cook at the storied Melrose Plantation. Built in the nineteenth century by the Metoyers, free people of color, Melrose had become an artists' colony in the early twentieth century, spearheaded by its owner, Carmelite "Cammie" Henry.2 Surrounded by artists, Hunter eventually picked up the brush herself and discovered a career as an artist. By her death, she was one of Louisiana's leading painters-a Born in Missouri, Wilson had come to New York in the early 1960s, where he became involved with the burgeoning Off-Off-Broadway movement. After 1964, when his The Madness of Lady Bright was produced at the legendary Caffe Cino, his career took off. Over the next decades, he became one of America's leading dramatists as his plays moved from the periphery to Broadway-and beyond Broadway to television with the adaptation of his The Hot L Baltimore.1

While in Natchitoches, Wilson happened to attend a retrospective exhibition of the brightly colored works of self-taught artist Clementine Hunter. A lifelong resident of the parish, Hunter had been the cook at the storied Melrose Plantation. Built in the nineteenth century by the Metoyers, free people of color, Melrose had become an artists' colony in the early twentieth century, spearheaded by its owner, Carmelite "Cammie" Henry.2 Surrounded by artists, Hunter eventually picked up the brush herself and discovered a career as an artist. By her death, she was one of Louisiana's leading painters-and well on her way to becoming a legend among twentieth-century self-taught artists.

Wilson purchased a floral still life by Hunter (Fig. 6). As he later said, he thought the painting of zinnias "would be a nice memento of my trip there."3 But before he knew it, he had developed a passion for self-taught art that would eventually result in a significant collection of paintings and works on paper.

The one-time art history major described his first encounter with self-taught art in terms reminiscent of a conversion: "I thought I knew [what art was], was pretty cocky about it in fact, and it slapped me (as mother would say) into next Sunday."4 Once bitten by the bug, Wilson began to research artists and work with dealers. Within a few years, he had amassed nearly three hundred works.5

According to archival records, his most intense period of collecting was between 1988 and 1990. On one day in February 1989, for instance, he acquired one drawing by J. B. Murry, three works by Bessie Harvey, and two paintings by Mose Tolliver, all from the same dealer.6 The pace of his collecting has something in common with his description of his work habits as a writer: "I'll work one day and then flail around for a week, trying to work but also trying not to force it. Then maybe I'll work for three days in a row....When the play is finished...I go back to it for a second draft and I'm very disciplined-getting up early and working eight or nine, sometimes ten or twelve hours."7

Wilson described the works he sought as being "honest, shockingly sincere, and unfettered."8 He collected multiple drawings by Eddie Arning (see Fig. 10) and Ray Hamilton, paintings and works on paper by William L. Hawkins, drawings by Shields Landon Jones, paintings by Gregory Van Maanen (see Fig. 7), and a suite of landscape drawings by Joseph E. Yoakum (see Fig. 15).

And while such artists were by that time firmly established stars in the self-taught firmament, Wilson also bought works by unknown or little known figures, such as a drawing of an eyeball by an artist known only as "M.B.," or two paintings by someone called "Rose" (see Fig. 5). He also bought works directly from artists encountered by chance, such as two paintings by Matthew Brzostoski that he saw on a street while out walking with a friend (see Fig. 9).9

While he was primarily interested in paintings and drawings, Wilson eventually developed a taste for some sculpture despite his initial claim that "[W]hile I can appreciate very far out, very strange paintings, some of the sculpture is just too far out, too strange."10 He bought six sculptures by Earnest "Popeye" Reed in various mediums, as well as two charming animals by Felipe Benito Archuleta (see Fig. 11), two assemblages  by Quinton Stephenson, and a dramatic, large painted metal relief by David Butler. In addition, several works of decorative folk art eventually entered his collection, including two painted game boards and several works of furniture.

Like collectors in any field, Wilson also sold art in his collection to fund his new enthusiasm. In 1989 and 1990, he consigned two mid-1950s etchings by Louise Nevelson, a Fernand Léger gouache, watercolors by Yvonne Jacquette, Paul Jenkins, and Tom Wesselmann, and an untitled 1961 abstraction by Conrad Marca Relli, for sale at Christie's.11

And again, like other collectors, he pruned and refined his selections of some artists. He had three paintings by Justin McCarthy before settling on the rare image of a zebra in Figure 12. He also divested himself of other artists entirely, including Minnie Evans, Howard Finster, Jon Serl, and Bill Traylor. These choices sometimes reflected the evolution of his taste but were often also a response to the economic uncertainties of life in the theater.12 As he candidly wrote to a longtime dealer, "On the subject of money, very dear to my heart this month as I don't have any, I should take this chance to say something about my account with you....I'll try to settle it the next time someone crosses my palm....I'm asking all my creditors to light a candle, or whatever works for them, about the middle of March as I have a play scheduled for Broadway around then. It probably doesn't have a chance in hell, little does in that venue anymore, but we might as well be hopeful."13

Wilson's collecting slowed down toward the turn of the twenty-first century, even as he continued to write in his home in Sag Harbor, New York, where he lived surrounded by the art he had assembled. Now, a year and a half after his death at age seventy-three, the playwright's collection of 179 works of folk and self-taught art has been given by his estate to the Milwaukee Art Museum, where folk and self-taught art have long been valued. The gift of the Wilson Collection significantly builds on the museum's strengths in the field. In 2014 it will celebrate Wilson's legacy with an exhibition of the collection and a catalogue.

William Keyse Rudolph is the Dudley J. Godfrey Jr. Curator of American Art and Decorative Arts at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

I gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Jennifer Otte Vanim, Philadelphia Museum of Art; and Isabelle Loring Wallace, University of Georgia, in obtaining research materials.

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

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