Modern sculptors and American folk art


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.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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