Pas Banal: A collection of folk, self-taught, and outsider art

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, July/August 2013.

They met again on a Manhattan bus years after they first knew each other from the Chapin School, where their children were friends. Between them they have five daughters, the youngest then still in college. By 2010 Edward Vermont Blanchard Jr., a financier who serves as president of the American Folk Art Museum board, and Leslie Tcheyan, founder and designer of jewelry and luxury product atelier L'Artigiano, had merged households, exchanging apartments in the East 90s for a loft in Tribeca. Their requirements were few but precise: plenty of light, not direct. And walls, preferably tall and bare. "We walked into this big, empty space and it was pretty fantastic," Tcheyan says, remembering how sunshine spilled from large west- and north-facing windows onto the expanse of wooden floor.

Three years into their domestic project, Monty and Che, as friends know them, occupy the space well. They are unassuming and direct, their unvarnished candor startling in two who have known life at its glossiest. Having attained much they require less, their newly streamlined lives breezily in sync with lower Manhattan's youthful, caffeinated vibe. "Ce n'est pas banal," Tcheyan's French mother exclaimed the first time she saw their new place. The name stuck. Down to the couple's stationery, it's been Pas Banal ever since.

Other second-nesters might have occupied themselves by selecting furniture or remodeling the kitchen. For Blanchard and Tcheyan, the challenge was to arrange their collection of outsider and self-taught art, which Blanchard began assembling in 1984, as a syncopated summary of their own voyage of discovery. The installation offers fresh evidence that collecting itself is a creative exercise.

From floor to ceiling, the salon-style hanging fills every inch, imparting the feeling of an old-time cabinet of curiosities or even, perhaps, a fecund environment of the sort created by self-taught artists such as Howard Finster, who devised his Paradise Garden on four acres in rural Georgia. "It's not a mechanical process. We spend a lot of time arranging. It's very satisfying when it works," says Blanchard, who elicits an orchestrated performance from his unruly chorus. He pauses to inspect a collaged street scene, urban and gritty, by C. T. McClusky, a self-taught California artist who is said to have worked as a circus clown. Two more McCluskys call out from across the room.

First-time visitors to the Blanchard-Tcheyan ménage are struck by the eclecticism of what they see. Dozens of artists jostle for attention in large and small works of every description and all mediums. Sculpture gathers atop partitions and collects in shelves, compelling closer inspection.

"Monty has an adventurous eye," says Frank Maresca of Ricco-Maresca Gallery, who met Blanchard and his late wife, Anne Hill Blanchard, thirty years ago. The New York dealer especially admires Dust Bowl Collage by William L. Hawkins, an elegiac tour de force in black and gray that is among roughly eighty works that the Blanchards gave the American Folk Art Museum in 1998 (Fig. 10). The broadly diverse selection of twentieth-century self-taught art includes important examples by, among others, Bill Traylor, Adolf Wölfli (1864-1930), James Castle (1899-1977), Bessie Harvey (1929-1994), and Morton Bartlett (1909-1993), a New England isolate whose eroticized sculp¬tures of children fracture Norman Rockwell's saccharine homilies.

Thoughtful and precise, Blanchard has a way of penetrating a piece, diving beneath its superficial attributes to gauge its emotional essence. Of Bartlett, he says, "He is challenging but also true and deep. We recognized his work as unique, an individual expression that is, in fact, artistic."

"Outsider art has an immediacy that appeals to me. It's unfiltered, unmodulated," Blanchard explains. Among the collectors he most admires are Philadelphia modernist Dr. Albert C. Barnes, for his progressive taste and intuitive approach to display; and Herbert Waide Hemphill Jr., an American Folk Art Museum founder who stimulated interest in self-taught art with his vanguard 1970 exhibition Twentieth Century Folk Art and 1974 book 20th-Century American Folk Art and Artists, co-written with Julia Weissman. The Smithsonian American Art Museum acquired the lion's share of Hemphill's collection between 1986 and 1998. Since then, once outré outsider art has steadily moved mainstream.

As southerners, Blanchard and his late wife felt an affinity for self-taught art, much of which is visionary or even overtly religious and not a little of which was made by African Americans, too often marginalized by poverty and lack of formal education, recurring themes in the outsider narrative. From a small town in rural eastern North Carolina, Blanchard met Anne, an Alabama native, in Boston.

The couple combined trips home with visits to local folk artists. In North Carolina they claimed a fearsome cement reptile by Garysburg craftsman Q. J. Stephenson (see Fig. 3) and a bust of Martin Luther King by Ahoskie woodcarver Arliss Watford (b. 1924). When a concrete bust by Vernon Burwell of Rocky Mount surfaced in the Sotheby's 1996 sale of the collection of choreographers and dancers Geoffrey Holder and Carmen de Lavallade, the Blanchards, having met the artist, recognized the work as a self-portrait (see Fig. 3).

The Blanchards moved to Manhattan in 1979. "The big names in the Soho art scene at the time-Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Robert Longo-were distant, cool, and intellectual. What was going on in the East Village was more representational and direct, and more to our taste. We fell in love with a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) but had to pass. At several thousand dollars, it was over our budget," Blanchard says.

The couple began buying what Blanchard calls outsider art in 1984, after he was introduced to it by a colleague, Philadelphia attorney Sheldon M. Bonovitz, whose collection, formed with his wife, Jill, is a promised gift to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

"I walked into his office and there were works by the masters, artists such as Bill Traylor, Joseph Yoakum, Simon Sparrow, and William Hawkins. Seeing my interest, Sheldon referred me to John Ollman at what is now the Fleisher/Ollman Gallery in Philadelphia. I went immediately and placed a number of things on hold. Through John we soon met the New York dealers Shari Cavin and Randall Morris, with whom we spent much time."

Blanchard bought one piece from Ollman on the spot, a two-foot-high painted and mir¬rored glass tower (Fig. 4), meant to represent heaven, by Howard Finster, a southern minister who spread the gospel through garrulous paintings on board and other unconventional materials. There is genius in Finster's adroit representation of the afterlife's vaporous heights, along with shrewd comedy in his depiction of the crowded confines behind the pearly gates. With characteristic élan, the artist signed the piece: "Howard Finster, Man of Vision."

Another treasure is Running Rabbit by Traylor, who was born a slave on an Alabama plantation and developed a knack for conveying movement-and, implicitly, narrative-with a minimum of piquant gesture. "It's probably the Traylor I would grab in a fire," Blanchard says of the colored-pencil drawing of the startled creature with upright ears and outstretched legs that hangs above the fireplace.

Blanchard recalls that he traded one of Martín Ramírez's signature caballero drawings of Mexican cowboys for four drawings by William O. Golding (1874-1943), a landscape on paper by Yoakum (see Fig. 5), and a painting by Sam Doyle, who explored the African American experience in the Gullah South. Two works by the Mexican American immigrant Ramírez, a brilliant draftsman and institutionalized schizophrenic, remain in the collection, confirming the artist's graphic originality and Escher-like fascination with perspective (see Figs. 3, 5).

In one of their few modifications to the loft, Blanchard and Tcheyan erected the partitions that partially enclose a dining area and provide additional space for displaying light-sensitive vernacular photography. Above the dining table, in a sly poke at convention, they hung a hollow-eyed family group by Jon Serl (see Fig. 5). Visible beyond the dining area are two large, colorful paintings by Doyle-one of a devil spirit, the other of Ray Charles (see Fig. 9).

A group of works on the theme of Adam and Eve includes a carved and painted panel by Herbert Singleton (Fig. 6), who recasts lapsarian legend as racial struggle. Singleton's conspicuously white serpent seduces a submissive black Eve. In the bath, an emancipated Eve casts a lusty eye on the forbidden fruit in an anonymous oil painting of about 1940. Above a doorway, pinup photographs of his dishy wife, Marie, by Eugene Von Bruenchenhein (1910-1983), are playful and intimate.

As president of the American Folk Art Museum, Blanchard saw the institution through perilous times, earning a reputation as an effective, collaborative manager. He is quick to credit the contributions of others, noting that it is especially through the leadership of chairperson Laura Parsons and the generosity of Joyce B. Cowin, a trustee, that the museum is now on solid footing.

Sometimes lost in the coverage of the institution's near-death experience and the fate of its former home-the Williams and Tsien-designed bijou that MoMA acquired and may demolish-is the American Folk Art Museum's outsized role in moving critical conversation on outsider and self-taught art forward and center. The museum began in 1965 with an exhibition of the embraceable stone sculptures of William Edmondson (1874-1951) and continues this summer with twin displays and a symposium, set for September 16, devoted to Bill Traylor, whose elegantly quirky works on paper transcend their genre in their wide appeal.

"There are people looking at this material who never thought about folk art. They are fascinated by its excitement and energy. It resonates as something new, fresh, and meaningful," says Tim Hill, a Bir¬mingham, Michigan, gallerist for whom the fine-folk distinction has never held much meaning.

The museum lent Il Enciclopedico Palazzo del Mondo (The Encyclopedic Palace of the World), an eleven-foot tall architec¬tural model by the Italian-American immigrant Marino Auriti (1891-1980), to this year's Venice Biennale, where it is the centerpiece of the International Art Exhibition. In what is becoming accepted practice, curator Massimiliano Gioni is pairing outsiders like Morton Bartlett with consummate art world insiders such as Cindy Sherman, both known for their conceptual photography. In keeping with these worldly times, the American Folk Art Museum's new curator of twentieth-century and contemporary art, Canadian-born art historian Valérie Rousseau, brings an international perspective to her work.

Blanchard and Tcheyan, too, have moved beyond the typecast confines of American art, adding floral abstractions by the Czech artist Anna Zemánková (1908-1986), cobwebbed towers by Frenchman Sylvain Corentin (see Fig. 2), and the twiggy assemblages of Sylvain and Ghyslaine Staëlens, whose desiccated, fiber-wrapped figures dare one to look away (see Fig. 8). Known as A.C.M., the French couple Alfred and Corinne Marié weld tiny bits of salvaged electronics into intricate tabletop architecture (Fig. 7). The collectors see elegance and coherence in these eccentric, single-minded visions.

Blanchard shares the outsider's impulse to fill the page. At Tcheyan's insistence, a spot was left blank on their bedroom wall. "I would never want to feel that we had finished," she says.

Wangle a visit-or two-to Pas Banal. The place has an improvisational flair. New pieces arrive. Others depart, rarely permanently. Generous with the trove, the couple lent works by Ramírez to Madrid's Reina Sofia Museum and is currently loaning an ink by Achilles G. Rizzoli (1896-1982) to London's Hayward Gallery, and a Serl to San Jose State University's Thompson Gallery.
Blanchard and Tcheyan started their new life in Tribeca by moving eight pieces into the empty space. Among them were a nineteenth-century portrait, a family heirloom; High Wire Lines, a resolutely forward-looking crayon draw¬ing of about 1965 by Eddie Arning (1898-1993); and two favorite pieces of African currency, a spiral and a bell, one suggesting life's meandering beauty, the other to ring in the future.

"Art is not about accepting or rejecting, it's about understanding. Monty and Leslie are on a journey," Tim Hill observes. Blanchard says simply, "We were lucky enough to see things early and willing to go where others weren't."

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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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