Utility, artistry, and soul: The collection of Allan and Penny Katz

Photography by Gavin Ashworth | August 2009 | “It escapes the form,” Allan Katz will say, to explain why he favors one particular piece of American folk sculpture over others of its genre. What he means is that the artist or craftsman, while satisfying the needs of the client—the nineteenth-century tobacconist who wanted an Indian figure, the barber who needed a pole (see Fig. 5), the shoemaker who wanted a gigantic but dapper two-tone leather boot as the literal foot for a sidewalk-sale rack-—also took the opportunity to do something more. He injected an extra element of imagination, of aesthetic sensibility and daring, of vitality, into his work, transforming what could have been a merely utilitarian object into art— America’s art, Katz insists. And America’s history.

Katz has been studying this extra dimension for more than forty years, first as a passionate collector of American folk art, and for the last two decades as one of the field’s leading dealers. He and his wife Penny, his business partner and critical alter ego, are as the Brooklyn-born Katz would say, “go-to guys” in the field. As such, Katz clearly escapes the form himself.

His collecting has been shaped, he will tell you, by a mathematically inclined mind, one that finds great satisfaction in order and balance. He started with stamps and coins as a boy; when in 1949 his family moved to a house in Flushing, then on the outskirts of the city, he pursued insects and butterflies in the nearby woods, eventually opening a natural history museum in his parents’ basement. Admission was a nickel and, he recalls, there was a “line around the block—well, maybe four or five kids”—on the day when he put on display a monkey skull donated by his uncle, a scientist.

After completing a master’s degree in economics, Katz cofounded an electronics business with his college roommate. Not surprisingly, the young businessman’s collecting itch turned to advertising materials, specifically nineteenth-century stone lithographs. By the mid-1970s he had amassed one of the leading collections of such signs and tin containers (see Fig. 15). He says he enjoyed the visual balance and order of the layouts, qualities essential in objects designed to communicate during the interval of a brief glance from a passerby. In retrospect, Katz adds, he was also enjoying something else he found in the advertisements.

“What I was seeing, though I did not know it,” he says, “was folk art pictured in these two-dimensional signs that I would shortly come across three-dimensionally.” The staple imagery of his lithographs were romanticized street scenes with trolleys, tobacco figures, and rural homesteads with weathervanes. These were the objects Katz had begun to notice at the antiques shows he was visiting, and when he took a closer look he was hooked. Here again he found the symmetry, balance, and order that appeals to him, along with another element: a fascinating and seemingly contradictory combination of naiveté and sophistication.

Of the city, he pursued insects and butterflies in the nearby woods, eventually opening a natural history museum in his parents’ basement. Admission was a nickel and, he recalls, there was a “line around the block—well, maybe four or five kids”—on the day when he put on display a monkey skull donated by his uncle, a scientist.

After completing a master’s degree in economics, Katz cofounded an electronics business with his college roommate. Not surprisingly, the young businessman’s collecting itch turned to advertising materials, specifically nineteenth-century lithographs. By the early 1970s he had amassed one of the leading collections of these posters, signs, and product labels. He says he enjoyed the visual balance and order of the layouts, qualities essential in objects designed to communicate during the interval of a brief glance from a passerby. In retrospect, Katz adds, he was also enjoying something else he found in the advertisements.

“What I was seeing, though I did not know it,” he says, “was folk art pictured in these two-dimensional signs that I would shortly come across three-dimensionally.” The staple imagery of his lithographs were romanticized street scenes with trolleys, tobacco figures, and rural homesteads with weather vanes. These were the objects Katz had begun to notice at the antiques shows he was visiting, and when he took a closer look he was hooked. Here again he found the symmetry, balance, and order that appeals to him, along with another element: a fascinating and seemingly contradictory combination of naiveté and sophistication.

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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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