Crossing borders, ignoring boundaries

Editorial Staff Art

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.


“Our ancestors, who won their indepen­dence, were citizens who wanted to be painted as they saw themselves. They were not primitive, nor were the artists who painted them. These artists invented a style that grew little by little until, in the hands of a great artist like Ammi Phillips, it became as sophisticated as pre-Revolutionary Copley. Though rural, like most of the country, itinerant painters knew of each other’s work. Portraiture was patronized, but artists could decorate and sculpt in the spare, yet elegant, style of their choice. By 1830 the children of those who had grown wealthy had begun to prefer the continental style, though the great homegrown artists continued to develop until the 1840s, even after their style was supplanted, as the country became more urban.What is it about Phillips’s Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog that makes it so iconic? (I have a spectacular Phillips from about 1840, a portrait of a young man from Albany, probably a writer, who holds a feather pen. Painting for painting, I think it’s just as good as the artist’s red dress pictures though a fraction of the value.) I always look at Girl in Red Dress when I am at the E-train stop where it has long advertised the American Folk Art Museum, trying to understand its appeal. Its static composi­tion and dynamic red shout for recognition of the new country it represents. Artists as dissimilar as Alex Katz and Ellsworth Kelly have drawn with great benefit from this style.”

Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog by Ammi Phillips (1788-1865), vicinity of Amenia, New York, 1830-1835. Oil on canvas, 30 by 25 inches. Gift of the Siegman Trust, Ralph Esmerian, trustee.



A sculptor, painter, and visual poet, Richard Tuttle (1941-) makes intimately scaled, eccentric work out of humble materials. Tuttle is an admirer and collector of the work of Ammi Phillips, Felipe Benito Archuleta, and other American folk and self-taught artists. Photograph of Richard Tuttle by Christine Nguyen, courtesy of Pace Gallery, New York.




“I’m attracted to the obsessiveness and the intense feeling of devotion in so much of this art. Whether it’s documenting reality or an imagined world, there’s a sense of dedication to it as a daily practice. Martín Ramírez’s Reina shows the integrity of the artist’s hand. It’s intense and time consum­ing and that’s encapsulated in the piece. The scale is intimate so you’re able to retrace every line with your eyes. By looking, you can almost give back the time that was put into it. There’s something that can’t be forced with that.

These artists are not hid­ing behind academic skills. I enjoy the awkwardness and stiffness of the figures, which make the works more sincere and instinctual. In The Artist and his Model by Morris Hirshfield, the nude woman’s anatomy is non­existent. I was think­ing about self-taught and awkward figures in my own work, and how anatomy is not taught at many academies and art schools anymore. A lot of my teachers were con­ceptual artists who didn’t know how to draw and who hated the figure. I was interested in it though, and it was a fight to have any kind of critique about it. The flatness in this work is also something I’m ob­sessed with. I look at Japanese prints and Persian miniatures. It’s about displaying everything at once, to give an account of what’s important, like the symbols in the Bird of Paradise quilt top. It’s very pared down. The accessibil­ity and straightforward nature allow the viewer to enter without any set rules. People always ask me why the women in my work look so sad and I think it’s sort of an odd question, but then I look at these works and everyone looks so sad and has a remorseful look in their eyes that I can appreciate.

Bird of Paradise quilt top, vi­cinity of Albany, New York, 1858-1863. Cotton, wool, and silk with ink and silk embroi­dery, 84 ½ by 69 . inches. Gift of the Trustees of the Amer­ican Folk Art Museum; photo­graph by Gavin Ashworth.



Amy Cutler (1974-) is best known for her meticulously rendered paintings and drawings of female figures in imaginary landscapes often shown in groups and engaged in labor. Cutler has exhibited widely and was included in Dargerism: Contemporary Artists and Henry Darger, a 2008 group show at the American Folk Art Museum. Photograph of Amy Cutler by Witold Riedel, courtesy of Leslie Tonkonow, New York.




“Folk art works connect us to art that’s made in a non-studio space. I like to call it kitchen table art. There are many ways to tell a story. To mistake things like shifts in scale or flattening for being naive is absurd. These are choices, and they have a history. It’s never a question of a lack of sophistication. In a picture like the mourn­ing piece for Sarah Eliza­beth Burnham the space is constructed so that we know what the most important things are: the woman and the tomb. And of course the weeping willow is an extraor­dinary framing device. It has the conventions of tradi­tional mourning pictures and samplers but it’s also mixed media-watercolor, gouache, ink, and gold foil on paper.

The painting of Aurora in her bird-driven sleigh also has gold foil and a gilded frame. It’s a bit fancy but also non-hierarchical-whatever looks good goes in the picture.Text and image, I’m always drawn to that combina­tion. One work where the writ­ing and image are totally integrated is James Castle’s fabulous handmade book. Undulating lines replace actual words, but it’s still a kind of writing and an extremely sophisticated understanding of how lan­guage works as a form on the page. There’s no distinc­tion between pictography and language. That’s how you pack in a lot of infor­mation. Samplers have that too, and they’re also inter­esting in terms of women’s education. You could think of them as constricting, but they’re also liberating because girls embroidered at schools, which got them out of the confines of their homes. The learning may have been prescriptive, but it also gave women a chance to mingle so­cially and to be thought worthy of instruction.”

Aurora, New England, 1818-1822. Watercolor on silk with applied gold foil and paper label, in original gilded wood frame, 21 3/8 by 24 5/8 inches. Ralph Esmerian gift.

Elaine Reichek (1943-) deploys knitting and embroidery in her conceptually driven work. Trained as a painter (her teacher was Ad Reinhardt), she taught herself needlework to create samplers that are based on traditional eighteenth- and nineteenth-century examples, but hers often contain text or verse that comments on women, work, and gender. Photograph of Elaine Reichek by Paul Kennedy, courtesy of Zach Feuer Gallery, New York.



SELF-TAUGHT GENIUS: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum will travel to five cities following its New York City premier. The schedule is:

Figge Art Museum, Davenport, Iowa: November 15 to March 15, 2015

Mingei International Museum, San Diego, California: April 18 to August 16, 2015

Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas: October 10, 2015 to January 3, 2016

New Orleans Museum of Art: February 26 through May 22, 2016

Saint Louis Art Museum: June 19 to September 11, 2016