Thursday, February 28, 2013

Not Your Grandma’s Moses: Taking Folk Art to the Street (in Manhattan)

Guest post by Karen Mulder
Howard Finster, If a Shoe Fits, Wear It, 1977; Cathedral in Heaven (closed view),1979
Howard Finster, the Georgia preacher who became the darling of the New York art scene, once told a New York Times reporter that he could easily sell the paint-spattered sneakers he happened to be wearing for five, ten thousand dollars. Time was, he could hardly afford to feed his family. The man who preached a church down to four members ‘so I could really DO somethin’ with it,’ as he once said, also managed to snag the longest ever interview on the Johnny Carson Show (largely because he started proselytizing the audience, and Carson thought it was bad form to cut him off).
But Finster, who died in 2001, had no pretensions about the works that took him from itinerant church-planter to art world celebrity.  When fancy-schmancy gallerists from SoHo and TriBeca visited his studio and Paradise Garden in Summerville, Georgia, to snag the latest works for their adoring clients, Finster wouldn’t let them see a thing until he led them to an open coffin inscribed with biblical apologias concerning their salvation, and gave them several earfuls of sermonizing. But ever since the day a daub of paint on his finger told him to make art, he was unapologetic in speaking about it.  “Mah work is scrubby,” he once said in his earnest, deep South twang. “It’s baaaad, nasty art. But it’s tellin’ somethin’. You don’t hafta be a perfeck artist to work in art.”
Finster’s imperfect compositions—just a few of the 50,000 he meticulously numbered over 25 years of obsessive productivity—speak out with other so-called ‘masterworks’ in a profusely illustrated 2001 catalog called American Anthem, which features the collection of the American Folk Art Museum.

“Mah work is scrubby. It’s baaaad, nasty art. But it’s tellin’ somethin’. You don’t hafta be a perfeck artist to work in art.”—Howard Finster

Is it patently feckless to slap the weight of a ‘masterwork’ on art made of string, tin, matches, wood, odd fabric swatches, bottle caps, old buttons, and cheap lead house paint—generally the kind of stuff you find in the cobwebby corners of a dusty garage? By the time Grandma Moses died, in 1961, she’d probably had as much print assigned to her oeuvre as Pollock had to abstract expressionism—but she was still a standout. Eventually, folk art went through various terminological filters imposed on it by art historians or critics, who accepted or rejected qualifiers that were meant to validate or include it, yet still distinguish it from so-called ‘fine’ art —a term that may shortly disappear. It’s been called primitive, self-taught, outsider, vernacular, visionary (in Baltimore’s museum), or l’art brut (roughly translating to ‘raw’ art, this is Dubuffet’s rubric for his collection in Lausanne).
Game of Chance: Slaves and Auctioneer, mid-1800s, possibly Maine origins
By whatever name you call it, the terminological wrangling mostly reveals how academicians and curators have grappled with a prolific mess of pieces put together by dedicated, yet untempered, untrained artists. The self-proclaimed or unproclaimed artists just kept making the art, regardless of the vagaries of scholarly validation. So Grandma Moses (Anna Mary Robertson Moses of Rensselaer County, New York) is now one of thousands represented in major collections throughout the nation, accompanying the anonymous crafters of anniversary ‘tins’—meticulous metallic versions of everyday artifacts given to those celebrating their nuptials.
Anniversary Tin, unidentified, c.1880, Gobles, MI
American Anthem celebrates the founding of the new museum on West 53rd Street, just a hot dog stand away from MoMA. Both museums had to be shoehorned into former townhouse and storefront properties, although the Rockefeller’s shoeboxes were much larger for MoMA. The single width, five-storey-high façade of the American Folk Art Museum, designed by Billie Tsien and Tod Williams, is clad with pitted, hammered, cast-metal panels that speak to craft and irregularity, only a few imaginary doors away from the site of its original townhouse gallery opening in 1963. The director’s Foreword, which tidily sums up the advances and challenges of the entire enterprise, is followed by two short curatorial takes that underscore the museum’s philosophy about the art it celebrates.
Along with Finster, the celebrants include all the major ‘players,’ like Bessie Harvey (Faces of Africa I [tree branch], 1994, Alcoa, TN) or the renowned New Mexican santeros maker José Benito Ortega; quilters working in the early 19th century with glazed wool and indigo dyes to those from (of all places) Queens, Long Island; and a tremendous swath of unidentified, unidentifiable unknowns. Collectors will appreciate the inclusivity, beginning as early as 1690 with quilts, hooked rugs, portraits, furniture, samplers, funerary images, shop signs and paintings, and going right up to the 1990s. Masonite, as an invaluable art material, reaches its supremacy here.
Charles Dellshau, Flying Machine 4575: Broad Cutt, c. 1920, Houston, Texas
Possum Trot Dolls, c. 1953, Calvin and Ruby Black, Yermo, CA
Catalog notes in the back fill out the known narratives and curatorial fillips of each piece. You may learn, for example, that Prussian-born Gold Rusher Charles Dellshau made cartoonish watercolors of a clunky flying machine that purportedly flew in the 1850s, although the plans were guarded in the secret files of an aviation club and were never shown to anyone. Or you might learn about the Possum Trot Dolls that acted in roadside “Fantasy Doll Shows” during the 1950s, along stretches of the Mojave Desert in San Berdoo, California. The stories of railroad workers, former slaves, itinerant preachers, barbers, and the like come through in such splendid variations, flavored by the real life experiences of African-Americans, native Americans, Latino-Americans, and immigrants of all stripes. It is a richly visual tour of a rich, if scrubby, world of unfettered art.

Art and architectural historian Karen Mulder is seriously attempting to recover from academia by guest writing for The Daily Glean, and was contemplating a Howard Finster cartoon portrait of John F. Kennedy that she owns as she wrote this post.

1 comment:

  1. a) Finster of course is fine, but for my money the great American primitive religious artwork is James Hampton’s The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly, built over 14 years and adorned in aluminum foil, which can be seen at the Smithsonian. (I shouldn't say “for my money,” because it's priceless.)

    b) I really like that 1850s flying machine inscribed 'Vogel,' German of course for 'bird.' Funny that it comes from Texas; years ago I wrote an article for Air & Space/Smithsonian about the Ezekiel Airship, which a Baptist preacher designed in east Texas after reading his Bible, and which people down there say flew long before the Wright Brothers ever did. (Probably not.) One guy has posted a good photo online that gives you the general idea .