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They Taught Themselves
American Self-Taught Painters Between the World Wars

January 09, 2009 to March 14, 2009

In 1942, Sidney Janis published his book They Taught Themselves: American Primitive Painters of the 20th Century. Later hailed as classic, this was the first study of its kind. Janis's book established the framework and foundation for the field of contemporary self-taught art as we know it today. In an introduction that feels remarkably fresh, the author grappled with issues that still confound scholars: nomenclature, quality and definitions. Relying as much as possible on his subjects' own words, he presented capsule biographies of 30 artists. Of these, five (Morris Hirshfield, John Kane, Grandma Moses, Joseph Pickett and Horace Pippin) are considered among the most important self-taught artists of the twentieth century, and an additional seven (Emile Branchard, Henry Church, William Doriani, Lawrence Lebduska, Israel Litwak, Patsy Santo and Patrick J. Sullivan), while not as well remembered, made significant contributions to the field in the first decades of that century. Although Alfred Barr, in his introduction to They Taught Themselves, gently chided Janis for being overly inclusive, the author's selections have, on the whole, held up remarkably well.

As an initial attempt to codify a field then in its infancy, They Taught Themselves is today considered a beginning. But the book was, in its own time, the culmination of a fascination with the "primitive" that had gradually permeated the art world over the course of the two preceding decades. After World War I, which temporarily stifled international cultural activity, America began to grapple intently with the lessons of European modernism introduced at the 1913 Armory Show. Proclaiming as its motto "No Jury! No Prizes!" the Society of Independent Artists, incorporated in 1917 and supported by leading figures like Childe Hassam, Maurice Prendergast and William Glackens, made a concerted attempt to bring greater expressive freedom to the New York art scene. It was soon emulated by similar organizations in other cities. Although the embrace of self-taught artists was not explicitly part of the Independents' program, the Society's unjuried annual exhibitions provided a ready outlet for untrained painters, among them Emile Branchard and Patrick J. Sullivan. Inevitably, some forward-thinking artists and dealers began to make the same connection between unschooled talent and modernism that had earlier attracted Kandinsky and Picasso to Henri Rousseau. The New York dealer Stephan Bourgeois exhibited Branchard and later Lawrence Lebduska along with contemporary modernists such as Gaston Lachaise and George Ault. "The future," Bourgeois declared in 1923, "belongs to the Naives and the children."

During the 1920s, interest in the work of contemporary self-taught painters was for the most part exceeded by interest in early American folk art and artifacts. Cutting-edge artists like Charles Demuth, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Elie Nadelman and Charles Sheeler collected the older material, which was publicly exhibited at the Whitney Studio Club (the Whitney Museum's predecessor) in 1924. The dealer Edith Gregor Halpert, who represented Sheeler, Kuniyoshi and Nadelman, was prompted to focus professionally on folk art after the 1929 stock-market crash curtailed the demand for more expensive work by trained American and European masters. Halpert found a willing, and solvent, buyer in Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, whose patronage in turn helped legitimize the folk field. In 1931, Halpert established the American Folk Art Gallery as an offshoot of her Downtown Gallery. Works by trained and untrained artists, seen as complementary components of the modernist enterprise, were often exhibited side-by-side.

A decisive step in the art world's embrace of self-taught painters came in 1927, when the artist Andrew Dasburg convinced the jury of the Carnegie Institute's prestigious Annual International Exhibition of Paintings to accept the work of a common laborer, John Kane. Kane's acceptance occasioned some nasty grumbling on the part of the many trained artists who were rejected by the Carnegie's jury, but Kane went on to prove his mettle, exhibiting at every subsequent International until his death in 1934. He was also included in "annuals" at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in the first and second Biennial Exhibitions at the Whitney Museum (which was founded in 1931). In 1930, Duncan Phillips, a stalwart champion of modern art, purchased the first of several John Kane paintings for his Washington, D.C., museum.

A key catalyst in legitimatizing the field of self-taught art was Holger Cahill, who worked as a curator at the Newark Museum and the Museum of Modern Art before being tapped, in 1935, to head up the Federal Art Project. (Edith Halpert's lover in the early 1930s, Cahill subsequently married Dorothy Miller, a curator at MoMA.) Cahill organized groundbreaking exhibitions of American Primitives and American Folk Sculpture at the Newark Museum in 1930 and 1931 respectively. But his most important curatorial effort was undoubtedly American Folk Art: The Art of the Common Man in America, an exhibition organized in 1932 at MoMA, where Cahill was serving as Acting Director. All three exhibitions focused on pre-twentieth-century material and intermingled utilitarian and non-utilitarian creations indiscriminately. In Cahill's view, it was all "art," regardless of its original context or the maker's intention.

While Cahill clearly exerted a significant influence on the Museum of Modern Art, its founding Director, Alfred Barr, was himself an enthusiastic advocate of self-taught art who readily embraced twentieth-century exponents of the genre. In the decade following its establishment in 1929, MoMA included John Kane in no fewer than four surveys of contemporary trends, among them its fifth-anniversary exhibition, Modern Works of Art. The 1932 American Folk Art show was followed up by a 1938 survey of contemporary self-taught American and European artists,Masters of Popular Painting. In the catalogue for that exhibition, Barr described the self-taught field as one of the "major . . . movements of modern art," on a par with Cubism and Surrealism. Masters of Popular Painting was supplemented in 1939 by a showing of Unknown American Painters. Organized by Sidney Janis, a member of the museum's Advisory Committee, the Unknowns exhibition was a forerunner to They Taught Themselves. In 1941, when MoMA opened its first gallery devoted to the permanent collection, the selection was limited to the work of untrained painters. The Museum Bulletin at the time put forth the guiding premise that "Modern Primitives" (as they were then frequently called) were both more "international in character" than their trained American colleagues and more democratic, in that they "all express the straightforward, innocent and convincing vision of the common man." Barr thought the new display was an ideal way to introduce the American public to the broader tenets of modernism.

As indicated by the oft-repeated phrase "common man," the modernist impulses of the 1920s had by the '30s melded with Depression-era populism. The adjective "popular" in the title Masters of Popular Painting was not intended to connote popularity, let alone commercial success, but rather was used as a synonym for "of the people." Untrained artists represented beliefs America needed in order to survive the Great Depression: democratic egalitarianism, self-made success and resilience in the face of adversity. These artists, plucked from obscurity by the arbiters of art-world trends, represented the melting-pot ideal: they came from all walks of life, all racial, religious and ethnic backgrounds; many of them were immigrants. In the catalogue for the Masters exhibition, Cahill accused traditional art critics of practicing "esthetic Calvinism" by confining their attentions to rarified individuals, ostensibly distinguished from "the great mass of the non-elect by a special sensitiveness." Janis equated unschooled artists with Abraham Lincoln, the iconic hero of the day who happened to be a favorite subject of many self--taught painters. "[Lincoln's] obscure beginnings, his silent struggles with knowledge and his open conflicts with life are their own," Janis wrote. The Depression had created a steady supply of potential self-taught artists (most of whom had previously been employed in other areas), as well as a demand for the grass-roots sensibilities they personified.

Almost all the canonical American self-taught artists of the early twentieth century were "discovered" in the period between John Kane's 1927 debut and the publication of They Taught Themselves in 1942. Like aficionados of "outsider" art in the later twentieth century, those that pioneered the field in the 1930s took to the road (often unpaved in the deeper countryside) to ferret out hidden treasures. Cahill, who regularly went on scouting trips for Halpert, found the paintings of Joseph Pickett, a one-time carnival worker and shopkeeper, in the artist's hometown of New Hope, Pennsylvania, where they had languished unappreciated since his death in 1918. Cahill saw to it that three of Pickett's four surviving works went quickly into the collections of the Newark Museum, the Whitney and MoMA, which included the artist in both its 1932 and 1938 exhibitions of self-taught art. Among the many painters in that 1938 exhibition were some, like John Kane, who already had a track record, and others, such as the disabled World-War-I veteran Horace Pippin, who had only recently come to light. Lawrence Lebduska worked as a decorative muralist for the interior designer Elsie de Wolfe and had been exhibiting since the late 1920s, when he attracted the attention of the violinist and art patron Louis Kaufman. Emile Branchard, who began to paint while recovering from tuberculosis, was discovered by the dealer Stephen Bourgeois at the Society of Independent Artists in 1919. Patrick J. Sullivan likewise showed with the Independents, where his work caught the eyes of Sidney Janis and his wife Harriet in 1937. An unemployed housepainter, Sullivan created a small oeuvre of idiosyncratic, densely layered paintings that he called "parables in picture form."

It is not clear exactly when Sidney and Harriet Janis began collecting, and ultimately championing, self-taught artists. Among modernist masterpieces that included paintings by Picasso, Matisse and Leger, the couple owned Henri Rousseau's famous canvas The Dream, and it may be that this inspired them to start looking for American counterparts to the "Douanier." By the time of the 1938 Masters show, Janis's interest was well-enough known that an itinerant collector named Louis Caldor was advised to bring him some amateur paintings he'd found in Upstate New York. They were by an elderly farmwife named Anna Mary Robertson Moses, later to become world famous as "Grandma" Moses. It was the dealer Hudson Walker who introduced Janis to the work of Morris Hirshfield--a retired clothing manufacturer and Janis?s foremost protégé. Around this time, Janis also became aware of the housepainter Patsy Santo, who was discovered by the artist Walt Kuhn at the Rutland [Vermont] State Fair in 1937. Israel Litwak, a laid-off cabinet-maker, was accorded the honor of a one-man show at the Brooklyn Museum in 1939. Josephine Joy, who attracted notice at an exhibition sponsored by the California Art Project, was among many self-taught artists (including Lebduska and William Doriani) supported by Depression-era government works programs, which accepted artists regardless of their professional qualifications. Janis found Doriani at the Washington Square Outdoor Art Mart, Gregorio Valdes in the back room of a Greenwich Village gallery, and Cleo Crawford when visiting a friend in New City, New York. Many of these artists were included in the 1939 Contemporary Unknowns show at MoMA, and all were accorded chapters in They Taught Themselves.

The central roles played by the Carnegie, the Whitney, Duncan Phillips and other early enthusiasts notwithstanding, the importance of MoMA's commitment to self-taught artists cannot be overestimated. The museum counted among its trustees the wealthiest and most powerful collectors of the period: Stephen C. Clark, Marshall Field, A. Conger Goodyear, Mrs. Simon Guggenheim, Sam Lewishon, Henry Luce, William S. Palely, Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Nelson Rockefeller and John Hay Whitney. Where MoMA led, dealers and collectors followed. At the time of John Kane's 1927 debut, there were few galleries interested in showing the work of an untrained housepainter, and Kane for the most part had to deal directly with potential customers. By the time of the artist's death in 1934, the situation had changed dramatically. Valentine Dudensing, a New York dealer who counted such luminaries as Mondrian and Matisse in his "stable," became the first representative of the Kane estate. The Philadelphia dealer Robert Carlen forged a successful relationship with Horace Pippin a year after his 1938 debut at MoMA. European emigré dealers such as J.B. Neumann and Otto Kallir arrived in America already aware of the connection between modernism and self-taught art. Kallir, best remembered for introducing the Austrian Expressionists to the U.S., launched Grandma Moses's career at the Galerie St. Etienne in 1940, and Neumann showed Litwak and Lebduska--alongside Munch, Klee, Kandinsky and Beckmann. Janis (who would open his own gallery in 1948) formed an alliance with the dealer Marie Harriman, wife of prominent Democratic politician Averell Harriman. Marie Harriman's gallery exhibited Branchard, Doriani, Pippin and Santo, and hosted a show of the They Taught Themselves group following the book's publication. The social cachet of collecting self-taught artists in the 1930s and early '40s was affirmed by celebrity buyers like Katherine Cornell, Hedy Lamarr, Charles Laughton, Clifford Odets, Cole Porter, Claude Rains, Edward G. Robinson and Helena Rubenstein.

Nevertheless, and despite the undeniable human-interest appeal of the artists' colorful biographies, the press was never entirely enamored of the "primitive" trend. The Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph, egged on by a jealous local artist, declared that John Kane was a "fraud" because he had painted over a photograph. Damning with faint praise, a 1936 Lebduska review concluded that, "The large canvases would be [as] easy and fascinating to live with as a Persian rug, and the small ones could decorate the room of a fortunate child." Of Lebduska's 1939 show at the Dudensing gallery, the New York Post wrote, "Not very profound, but attractive." A relatively positive review of Doriani, by Edward Alden Jewell of the New York Times, lauded the artist's sense of "design" but added that, "His color is often ghastly." "Recognizing naiveté and honest, untutored expression of this sort, one may, at the same time, be prone to overrate it," a reviewer noted in reference to Horace Pippin's first New York exhibition in 1940. At best, the genre was (in the words of Times critic Howard Devree) "an interesting side alley of art." By the early 1940s, reviewers were complaining about a glut of "primitives" in the galleries; they seemed sick of the whole thing.

Rising antipathy toward self-taught artists and resentment of the Museum of Modern Art's enormous influence on the art market came to a head in 1943, when Barr mounted a one-man show of paintings by Morris Hirshfield. The conservative Art Digest scathingly dubbed Hirshfield "The Master of the Two Left Feet," because (as Janis explained in They Taught Themselves) slipper samples were made only for left feet, and the artist followed a pattern familiar to him from his days as a garment manufacturer. "Unfortunately," wrote Peyton Boswell in the Digest, "the Museum of Modern Art has the vested power to 'make' any artist its lighthearted officials decide to 'take up.' While serious professional artists fight for the recognition that means life to them, the Modern fiddles away its resources building a precious cult around amateurism." Hirshfield was described as a "fumbling old man," and Emily Genauer of The World Telegram believed he had been pitifully "exploited for a stunt." "Enough is enough of an oddity," wrote another critic. The Hirshfield retrospective was one of MoMA's most reviled exhibitions ever, and it gave ammunition to Barr's adversaries on the Museum's Board. Stephen C. Clark, perceiving Barr as a threat to MoMA's dignity and viability, had him removed forthwith from his post as Director. Barr remained on in an advisory capacity, but the Museum's advocacy of self-taught artists was over.

The artists chronicled in They Taught Themselves were products of an era that was coming to a close by the early 1940s. Many of them, elderly at the time of their discovery, were not even alive when the book was published, or died soon thereafter. Some, like Sullivan, went back to their original jobs as the economy improved and more or less stopped painting. Of the group, only Grandma Moses survived and went on to ever greater fame in the post-World-War-II period. But she was sui generis; arguably the first artist ever to be accorded "superstar" status by the general public, Moses was rarely taken seriously by the art-world elite. Self-taught art was no longer seen as part of the modern movement, and connoisseurs of American folk art tended to reject twentieth-century material. Untrained American artists continued to work in obscurity, but the "field" as such went into a protracted period of dormancy. The rediscovery and rebranding of these artists as "outsiders" was likewise a protracted process, spearheaded by such pioneering collectors as Michael and Julie Hall and Herbert Waide Hemphill, Jr., and demarcated by public phenomena like Roger Cardinal's 1972 book Outsider Art and the 1982 "Black Folk Art" exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. Ensconced within specialized institutions such as the American Folk Art Museum and the annual Outsider Art Fair, self-taught art has gradually become a legitimate art-historical genre in its own right. And yet, the field remains hobbled by a seemingly inescapable paradox, separate and therefore inherently unequal.

The "outsider" artists who found favor in the late twentieth century tended to lead more marginalized lives than their self-taught predecessors, and "outsider" art tends to depict inner visions rather than the external surroundings (landscapes, portraits and so on) featured in paintings by early twentieth-century self-taught artists. Nevertheless, it is hard to draw a clear-cut distinction, based either on biography or subject matter, between the two groups. More to the point, both groups represent similar ideals: Dubuffet's idea of an art untainted by "received culture" (the premise of "outsider" art's prototype, art brut) is the same holy grail sought by the original modernists in Rousseau and his American counterparts. Sidney Janis described the subjects of his book as "innocents" who "rarely learn from a developed painting culture, because it is far removed from their perceptions and, being removed, cannot touch them. Each creates his own world." According to the 1938 MoMA catalogue, "primitives" embody "absolute and unqualified purity." For all their alleged "innocence," however, self-taught artists then and subsequently often battled with harsh realities that included poverty, mental illness and alcoholism. Like all artists, self-taught painters were and are attuned to visual stimuli in their environments, absorbing influences on an ad-hoc basis. Contrary to Janis's belief that these artists lack the critical capacity to judge and learn from their own work, the best of them grow and develop just as trained artists do. The ideals that have historically been projected onto self-taught artists have little bearing on them or their work, but rather reflect the needs of a jaded art world. Fuzzy concepts like "innocence" and "purity" act as a shield for lapses in quality and at the same time prevent the work of the better artists from being studied as rigorously as it should be. These concepts keep self-taught artists in a cultural ghetto.

The rupture that, sixty-five years ago, severed the field of self-taught art from the mainstream art world was produced by stresses resulting from America's attempt to absorb the lessons of European modernism. The more provincial members of the domestic art establishment felt they were being passed over, and they resented the ascendancy of self-taught artists, whom they believed to be unqualified. Those who dreamed that America would one day spawn a sophisticated modernist culture of its own were ashamed to think that Hirshfield was our answer to Picasso. Despite, or perhaps because of, their humble democratic roots, mid-century American art critics were particularly dismissive of "low brow" culture, including the so-called "art of the common man." Today, however, the concepts of "high" and "low" art have lost much of their former power and meaning. As the boundaries between "high" and "low" blur, the divide between self-taught and schooled artists likewise diminishes. All draw from an open-ended panoply of visual resources, and all must be judged, ultimately, by the same standards. It is time for self-taught artists to move out of the ghetto and be recognized as equals.

We would like to express our heartfelt appreciation to all the lenders whose generosity made this exhibition possible, including Merrill C. Berman, Carroll Janis, Annette Kaufman and several anonymous collectors. Special thanks go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, whose collections of self-taught art, now rarely on public view, document the close connection that once existed between these institutions and the self-taught field. Copies of Sidney Janis's book They Taught Themselves (236 pages, paperback), reprinted by Sanford Smith and Associates in 1999, may be purchased for $30. Postage and handling charges are $10; N.Y. residents, please also add sales tax. Checklist entries include references to the original edition of the Janis book and catalogue raisonné numbers, where applicable.