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The Forgotten Folk Art of the 1940's

January 18, 1994 to March 19, 1994

Over the course of this century, the work of self-taught artists has been consistently recognized as an important adjunct to the modernist tradition, but the specific nature of the art to be so recognized has varied considerably from one generation to the next. Whereas early American folk art is a fairly well defined subject, contemporary non-academic art has always been a moving target, whose basic content and definition seem to be in constant flux. The so-called outsider art in fashion today is so fundamentally different from the non-academic art favored earlier in this century that it demands a reappraisal of our entire approach to the genre. Any such examination must, of necessity, begin with the decade of the 1940s, for it was during this period that many of the field’s defining parameters were established. The present survey (the first of its kind) is timed to coincide with the annual Outsider Art Fair, at which the Galerie St. Etienne will be exhibiting a broader array of European, American and Haitian non-academic art.

The initial American champions of non-academic art were members of a fairly sophisticated elite. It was an artist, Andrew Dasburg, who in 1927 prevailed upon the jury of the prestigious Carnegie International Exhibition to admit a common house painter, John Kane, thereby making him the first self-taught artist to be recognized by the establishment. Though there was as yet no commercial gallery network prepared to promote non-academic art, luminaries such as Duncan Phillips, Mrs. John D. Rockefeller and John Dewey bought paintings directly from Kane. By the mid 1930s, several major New York galleries had jumped on the bandwagon: Valentine Dudensing had taken on Kane’s estate, and in 1936 a near sell-out show of paintings by another house painter, Lawrence Lebduska, at the Contemporary Arts Gallery is said to have inspired Abby Aldrich Rockefeller to begin her extraordinary folk art collection, now housed in Williamsburg, Virginia.

During the 1930s, paintings by self-taught artists were routinely displayed alongside the work of trained artists and acquired by the nation’s leading museums, among them the Metropolitan, the Whitney and the Museum of Modern Art. In 1933, MOMA’s director, Alfred Barr, Jr., announced a trio of exhibitions devoted to what he deemed the three principal strands of modern art: Cubism and Abstraction, Dada and Surrealism, and nonacademic painting. The third in this series, “Masters of Popular Painting,” opened in 1938 and included works by Kane, Lebduska and the recently discovered Horace Pippin. A more modest follow-up presentation, organized in the museum’s members’ rooms by Sidney Janis in 1939, introduced such previous unknowns as the retired garment worker Morris Hirshfield, the farmwife Anna Mary Robertson (“Grandma”) Moses and a former factory laborer, Patsy Santo.

Two seminal events in the 1940s forever diverted the history of non-academic art from the path laid out during the previous decade. The first of these was the uproar occasioned by Hirshfield’s 1943 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Ever since Kane’s stellar performance at the Carnegie International, non-academic art had been targeted for attack by or on behalf of “legitimate” American artists, who were ostensibly being passed over in favor of self-taught “freaks.” MOMA was now accused of squandering its resources by trotting out the artistic equivalent of a “talking horse” for the amusement of a jaded inner circle. Howard Devree, writing for the New York Times, conceded that non-academic art was all right so long as it was acknowledged merely as a “pleasant side street,” but other critics were genuinely offended by an institutional policy that seemingly granted equal stature to the paintings of Paul Cezanne and “the fumblings of an old man.” Faced with the imminent loss of his job, Barr backed off considerably in his support of non-academic art. Defending the Hirshfield exhibition, he scarcely mentioned the merits of the work in question, but rather cited statistics substantiating the museum’s superior support of “real” artists. MOMA’s pioneering advocacy of non-academic art effectively ended with the Hirshfield debacle.

Barr’s feeble protests notwithstanding, his detractors were not entirely wrong: in the 1930s and early ‘40s, the United States really did not have a modernist tradition comparable to that in Europe, and the seemingly disproportionate representation that forward-thinking museums gave to American non-academic art was in part a reflection of this circumstance. However, the advent of Abstract Expressionism effectively corrected the imbalance, and by the end of the 1940s the “high” art establishment had largely forgotten its infatuation with self-taught artists. This about-face was underscored by the second history-making phenomenon of the ‘40s: the unprecedented popular success of Grandma Moses. Within a few years of her first public showing at the Galerie St. Etienne in 1940, Moses had overleapt the boundaries of the art-world elite to become the darling of the broader American public, which was for the most part alienated by the comparatively arcane doings of the modernists. The realm of non-academic art--figurative and therefore easily appreciated--thus became divorced from that of “serious” art, which was predominantly abstract and, almost by definition, difficult to understand.

The museum world’s loss was the commercial galleries’ gain, for Moses’ popularity naturally fueled the market for “primitives” (as non-academics were then commonly called). Janis helped solidify the field of contemporary non-academic art by publishing the first book on the subject, They Taught Themselves, in 1942, and the Marie Harriman gallery simultaneously mounted a show of the same title. Many artists from Janis’ group went on to prosper during the 1940s. Even those critics who had lambasted Hirshfield at MOMA were willing to grant him his due when he showed with Julian Levy in 1944 and at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery in 1947. Former cabinet-maker Israel Litwak, favored with a one-man show at the Brooklyn Museum as early as 1939, later was represented by the New Art Center. Josephine Joy, who had a small show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1942 (a year before Hirshfield), was featured at the Galerie St. Etienne in 1943. Santo, launched on his commercial career by Marie Harriman in 1940, subsequently also exhibited at St. Etienne. Lebduska continued to flourish during the 1940s, until ill health forced him to curtail his activities.

Joining the artists allied with the Janis/MOMA nexus was a host of new discoveries, among them the retired clothing merchant Ladis Sabo and Grandma Moses’ brother, Fred Robertson (the only one of several painting family members who did not imitate Grandma but rather developed a unique style of his own). The rags-to-riches-to-rags story of Abraham Levin, however, may be considered paradigmatic of the entire era. Levin, who emigrated from Lithuania in 1903, spent most of his adult life as a knee-pants operator in New York’s garment district--a job he despised with all his heart. Like other self-taught painters (notably Joy), he was encouraged to aim for a higher goal by the W.P.A., whose art teachers sent him to the Uptown Gallery. His first show at that gallery in 1941 was hailed as a sensation by the New York Times, and a follow-up exhibition at the Galerie St. Etienne scarcely a year later was equally successful. Levin was, for a brief period, able to quit working and paint full time, but like many non-academic artists, he could not sustain the quality of his output or deal with the pressures of success. A 1944 exhibition at St. Etienne was not well received, and in the end Levin was forced to beg for his old job in the garment district. By the late 1940s, the non-academic art craze was fading from the New York gallery scene. In other American cities, new talents were still being discovered--for example, H. O. Kelly and Clara McDonald Williamson in Dallas-- but only Grandma Moses went on, in the 1950s, to triumph on a nationwide scale.

Looking back on the 1940s from the vantage point of the present provides invaluable insights into the standards whereby non-academic art is identified and ultimately judged. The genre has always functioned as the conscience of modern art, and its champions are therefore naturally driven to select examples that mirror the avant-garde tendencies of the age. Surely it is no accident that Lebduska was compared with the Fauves, Levin with Chagall and Braque. And if the art establishment, in evaluating non-academic art, sees what it wants to see, it is understandable that the artists themselves will over the course of time learn to produce works that fit the establishment’s requirements. Thus Janis showed Hirshfield the paintings of Henri Rousseau, and for many years after Moses’ apotheosis, self-taught artists were inspired to confect idealized landscapes populated by tiny childlike figures. Today the trend has turned toward more abstract work, and despite the increasingly pervasive influence of mass culture, our “outsiders” create work that is far cruder in style and execution than anything attempted by yesterday’s “primitives.”

“Outsider” art takes as its point of departure the creations of the mentally ill, but the concept becomes both unworkable and personally offensive the minute it is stretched to incorporate other non-academic artists. In truth, the non-academic fashions of any given moment--and the generally inadequate terms used to describe them--only serve to cloud aesthetic judgment and to obscure the broader historical connections uniting the field as a whole. It is imperative that we finally acknowledge that non-academic art is here to stay, not as a matter of passing fancy, but as an integral expression of the human creative spirit. Only then will we begin to sort out the different elements that make up the tradition and to impose the qualitative standards that are necessary to its serious study. It may just turn out that Alfred Barr was right, and that non-academic art is one of the three great strands of modern art history.