American Folk Art Museum
October 6, 2009 through September 6, 2010
The work of 20th-century self-taught artists is often assumed to be solely representational in subject matter with an emphasis on storytelling and memory. Other assumptions are that the artists work in isolation, that they live in rural areas, and they are not connected to community or culture. As the field of self-taught artists and their work matures and expands, however, scholarship is beginning to dispute these stereotypes. Approaching Abstraction on view from October 6, 2009 through September 6, 2010, is the first exhibition to look at the concept of abstraction in this field, exploring the non-representational in the work of 40 contemporary self-taught artists. Curator Brooke Davis Anderson has selected 60 paintings, drawings, sculpture, and mixed-media objects from the American Folk Art Museum’s permanent collection that illustrate the diversity of aesthetic choices made by artists with no formal art training, who display tendencies that range from highly expressionistic to fully abstract. “The exhibition gives us an opportunity to pair some artists in surprising and unexpected juxtapositions. Bessie Harvey and Carlo Zinelli are seen together as are Thornton Dial and Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, Clementine Hunter and Janet Sobel, and Judith Scott and Leroy Person, among others,” comments Ms. Anderson.
For some of these artists the subject is subverted and forms are obliterated, as in the large-scale wrapped yarn sculpture of Judith Scott. Although her powerful sculptures evoke the body, they remain mysterious, her strategies for blocking out form rendering them abstract. The patterning that results from the layers of wrapping in Scott’s artworks is similar to the rivulets of paint drips in Janet Sobel’s oil paintings and the fractured contours in the drawings and paintings of Aloise Corbaz, Clementine Hunter and Riet van Halder. Scott’s process of a methodically repeating gesture evolves into a circular motif in Hiroyuki Doi’s and Chelo Amezcua’s highly organized drawings as well as in the rug crocheted of plastic bread wrappers by an unidentified maker and the button-encrusted sculpture by Mr. Imagination. Scottie Wilson’s cross-hatch drawings also exhibit intensive patterning. The emphasis on a repetitive motif rather than on a narrative element distances this group of artworks from representation.
For others, such as J.B. Murry, a personal language of codes and symbols is invoked by the squiggles, dashes, and splashes that he applied with brush and finger to cash register tapes, sheets of stationery, and drawing paper. Although figures may be detected within the abstract script, almost all Murry’s artwork approaches abstraction. Both Charles Benefiel and Martin Thompson have also developed codes and symbols, creating their artwork around their own private symbolic language. Hidden messages, either in the undecipherable script of Dwight Macintosh or the shamanistic amulets by the “Philadelphia Wireman,” suggest a self-referential means of personal communication. The flattened forms and geometric underpinnings in the drawings of Eddie Arning and James Castle are mute expressions achieved through the abstraction of forms. “The sublime charcoal and soot drawing by James Castle where a dark vertical band resembling a two by four bifurcates a figure’s head and torso underscores the concept of the show. This bold gesture breaks down the body parts into reductive slices of shape and shadow which cling to abstraction,” notes Ms. Anderson.
Thornton Dial and his peers explore distortion and expressionism within a narrative paradigm. While figures appear in Dial’s robust narratives, they become obscured beneath dense layers of vigorous brushstrokes that build up layers of pigment which then dominate the aesthetic experience. This approach of Dial’s to non-representation is also found in the drawings, paintings, and sculpture of other artists such as Nellie Mae Rowe, Louis Monza, Purvis Young, Miles Carpenter, Bessie Harvey, Mose Tolliver, Leonard Daley, and Carlo Zinelli where the central figures are distorted and subject matter is dissolved.
Justin McCarthy, Mary T. Smith, and Eugene Von Bruenchenhein also exploit the possibilities of paint in their artworks. Using a house-paint brush, an artist’s paintbrush, a feather or a fingertip, these artists imply figure, cityscape or outer world-scape while reveling in the sheer pleasure of paint. Similarly, artists as disparate as Adolf Wolfli, Joseph Yoakum and Domenico Zindato embrace pen, pencil and paper to depict their otherwordly mindscapes.
Approaching Abstraction is another in a series of museum exhibitions that aims to widen the discourse around self-taught artists and their work and to deepen our understanding about vernacular artists. Past projects with a similar goal have been Dargerism: Contemporary Artists and Henry Darger (April 15-September 21, 2008) and Obsessive Drawing (September 14, 2005-March 19, 2006).
Museum exhibitions are supported in part by the Leir Charitable Foundations in memory of Henry J. & Erna D. Leir, the Gerard C. Wertkin Exhibition Fund, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, and with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency.