You could be forgiven for wondering whatever happened to the American Folk Art Museum. In 2011, financial troubles forced the institution to sell its building on West 53rd Street, an injury compounded by MoMA’s announcement that it was tearing down its next-door neighbor to make way for an expansion. In fact, AFAM has remained very much in business since returning to its former home in Lincoln Square; its latest show is a case in point.
The exhibition, organized by Stacy C. Hollander and Valérie Rousseau, takes the postmodernist position that works such as a graceful stoneware jug by enslaved African-American potter Dave Drake (c.1800–c.1870) and a lively mid-19th-century quilt (featuring appliqued images of, among other things, nesting blackbirds, racehorses and a famous trained elephant of the time) can, and should be, regarded as art. The pieces cover a spectrum from the utilitarian (an exuberantly wood-grain-patterned blanket chest from around 1825) to the expressive (Thornton Dial’s powerful 2012 assemblage of carpet scraps, wood and cut tin flowers).
Genius, as the show makes clear, doesn’t depend on valorizing one mode of art over another: It is apparent wherever it’s found to those with eyes to see it. As Rousseau states in the show’s exemplary catalog, “artistic professionalization does not ‘make’ the artist, but autodidacts are not systematically better artists, either.” The pieces she and Hollander have chosen, all made by people with no formal training, are unquestionably works of vision. Among them is architectural draftsman Achilles G. Rozzoli’s symbolic portrait of his mother as a cathedral from 1936, Felipe Benito Archuleta’s toothy, carved coyote from 1982 and a notebook filled with James Castle’s reductive soot-and-saliva depictions of rural life in Idaho, spanning the years 1920 to 1950.
While some of these artists are known, many others remain unidentified. For much of America’s history, women, whose quilts, bed rugs, table rugs and textiles were largely made for the home, were denied public recognition, and that goes double for slaves. For example, except for a handwritten label, an elaborate white quilt adorned with pink and red roses from a Kentucky plantation would have ordinarily been attributed to the estate’s mistress instead of the household help who actually made it. Similarly, what little we know of Drake is due to his habit of signing and dating his creations (though for a 17-year period he did not, hinting at a time when advertising such authorship was ill-advised). Also lost to time are the many itinerant portrait painters who traveled the country in the years following the American Revolution to immortalize such members of the growing middle class such as Jonathan Knight, the young son of a physician, seen here in an anonymous 1797 painting.
Although vernacular art has largely been accepted at this point by the mainstream, the distinction between insider and outsider remains. For the most part, the artists here demonstrate little interest in art history (the exception being Dial, whose work, rooted in the Southern African-American tradition of the yard show, consciously examines his role as a self-taught artist with an art-world profile). Rousseau and Hollander argue that, in spite of such differences, or even because of them, the objects here, with their themes of protest, self-improvement and resilience, constitute an invaluable part of America’s broader sense of national identity. Their thesis is borne out in pieces ranging from Reuben Moulthrop’s 1788 portrait of a patrician New England and Ralph Fasanella’s 1950 painting of subway riders to Horace Pippen’s 1931 memory painting and Jessie B. Telfair’s 1983 quilt by spelling out the word freedom.
Many of the items will be familiar to previous visitors to AFAM. But recontextualized as they are, they bear looking at again. And if you’ve never seen New England portraitist Ammi Phillips’s heart-stopping Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog (1830Ð1835) or Hanna Cohoon’s delicate Shaker gift drawing from 1845 of a tree of life—each leaf surrounded by a halo of tiny orange flames—now is the time to do so. —Anne Doran