Contemporary American Folk Art: Charming Junk or Art with a Capital A?


~Richard Guy Wilson,
Commonwealth Professor of Architectural History

American folk art of recent years includes many voices: the mud paintings of women violinists by Jimmy Lee Sudduth, the metal cutouts of Uncle Sam and Elvis by R. A. Miller, the carved mother and baby pigs of Garland and Minnie Adkins, and the scrawled and intense religious visions of Mary Proctor. Viewers' reactions to this exhibition will vary between the extremes of this essay's title: is this junk or art? Many of these pieces contain a contentious quality, admired by some and dismissed by others; they challenge our accepted notions of how we define art.

Some writers and critics question even the application of the term "folk art" to many of these works. "Folk," according to etymological dictionaries, means "of the people," and its meaning can include "vulgar," along with the concept of songs, tales, dance, art and other traditions passed down through successive generations. All cultures and groups possess traditions, lore, and art that when identified can be labeled "folk art." Instead of the adjective folk applied to this contemporary art, writers have suggested alternatives: outsider, naive, self-taught, primitive, vernacular, amateur, as well as more specialized referents--visionary, intuitive, or memory art. Others suggest descriptive groupings: self-taught African-Americans from the rural south, art of the mentally impaired, Eastern Kentucky carvers, tramp or prison art. Foreign phrases, such as l'Art Brut, Raw Art, and Hors Les Normes (outside the normal), are also employed.

Uniting most of these terms, whether describing an object or an environment such as Simon Rodia's Towers in Los Angeles, is the premise that the creators are self-taught and lack academic training in their art medium. The term folk art possesses inadequacies, but it remains the only label with any currency of recognition. Behind the question of terminology lies the real issue of definition, the concept that these artists exist outside the mainstream of American art at any given moment in time and frequently possess rather singular visions.

A considerable pre-history lies behind present-day folk art. For millennia artists have admired the primitive and appropriated the vernacular. The modern conception of history in which the past is conceived of as different and removed from the present developed during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Simultaneously came the discovery of "folk" and ensuing attempts to record it, in fairy tales, samplers, or painted furniture. Later, the quasi-primitive art of Henri Rousseau and Picasso and Braque's celebration and employment of African elements helped set the stage for the discovery of American folk art in the 1920s by a groups of collectors, dealers, and artists. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, a collector who founded the folk art museum at Williamsburg, Edith Halpert, an art dealer in New York, and Charles Sheeler, an artist, found an appealing vision of America in the portraits, landscapes, furniture, and other items of itinerant, unknown, or untrained American artists and artisans. Dating from the seventeenth through the nineteenth century, these objects -- cigar store Indians, samplers, portraits with little depth or modeling, views of farms and cities with twisted perspectives, weather vanes, decorated furniture, and other items -- entered the canon of American art, becoming what many people identify as folk art. Holger Cahill, an early supporter, described it as "an expression of the common people," that resulted from the craft traditions and the "feeling" of the maker. This is what we now classify as classic American folk art, regularly exhibited at major museums and celebrated in books.

Nearly contemporary with that discovery came another revelation: untrained artists were still at work in the 1920s and '30s. The Museum of Modern Art and Sidney Janis Gallery, both in New York City, among many venues, gave shows to Grandma Moses (Anna Mary Robinson Moses), John Kane, Patsy Santo, Morris Hirshfield, and Horace Pippin. With the exception of Grandma Moses, who became one of the most popular American artists of all time, most of these artists receded from view between the 1940s and '70s, only to be rediscovered in recent years and in several cases given major exhibitions.

A new interest in more recent folk art began around 1970 with a few collectors and artists who through travels on back roads, local fairs, word-of-mouth, and serendipity began to realize that a large group of individuals existed who whittled, painted, welded, and assembled objects that might be called folk art. Small museum shows and a few galleries began to present the work of Howard Finster, Bill Traylor, Mose T(olliver), and others. This discovery came at a time of unrest in the United States, concurrent with the Civil Rights movement and the Viet Nam War. Pop Art was expanding the categories of subject matter for art, music and festivals were generating a new interest in folk expressions, and academia was shifting away from the study of great men toward an interest in the life of the common person.

By the later-1980s a full-fledged contemporary folk art boom emerged with major exhibitions at prestigious museums, new galleries ranging from storefront operations to high-end dealers, and the requisite books, symposiums, and organizations devoted to promoting the work. Pride of place in assisting with this recognition goes to Herbert Wade Hemphill, Jr., who, beginning in the 1950s, amassed a major collection that eschewed the early or classic focus of most American folk art collectors. Hemphill, whose collection the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art purchased in 1986, also helped found the Museum of American Folk Art in New York (the word "early" was in its title from 1961 to 1966). With its director, Robert Bishop, and such collectors as Chuck and Jan Rosenak, the new folk art found ardent champions. Not all classic folk art collectors were delighted with the contemporary work, and indeed, it still meets resistance from this quarter where one would most expect to find support.

Initially, most contemporary folk art appeared to be made by rural or small town untrained individuals, both black and white, from the South or Appalachia. In more recent years and taking a clue from the European l'Art Brut movement led by Jean Dubuffet after World War II, the field of contemporary American folk art has expanded. Included in the folk art pantheon today are works by individuals with handicaps and disabilities, along with "found art," such as signs, muffler men, and work produced in big cities and suburbs across the country. Specific interests have emerged, including quilts with African-American themes and homemade environments such as Howard Finster's Paradise Gardens in Summerville, Georgia, Vollis Simpson's giant wind sculptures in Lucama, North Carolina, and Art Beal's Nitt Witt Ridge in Cambria, California. The sweetness and beneficent vision of much folk art in the 1970s and '80s became edgier in the '90s. Perhaps this shift mirrors the darker vision of end-of-twentieth-century America and reflects new collecting tastes, but angst and apoplectic visions have always existed in contemporary folk art.

Accompanying the recognition of contemporary folk art are criticisms about commercialism, consumption, quality, collecting, exploitation, exclusion, and meaning as well as questions about its relation to the larger art world. Indeed, most of the charges leveled against contemporary folk art are also true of high art. Although there are some folk artists, such as Henry J. Darger, whose obsessive and private vision of the recluse resembles that of Albert Pinkham Ryder, most like mainstream artists, do make their work for consumption. Jimmy Lee Sudduth, for instance, appreciates visits and expects that cameras and even tape or video recorders will be part of his performance, and Sam McMillan delights in painting in public and even puts dots on collector's ties. Some art is inherently more serious than others, and indeed some folk art approaches the level of a tourist souvenir; however, art as a memento of travel has a long history -- from the carved crosses of pilgrimages to Piranesi prints recalling the Grand Tour.

The exclusion of folk art into a category such as "the other," a term of popularity among critics in recent years, comes from the point of view of seeing the contemporary art world as an exclusive community of avant-garde (or semi-advanced) artists who are shown and recognized by major galleries, museums, critics and magazines in a few American cities. This comprises art of the edge as well as that of past grand masters-Rauschenberg, Pollock, and Picasso. Missing from most discussions is what really occurs in American visual art -- the huge mass of artists who are still tied to realism, classicism, various forms of impressionism and hundreds of other styles. They live everywhere and can be affiliated with schools or run their own studios, be "Sunday painters" or members of art associations who show in local airports. Missing also is the recognition of commercial art and illustration, and Thomas Kincade who peddles his vision from hundreds of outlets. Since the 1970s photography has been accorded a seat at the art table. Painted motorcycles and California hot rods have been accorded museum shows as well. An overall picture of art in America would also include contemporary crafts that range from utilitarian objects to those whose only purpose is display. The reality of the visual arts in America is a giant amorphous mass of activity with a multiplicity of individuals doing all sorts of things, which, depending on your point of view, can be boring, stimulating, amateur, or astounding. The contemporary folk artist occupies a place in this mass.

The concept of who is an artist frequently depends on training, including academic credentials, or-as practiced for many centuries--apprenticeship. The self-trained also has a long history with many recent significant examples, including Robert Motherwell and Barnett Newman. But training did not lead Picasso to his Cubist vision or Jackson Pollock to his technique. Talent and technique are important for an artist, but part of the definition of an artist involves the possession of a vision that communicates with others. The process of recognizing that talent can be controversial, but is an essential if the vision is to be communicated to others and to become known as art. To paraphrase Marcel Duchamp, art is the creation of the art context; it becomes art when it enters galleries, museums, or collections.

The reason people collect contemporary folk art involves many motives, some apparent, others deeply buried in the psyche. Objects can become talismans or trinkets of memory. Collectors might accrue monetary value from astute purchases, and art collecting can impart status in some quarters. The critic Ken Ames has posited that since many collectors reside in academia and, supposedly, are both liberal and irreligious, folk art allows them to say reactionary things. Such generalizations abound, along with claims of patronizing behavior on the part of collectors, but at the core, the passion of a committed collector is as mysterious as the impulse to create art -- and almost as unstudied.

Contemporary American folk art contains such variety that any attempt to categorize it becomes superfluous. Still there are some broad characteristics. A striking element is the diversity of media and scale, from painted canvases to painted gourds, and from massive yard environments consisting of found objects to small clay or concrete sculpture that can be held in one hand. Many folk artists start with found elements-pieces of tin, discarded doors, roots, broken bits of glass, cardboard, and trash-then with income from sales purchase precut pieces of plywood or even pre-stretched canvases. Whether this devalues the art is a hotly debated topic, but it can indicate that the artist has achieved some type of recognition. Technique or skill in manipulating materials to illuminate the human hand with a degree of crudeness-or untrained ability-is another aspect frequently noted. Presence of the hand receives high value, but again one must be careful; the way Jimmy Lee Sudduth applies paint with sticks takes as much control and talent as a master with a brush. Fine whittling is a talent frequently seen in folk art, but the skill needed to handle a chain saw is just as important for Garland and Minnie Evans's large pieces.

Certain features reappear in different folk art contexts: heavy outlines, flat figures with no modeling, round heads, lots of detail, and frequently, an intense decorative quality. This directness of image is one reason for the popularity of some folk art: the message is clear. This directness can, however, also be more than decoration. The flat figures of Bill Traylor, for example, are also emblematic of belief and flight. Also, words, quotations and prose may appear in different contexts, indicating that the artist relies not just on symbols but wants the viewer to have no mistake about the message.

The content of contemporary folk art is equally diverse. Memory works that contain a visual narrative in the manner of Grandma Moses are extremely common and can be seen in the work of Mary Greene of Baldwin, Georgia, and Beatrice Sims of Brewton, Alabama, who are white and black, respectively, and who possess different recollections of the South. The portrait, whether of a person, animal, or flowers, is a staple of folk art. In some cases the images are self-portraits or individualized, but frequently they stand for anonymous individuals or everyman. The same is true of three-dimensional statues, which can take on greater meaning as talismans and icons. Not overtly present in this exhibition because of propriety but a strong presence in the art of several major folk artists, among them Mose T, Jimmy Lee Sudduth, and Roy Ferdinand, is overt sexuality and outright pornography. Religion and the varieties of experience connected to it forms another powerful theme. Myrtice West and Lillian Faye Barker take literal views of the bible and render them visually, where as Bessie Harvey and Mary Proctor present individualized interpretations, sometimes drawing on other cultures. Patriotism, often interwoven with religion, reappears constantly as do views of buildings, towns, and cities. These can be documentary or humorous, as in Amos Laurence's art.

Contemporary American folk art, as apparent in this exhibition, contains many of the themes and issues that artists always have found of importance. Some of the themes are evident, others withdrawn and submerged. Profound work exists along with the ephemeral and trivial. The folk artist is seldom totally withdrawn from society, and current events and even art world concerns can impact the maker. Making art involves skill and technique but most importantly a vision and a language with which to communicate. Great visions or profound insights can come from many quarters. Sometimes it takes great strength and courage for the artist to express them. Jean Dubuffet explained: "True art is always to be found where one least expects it, there where no one is thinking of it, or mentioning its name."