American Folk Art Museum
About the Collection
Around 1850, a young man in upstate New York, suffering from tuberculosis, carved a beautiful bust-length portrait of a young girl. Her quiet face and precisely rendered pleated red dress give no hint that the phrenological delineations on her scalp are anything out of the ordinary. Her father was a doctor who practiced alternative therapies, and the carving was probably intended for the water-cure clinic he planned to open in the small town of Erie, in Buffalo County. The artist was living with the doctor and his family when he carved the phrenological head, hoping, perhaps, that the doctor’s treatments would prolong his own short life. None of this, of course—except the phrenological markings—is immediately apparent upon viewing the sculpture, yet these were potent personal forces for both the artist and the recipient. And they are neither more nor less complex than those confluences that inform every other work of American folk art.

American folk art may be remarkable for the cultural clues it holds, but these often become elusive when the artworks are removed from the context of their creation. For the better part of the twentieth century, however, this is exactly how folk art has been perceived, following a museum model that was established early in the century and that initially provided a useful and reliable framework for organizing material that was then outside the art historical mainstream. Exhibitions were arranged by fine arts categories of sculpture, painting, and decorative arts or divided into thematic categories such as work, play, landscape, and home. Through these presentations, it was certainly possible to appreciate the development of form within each medium and even to understand folk art’s reflection of human concerns. But the artworks were largely divorced from their own history and the myriad forces that imbued them with deeper meaning.

At this moment in the museum’s life, then, it seems important that a fresh perspective be applied, one that retains folk art’s significance as a major American art tradition but that reintegrates the material with its role as a carrier of our cultural inheritance. The museum’s collection reflects early collecting trends—even biases—in the field of American folk art. This is evident especially in the holdings of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century material, primarily artworks and objects from New England and the Mid-Atlantic states that demonstrate a strong Anglo-heritage. The contributions of the many diverse groups whose presence had an impact on early America—such as the Dutch in New York, Hispanic populations in the Southwest, and enslaved and free African Americans throughout the country—are only now beginning to be addressed through the museum’s collection. As American folk art is, by its very nature, inclusive of the full range of American experience, the museum’s collection is necessarily one of acknowledged omissions that mirror, to an extent, the slights of American history itself.

The collection illuminates aesthetic ideas that were commonly held in a particular period and that were expressed across mediums. In the colonial period, for instance, the strong English influence in New England, especially the Connecticut River Valley, was inherent in architecture and furniture that migrated to the colonies with English craftsmen. In addition to construction techniques, artisans also brought familiar visual ideas, such as Mannerist conceptions that were manifested in inlay work and other embellishments on English furniture. Although they could not duplicate the English products under the different conditions they found in the colonies, they used these ideas as the basis for reinterpretations and adaptations. Symmetrical displays of rosettes, palmettes, scrolling vines, pinwheels, and tree of life designs provided the text of colonial New England visual culture, from printed broadsides to women's needlework and bedcovers to paint-decorated utilitarian forms such as furniture and boxes. These elements persisted over more than a century and were evidence of a cultural homogeneity that was unbroken until the turn of the nineteenth century and the introduction of the romantic age.

A new classical iconography now infused the decorative arts, and its associations with the ancient Greek republic coincided neatly with the establishment of an independent American nation founded on democratic ideals. Female figures, draped in gossamer white dresses, were stitched into needleworks in attitudes of grief on mourning pieces and attitudes of triumph as allegorical representation of liberty. In the decorative arts, this motif proliferated on furniture, ceramics, and textiles, as did urns, paterae, musical trophies, and other images that had been unearthed in archaeological sites earlier in the century. The dramatic change swept away the dark colors and conventionalized patterning long seen in furniture and needlework. Deep earthy colors and thick wools were replaced with pale shimmering shades in delicate silk and cotton threads. The low, heavy Pilgrim-century furniture was lifted into light and slender forms that seemed to float on delicate legs. Instead of walnut and oak, golden figured woods were used to emphasize the impression of weightlessness. Design ideas endured and overlapped during these transitional phases, however.

The Era of Good Feelings, as the years from James Monroe’s inaugural address in 1817 through Andrew Jackson’s presidency in 1828 were dubbed, witnessed an explosion in consumerism, as homes and lands were “improved” and filled with furniture, portraits, prints, textiles, and other material goods. There was an explosion of color as well, especially in rural areas of the country where fantastically painted furniture and painted wall decoration brightened the interiors of homes, and flowers and geometric patterns gaily adorned their everyday wares. Insular communities with distinct sets of cultural values, such as the Germans in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Virginia, were less responsive to such fashionable inclinations, but they were not immune to these influences, which they expressed in corner fans painted on furniture and exuberant grain painting on interior architectural elements.

An impressive formality was introduced with Empire furniture that displayed mounted ormolu ornamentation shining gold against mahogany. This was matched by portraiture that was also characterized by rich contrasts of dark and light, red against black, relieved by areas of brilliant whites. The urban furniture styles were soon imitated in gold leaf and metallic powders that were stenciled onto furniture and small decorative pieces. Complex stenciled patterns captured the grandeur of the applied elements but were available to the wider public as a simpler, less expensive alternative. Portraits of prosperity during this period and the years immediately following were provided by such artists as Ammi Phillips, Erastus Salisbury Field, and John Blunt, whose dignified and standardized canvases presented a picture of cultural unity, even as political changes were beginning to shift power from the agrarian sectors to new industrial and mercantile arenas.

The inspiration for folk art is also often tied to critical moments in America’s history, especially times of war or national celebration, and an individual’s personal response to those events. Symbols of liberty, for instance, became part of the common language as soon as there was an independent nation to applaud. Pileus, liberty figures, American flags, and the Great Seal were just some of the images adapted. By bringing these symbols into their homes, ordinary citizens actively participated in the drama of American statehood. Some artworks and objects, however, today serve as reminders that reality is relative rather than immutable, and that America is an idea that historically not everyone has shared. 

American folk art has served many functions through time, adapting to the challenges of each age. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, it was an effective and adaptive means of syncretizing disparate forces into a normative culture, a familiar environment, and a regional identity. Individual artistry was rewarded by patronage, but usually within parameters defined by the milieu in which the artist worked. By the middle of the nineteenth century, however, the stability of even established conventions was challenged by encroaching industrialization, new technologies, and changing patterns of immigration, with an attendant influx of new influences. Mechanical processes displaced artists and others who adopted the new methods or sought alternative occupations. Woodcarving shops, for example, that had produced figureheads for ships turned to the production of trade figures that stood on land; as the demand for these declined, new trends took their place, implemented by the remnant of the old woodcarving shops and joined by a new generation of immigrant woodcarvers, who made beautifully carved animals for new amusements such as carousels. By the end of the century, industrialization had rendered most handmade products obsolete. Rather than reinforcing a norm, folk art became expressive of individual voices raised in support of the human touch and the credo of beauty in everyday objects—voices that also spoke to topical issues, personal concerns, and popular culture.

The museum’s collection is an unabashed song of praise to the nation, for the simple reason that American folk art is essentially patriotic, whether celebrating national events, decrying the nation’s dark days, or describing personal moments. Refuge, freedom, ingenuity, land of opportunity—these are phrases identified with the mythology of America, and they are ideas indelibly imbedded in America’s vernacular arts. In 1824, artist John Vanderlyn derided the “mass of folk,” as he termed the art-buying American public, for being “cheap and slight” in its taste. This was, in part, bitterness on the part of a European-trained artist who failed to gain the commissions he felt he deserved. Vanderlyn was instead forced to watch artists such as Ammi Phillips, whose work was edited of any European signature, flourish among the prosperous doctors, merchants, farmers, and politicians whose patronage he so avidly sought. In a sense, Vanderlyn missed the point, for it was not that the mass of folk did not possess the sophistication to appreciate his talents. In fact, they consciously rejected the European pretensions he offered in favor of their own plain and solid values, which Phillips was able to reflect in his portraits.

Vanderlyn articulated a tension that existed then and that still exists today, between the folk and fine arts. These disciplines have nevertheless developed as parallel traditions, deriving from a single well of national experience, and have conducted an ongoing dialogue that is increasingly vital as distinctions between artmaking communities and strategies have blurred. It was precisely this mass of folk whose interests, patterns of behavior, and active participation in government, religion, community, education, and local economies were determining factors in the directions of the society at large. And it is largely, though not exclusively, from this sector that folk art has emerged as the embodiment of ideas and influences that fluidly follow the rhythms of their own time. Now, as we look through this book or stand in the museum’s new building, the hopes of the “mass of folks” who came to America seeking these ideals, the version of America they created for themselves, and the aspirations of the generations who have followed, are palpable, captured forever in the very material they fashioned to fill their lives.

How, then, do we characterize American folk art, whose makers and meanings are as varied as the breadth of the American experience? It is not a single art form, nor does it represent a school. It has not been a regular part of the art history curriculum in universities, and it has often been left out of broad considerations of American art. Yet no examination of American culture can be complete without its consideration, as folk art has consistently been a finger on the national pulse and a reflection of cultural priorities.

These are some of the thoughts that occupied us as the museum prepared to open its new home in 2001. More than a physical move through space, this period provided an opportunity for reflection, reevaluation, and reinvention. This process took the museum on a journey of self-scrutiny, and like all exercises in analysis, it offered many moments of pride as well as difficult insights. The museum was founded in 1961, in retrospect an odd moment for such a focused venture. It was well after the early decades of the twentieth century and the Modernist and Colonial Revival movements that found in American folk art the cultural validation they were seeking. And it was also years before the bicentennial celebration of 1976, when a renewed pride in America’s heritage gave rise to a boom in the marketplace as well as the serious study of material culture, filtered for the first time through the lens of multicultural patterns. In 1961, however, the focus was primarily on the cultural contributions of our Anglo ancestors on the eastern seaboard, and their legacy of furniture, paintings, textiles, and other embellished forms. A small pocket of collectors were passionate about the rich regional offerings of the Germanic culture in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Virginia. However, there was no interest in isolationists like the Amish; it is surprising to realize that Amish quilts did not come to public notice until Jonathan Holstein and Gail van der Hoof mounted their seminal exhibition “American Pieced Quilts” in 1971 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York. And the art and culture of non-Anglo immigrant groups, African Americans, and other minorities, was not simply out of the mainstream; it did not even enter the conversation.

The collectors who founded the museum, few of whom had any real connection to these romanticized Pilgrim ancestors, nevertheless subscribed enthusiastically to the notion of a homogenous national heritage, and this was reflected in the art they collected and, consequently, in the gifts they gave to the museum. The collection was launched in 1962 with the gift, appropriately enough, of a gate in the form of an American flag that celebrated the nation’s centennial. In the forty years since, the museum’s collection has continued to grow and evolve and now includes artworks from the seventeenth century through the present.

The museum established the Contemporary Center in 1997 in response to the enormous amount of interest in self-taught artists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It is charged not only with classic curatorial responsibilities—researching, collecting, exhibiting—but also with taking on a leadership role in the developing international field of art of the self-taught, especially longstanding challenges revolving around the issues of scholarship quality, and semantics. The artwork under the auspices of the Contemporary Center is united by time—most of the work was created in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Inclusion under this umbrella of contemporary expression is not, however, restricted by time. It is not so much when an object was made that defines its being contemporary, but the kind of expression, the aim and aspiration of the maker, and sometimes even the biography or circumstances in which an individual began his or her artistic exploration. These artists, with special reference to those highly gifted individuals who are identified with the field of art brut or “outsider” art, have created a powerful and moving but frequently unacknowledged body of work that is essential to a full understanding of the art and culture of the world. 

One way to locate the museum’s contemporary collection in time is through the ongoing debate over terminology used to describe material that does not fit neatly into a single categorization. A circular semantic progression unfolded throughout the twentieth century, beginning with “self-taught,” “primitive,” “naive,” and “folk,” and moving on to “isolate,” “visionary,” “intuitive,” “art brut,” and “outsider,” among others. In more recent years, a growing audience in the South concerned with community, identity, and authenticity has come to prefer “vernacular.” Today, most folk art scholars have come full circle, back to “self-taught,” a term used most notably in 1942 by Sidney Janis in his pioneering book, They Taught Themselves. In Janis’s lexicon, “self-taught” did not designate a specific type of artistic expression or style but described memorable artwork made beyond the walls of the academy.

Each of the above-mentioned terms has its strengths and weaknesses, and some artists clearly can be better matched with one than another. Many people interested in this field use the terms interchangeably, although hesitating over “outsider” because of its marginalizing connotation. But to fully grapple with this work, we need to achieve a consensus on how to talk about it. The Western art-historical canon may not offer a fitting model because this work has been recognized as outside its purview.

Viewing the museum’s contemporary collection through the lens of language uncovers collecting habits (both public and private) of the last half-century. The museum’s collection records the shift within the field from “naives” such as Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses to the new “vernacular” artists such as Thornton Dial. In fact, Moses and Dial act as effective “bookends” to the use of the term “self-taught” during the 1940s and its return in the 1990s.

Memory painters and portraitists proliferated during the first half of the twentieth century. This first wave of contemporary self-taught artists seemed to embody a sense of nostalgia and a desire to record history. When Janis used the term “self-taught,” Grandma Moses was the most famous living American artist. Her quaint “primitive” portraits of life in rural upstate New York stood as icons of American folk art. Still lifes and genre scenes, most frequently realized in a paint, were popular subjects. Often the lack of technical proficiency—especially in the skill of perspective—charmed Janis and his colleagues as well as the general public. The art reaffirmed America’s sense of self-reliance and uniqueness of spirit. (It is worth noting that Janis introduced these artists into the fine art establishment: his book accompanied an exhibition of the same name presented at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.)

When the museum opened its doors nearly twenty years after the presentation of They Taught Themselves, founding curator Herbert W. Hemphill Jr. ushered in a new era of twentieth-century folk art. Hemphill was arguably his era’s most important curator, author, and collector of contemporary folk art. He expanded the notion of folk art beyond traditional, utilitarian, and communal expressions to embrace idiosyncratic and individualistic artwork; the museum has thus been aligned with this vision from its inception. While the 1940s and 1950s championed the primitive and naive, the 1960s and 1970s returned to more traditional folk art themes by celebrating notions of community, regionalism, religion, and ethnic pride, and the greatest wealth of the museum’s contemporary collection is drawn from this period. Works by visionaries and isolates, though often created earlier in the century, started to enter private collections by the 1970s, particularly in Chicago, with the uncovering of the work of Henry Darger. The work of these artists appealed to many collectors of contemporary folk art, despite the fact that, with few exceptions, it was not intended for a public audience.

The definition of “outsider art” is linked to isolation from both mainstream society and the mainstream artworld. This term became popular in the early 1980s, and its use proliferated during the 1990s; today it is an established designator in the world of art. The term was first delivered to our shores with the 1972 book Outsider Art, by British author Roger Cardinal. From its genesis, “outsider art” was conceived as a marketing tool: the book was titled by the publisher, not the author, and the phrase is not used once on the inside pages. The author preferred the term art brut, or raw art, which had been coined by artist Jean Dubuffet in the 1940s to describe artwork made outside of the academy.

Initially understood to signify art made by someone living on the margins of society (imprisoned or institutionalized, for instance), “outsider art” subsequently was used to indicate work made by any artist not indoctrinated by the art academy. This arguably divisive term suggests “otherness”—after all, who is in, who is out? For this reason, the museum does not embrace its use—however, it continues to possess incredible staying power. Many artists who gained notice during the last two decades of the twentieth century are now so connected to the notion of being on the “outside” of mainstream art that “outsider art” continues to be the most frequently used term in the marketplace and the press. Ironically, as this work has increased in popularity and price, it has become integrated into the mainstream realm. Despite this paradox, or perhaps because of it, the continuing quest for new terminology remains relevant.

At the close of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, issues of community and authenticity arose in the scholarship in contemporary art. Scholars are listening to artists talk about their intentions and motivations, and as a result scholars speak more and more of “vernacular” art. Through their artwork, many artists show that they are very much products of place, time, and history. Refreshingly, students of this work have come to appreciate the environments in which artists have been working: the terms vernacular and folk, along with the non-pejorative “self-taught” (which designates a lack of academic training, not cultural isolation), accurately place the work and its creator within an appropriate context of community, heritage, and spirituality.

The museum’s more recent acquisition of works by international self-taught artists—primarily from Great Britain, Europe, and Japan—demonstrates an exciting new collecting initiative. The visual connections with their American counterparts are compelling and speak eloquently of common creative ground shared by all artists unindoctrinated in either fine art canons or mainstream art trends.

Adapted from Stacy C. Hollander, “Synchronicity: Temporal Aesthetics in Folk Art,” and Brooke Davis Anderson, “The Contemporary Collection: Through the Lens of Language,” American Anthem: Masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum (2001).
Collection Catalogs
American Anthem: Masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum
By Stacy C. Hollander and Brooke Davis Anderson, with Gerard C. Wertkin, Lee Kogan, Cheryl Rivers, and Elizabeth V. Warren; foreword by Gerard C. Wertkin. New York: Harry N. Abrams in association with the American Folk Art Museum, 2001. 431 pages.

American Radiance: The Ralph Esmerian Gift to the American Folk Art Museum
By Stacy C. Hollander; with Ralph Esmerian, Helen Kellogg and Steven Kellogg, Lee Kogan, Jack L. Lindsey, Kenneth R. Martin, Charlotte Emans Moore, Betty Ring, Ralph Sessions, Donald R. Walters, Carolyn J. Weekley, Frederick S. Weiser, and Gerard C. Wertkin; foreword by Gerard C. Wertkin. New York: American Folk Art Museum in association with Harry N. Abrams, 2001. 571 pages.

Darger: The Henry Darger Collection at the American Folk Art Museum
By Brooke Davis Anderson, with Michel Thévoz; foreword by Kiyoko Lerner. New York: Harry N. Abrams in association with the American Folk Art Museum, 2001. 128 pages.

These titles are available at the museum shop.