an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me

Revived American Folk Art Museum: The Ingenuity of “Self-Taught Genius”

On the upswing: the well-attended American Folk Art museum on Aug. 14 Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The well-attended American Folk Art Museum, Aug. 14
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Last week, I belatedly visited the American Folk Art Museum’s engaging, rightly acclaimed Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum (closed Sunday), arguably its most ambitious, wide-ranging exhibition since it decamped in 2011 from its W. 53rd Street facility to what had been its satellite space on Lincoln Square. In astute wall texts and labels for some 100 objects from the museum’s superlative permanent collection, AFAM reframed self-taught art as the visual expression of America’s independent spirit, unrestrained by European teachings and traditions.

Here’s a key excerpt from the introductory wall text, co-authored by the show’s organizers—Stacy Hollander, AFAM’s deputy director, chief curator and director of exhibitions, and its curator Valérie Rousseau:

As Europe contemplated Young America with a skeptical eye, self-taught genius translated into a somewhat protective posture of pride in self-actualization—an original brilliance that was not based on formal education, training, or classical precedent.

Well attended during my Thursday visit (as you can see in my photo, above), this thematically organzed show explores the history of the genre from the mid-18th century to compelling contemporary works by such artists as Purvis Young and Thornton Dial Sr. (both recent gifts). It attracted over 35,000 visitors during its three-month run and will soon travel to six other venues around the country.

What’s more, attendance at the formerly endangered museum during the fiscal year ending June 30 amounted to almost 120,000 visitors—“an increase of 30% from the previous year,” according to the July/August letter from executive director Anne-Imelda Radice. She further informed me today that yearly attendance at the much larger W. 53rd Street flagship had been “usually around 150,000. We are striving to meet or beat that this year.”

The Henry Luce Foundation has sponsored the show and its tour, joining the roster of supporters (like the Ford Foundation) who have fueled AFAM’s revival. Others who have stepped up to the plate since the museum downsized include the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Coby Foundation, Peter J. Sharp Foundation, Leir Charitable Foundations, J.M. Kaplan Foundation, Lily Auchincloss Foundation and Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller Foundation.

Another symbol of AFAM’s resurgence is this painting, part of the “Self-Taught Genius” installation:

Edward Hicks, "The Peaceable Kingdom," 1829-31 Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Edward Hicks, “The Peaceable Kingdom,” 1829-31

The mythical, mystical work was recently donated to the museum by Carroll Janis, son of legendary contemporary/modern dealer Sidney Janis. The elder Janis was himself a pioneering expert in American folk art and author of They Taught Themselves, a 1942 exploration of the subject. Carroll was sufficiently confident of AFAM’s long-term viability give his treasure to the once endangered museum. One of Hicks’ many versions of the subject, this is among his “first to expand the panoply of animals with the addition of bears, cattle and a second lion; to show animals sharing food; and to depict three children,” according to AFAM’s label.

As it happened, I ran into Carroll during my visit, as he toured the exhibition with curator Hollander. Here they are, in front of his donated painting:

Sidney Janis and Stacey Hollander, AFAM's deputy director and chief curator, with the newly donated Hicks painting. Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Carroll Janis and Stacy Hollander, AFAM’s deputy director, chief curator and director of exhibitions, with his recently donated Hicks
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Perhaps this acquisition helps make up for AFAM’s loss of a later version of “Peaceable Kingdom”—a promised gift that, due to reversals suffered by would-be donor Ralph Esmerian, failed to materialize:

Edward Hicks, “The Peaceable Kingdom with the Leopard of Serenity,” 1846-48

Edward Hicks, “The Peaceable Kingdom with the Leopard of Serenity,” 1846-48

AFAM did recently receive 53 works from the Esmerian Collection that, as described in a December 2012 AFAM press release, were transferred to the museum from the 263 works previously promised to it by the criminally convicted jewelry mogul, who had been AFAM’s chairman and preeminent donor before his downfall. Below is one of the 53—a view of New York City from the Brooklyn docks. I had previously seen it in 2012, in the AFAM-organized Compass: Folk Art in Four Directions at the South Street Seaport Museum, where I was told that AFAM had particularly coveted it:

"Situation of America, 1848," artist unidentified Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

“Situation of America, 1848,” artist unidentified, 2013 gift of Ralph Esmerian
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Here’s another of the many works in the show that came to AFAM last year as part of the settlement agreement between the Esmerian bankruptcy estates and the museum. One of only “nine watercolor portraits [that] can confidently be attributed to the elusive artist” Mary B. Tucker (according to the label), it shows a bright-eyed baby holding a rattle beside an older child with an illustrated alphabet primer:

Mary B, Tucker, "Learning the ABCs," 1840-44 Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Mary B. Tucker, “Learning the ABCs,” 1840-44
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The show also includes two pieces that have become signature works of AFAM’s collection. This elaborate construction gained recent fame as the title work in Massimiliano Gioni‘s 2013 Venice Biennale:

Marino Auriti, "Encyclopedic Palace," c. 1950s Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Marino Auriti, “Encyclopedic Palace,” c. 1950s
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

This, arguably AFAM’s most famous work, was one of the first encountered in “Self-Taught Genius.” Unfortunately, the transparent box encasing it made it as much a study in reflections of people and objects in the gallery as a charming portrait of a young girl with her pets:

Ammi Phillips, "Gird in Red Dress with Cat and Dog," 1830-35 Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Ammi Phillips, “Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog,” 1830-35, gift of Ralph Esmerian, 2001
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Here it is installed to much better advantage, while on loan to the Metropolitan Museum’s American art galleries:


Next up for AFAM is a New York City crowdpleaser, Ralph Fasanella: Lest We Forget, organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Here’s one of AFAM’s own examples by the artist, as installed in “Self-Taught Genius”:

Ralph Fasanella, "Subway Riders," 1950 Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Ralph Fasanella, “Subway Riders,” 1950
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

an ArtsJournal blog