American Folk Art Comes of Age Picture 1, 'Captain Samuel Chandler', by Winthrop Chandler; Picture 2, 'Zebra Family', by Morris Hirsfield; Picture 3, 'Pierrepont Edward Lacey and his dog Gun', by Noah North; Picture 4, 'Coryell's Ferry', by Joseph Pickett; Picture 5, 'Mrs Hezekiah Beardsky', by Elizabeth Davis

In celebration of its 50th anniversary, the Whitney Museum has mounted the first of its major exhibitions, "American Folk Painters of Three Centuries." The Choice is especially appropriate, for the Whitney under the directorship of Thomas Armstrong has done more to proselytize the cause of folk art than any other institution.

In so doing it carries on a tradition of commitment begun in 1924, when the first exhibition of American folk art, entitled "Early American Art," was mounted at the Whitney Studio Club. In 1974, the 50th anniversary of that show, the Whitney Museum installed with a flourish "The Flowering of American Folk Art ," which Mr. Armstrong in a recent interview extolled as "the first show to bring folk art objects of all kinds into an American museum in order to establish aesthetic criteria for such objects."

"The current show," he continued, "is the first survey of 37 identified artists to explain the lives and works of those artists and to enter them into the mainstream of American art."

Mr. Armstrong's interest in folk art is hardly dispassionate, as evidenced by an interview in 1975 with this paper in which he named the six works of art in the world he would most like to own. Four of them were folk paintings and three of them are included in this exhibition (Ammi Phillip's "Portrait of Harriet Leavens," John Brewster's "Sarah Prince," and Rufus Hathaway's "Lady With Her Pets").

In our recent interview Mr. Armstrong elaborated: "I personally feel folk art is among the most important art produced in the 19th century. It certainly makes an American statement, much more so than the academic tradition."

In the past the prevailing attitude toward folk art has been one of condescension. Like most ethnic or indigenous artists, folk artists are untrained, at least in formal or academic terms, and generally anonymous. Hence they have tended to share along with craftsmen and decorative artists a kind of aesthetic limbo.

But thanks to the discernment of a few collectors, notably Juliana Force, who directed the pioneering exhibition at the Whitney Studio club, Mrs. John D. (Abby Aldrich) Rockefeller Jr., Col. and Mrs. Edgar Garbisch, and Jean and Howard Lipman, who have liberally donated their collections to major museums and private institutions, the status of folk art has gradually climbed and stimulated the interest of scholars.

The Garbisches, for example, whose collection of 2,600 works is now concentrated at the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Metropolitan Museum, were the first to describe folk painting as "naive" rather than primitive. The curator of the Garbisch collection, Clifford Schaefer, recounts that in 1968, when the works from the collection were on exhibition in Paris, Andre Malraux, who was French minister of culture at the time, objected that the adjective "primitive" would suggest to European audiences French, Flemish, and Italian paintings of the late Middle Ages. So Colonel Garbisch struck open "naive," which he defined as "marked by simplicity, ingenuousness, artlessness; showing candor, freshness, spontaneity unchecked by convention" -- and the label has stuck.

One happy result of the increased research is that more and more artists have been rescued from the oblivion. The significance of this exhibition is that it brings together for the first time artists who possess both a name (in most instances) and a body of work. This makes it possible for the viewer to study them as individual creative personalities. Second, the fact that this exhibition consists entirely of paintings implicitly confers upon these "folk" artists the prestige usually associated only with "fine" artists.

What is folk painting? There seem to be as many definitions as the number of people one asks, but there are certain characteristics on which there is at least general consensus. In a recent symposium on folk art held in conjunction with the exhibition, Mr. Armstrong summarized these as a preoccupation with symmetry, complementary colors, and overall patterning or design.

The bizarre consequence is that despite its extreme literalness folk painting is more abstract than realistic and often evinces striking formal similarities to modern European painting, by Braque and Matisse for example, and even with Japanese painting. Mr. Armstrong goes so far as to attribute the burgeoning interest in folk art in part to the dominant influence of the abstract movement during this century.

The show's focus on individual artists is reinforced by the catalog, which consists of biographical essays by various scholars. The essays reflect the colorfulness and often eccentricity of the artists' lives and are a delight to read. Typically fascinating is the one on Henry Church, the blacksmith from Chagrin Falls, Ohio, whose visionary, surrealistic paintings were inspired by advertising posters.

Most of the artists were rural craftsmen and itinerants; some were religious leaders; others were drunkards. Their biographies are relevant because they establish a cultural context for their paintings. The portraits, landscapes, and genre scenes painted by these artists were a direct response to their surroundings and communities, in which they lived virtually isolated from the rest of the world. Their work serves as a document of their times and an oblique reference to their own lives.

Jules Brown, professor of the history of art at Yale University, postulated during the symposium that we can even discover in the symbolism of a folk painting, such as Winthrop Chandler's "Homestead of Gen. Timothy Ruggles," an allusion to the Civil War; or in his double portrait of "Rev. and Mrs Ebenezer Devotion" a reflection of the artist's "internal mental structure." He further suggests that folk artists are alchemists of a sort, who transform the dross of daily life into a psychological gold mine: "I suspect that folk art may function most powerfully as evidence in the analysis of the human mind," Mr. Brown said.

As a vindication of folk art, this exhibition is most convincing, although one should keep in mind Mr. Armstrong's warning that "these are the masterpieces , but for every one of these there are hundreds of rotten pictures." In the show the most impressive artists are generally the most familiar: Ammi Phillips, Winthrop Chandler, Erastus Salisbury Field, and Edward Hicks, who are represented by their finest works, such as Phillip's "Girl With Cat," Field's "Joseph Moore and His Family," and two from Hick's "Peaceable Kingdom" series.

The overwhelming impression that emerges is the uniqueness of each artist's vision; the Yankee grimness in Sheldon Peck's portraits, the kaleidoscopic refraction in Charles Hofmann's landscapes, the Goyaesque resemblance of children and their pets in Noah North's portraits, the fantasy of Morris Hirshfield, the moodiness of the Beardsley limner.

Despite the apparent simplicity of the paintings, many of the artists distort their subjects and flatten their perspective, which enhances the unreal and even surreal effects. The greatest appeal of folk art, as this exhibition so ably illustrates, is the tension between the simplicity and the surrealism. The paintings are ostensibly so straightforward and ingenuous that one could not imagine a more direct visual statement. Like Venus from the head of Zeus they seem to have sprung full grown from the artist's imagination, uncorrupted by formal training.

Yet what is disturbing about them is that they are so candid, yet so secretive, as if the artist were hiding himself within them or even behind them. He is so open toward his subject, yet so closed toward himself, and it is only through hints -- e.g., the distorted figure, the somber palette -- that we can guess at the personality of the artist. Folk painting is like medieval painting in its humility and self-effacement, and it is here that we find the artist most purely in the service of his subject. There are times when the paintings seem almost to have painted themselves, as if the artist were their instrument rather than their maker, the anvil rather than the hammer. Their impact on the viewer is that of a blow from one mind to another.

This exhibition, which was organized by Jennifer Russell, special assistant to the director of curatorial affairs, will be on view through May 13.

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