American Folk Art's Informal Delight And Humor

Folk Art in American Life

By Robert Bishop and Jacqueline M. Atkins

Viking Studio Books

228 pp., $29.95

The modern constructivist sculptor Naum Gabo paid a tribute to Alfred Wallis, an English fisherman and rag-and-bone merchant, who late in life started to paint on odd pieces of cardboard. Gabo's homage read: "To the artist on whom Nature has bestowed the rarest of gifts, not to know that he is one."

Although the self-taught Wallis, heralded by modern artists in Britain, is mostly characterized as naive or primitive, Gabo's words might apply equally to a folk artist.

But "folk art" is one of those terms that can prove to be rather wider in scope, or nebulous in concept, than suspected.

Perhaps it is easier to determine that a particular painting, sculpture, or artifact is definitely not folk art, than to be absolutely sure that one is. Either way, subjective judgment tends to enter in. One criterion is that an object mass-produced by machine cannot be called folk art. But then, it cannot (usually) be called art at all. That an object is handmade, however, does not in itself guarantee it's being folk art.

A recent book, "Folk Art in American Life," by Robert Bishop and Jacqueline M. Atkins, includes work by craftsmen, professional to their fingertips, who unquestionably knew they were "artists," as well as a great many who did not. Nor are all the artists featured in the book by any means untaught. Some carried on craft traditions brought from the Old World to the New. Others based their work on prints after respected artists and aimed at a similar accomplishment. In 18th-century America, as in Britain at the same period, some painters - Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley for example - started as naive painters and matured into respectable "high" artists. But the dividing line between folk and art was probably less distinct than we imagine.

This book illustrates a range of artifacts. Here is a sampling: a charmingly amateurish early 19th-century needlework picture by an unknown "young lady attending a female academy" (according to the caption); Simon Rhoda's ambitious and visionary Watts Towers in Los Angeles (1921-54); an elegant corner cupboard from Pennsylvania (1830-45); 12 consummate Shaker boxes; and a wooden gatepost in the form of a penguin (1890-1920).

The illustrations shown here are from this book. The lion rug shows something of the childlike innocence and unconscious humor usually associated with folk art. It is also a utilitarian household object (a picture to be walked on).

But the whirligig is made to amuse. Unlike the weather vanes that are so special to American folk art, whirligigs are not really wind-indicators: They are made, more like toys, to delight. In this one, the cyclist pedals when the wind blows. Functionality is not necessarily a measure of folk art, any more than degrees of sophistication are.

The book extends the usual folk art period of the 18th and 19th centuries far into the 20th. This opens up even more questions about the differences between folk art and such things as naive art, primitive art, amateur art, and (a rather fashionable term at the moment) outsider art. Can it authoritatively be stated where folk ends and naive begins?

And how does the kind of modern, 20th-century art that is inspired by folk art differentiate itself from folk art proper? Is a painter like the Frenchman Le Douanier Rousseau naive, primitive, outsider, or - as he considered himself - simply modern? Or, is his highly idiosyncratic, self-taught art actually folk art?

Then there is a case such as the 20th- century American painter Milton Avery who used qualities and traits of American folk art in his work. He was a consciously modern artist, but he also wanted his work to be distinctly American. Avery added a folk ingredient to his modernity to bring it down to earth and make it more American.

"Folk Art in American Life" makes the point that American folk art has only been collected and studied by scholars for 70 or 80 years. Many of its first collectors, in the 1920s, were artists.

Gerard Wertkin, director of the Museum of American Folk Art in New York, argues in his foreword that, "It was the formal, aesthetic qualities" of the folk-art objects "that most interested" the American modernists. He mentions "flat picture planes and tonalities, geometric patterning and angularity, and the tendency to abstraction of the early works." But he also suggests that what the modern artists discerned in these aesthetic "attributes" was "the American spirit in its essentials - a simple, almost austere directness, an engagingly straightforward honesty."

But this "American spirit" has less to do with formal, aesthetic qualities than with feeling; and I believe it was the feeling folk art inspired that mattered most. Artists recognized in it something that had perhaps been lost as art had grown more self-conscious and academic.

Wertkin maintains, however, that: "By and large ... the objects themselves and the circumstances of their creation were little understood" by these early enthusiasts.

This is only to say, however, that collectors and artists are more interested in folk art as art, than as sociology. (On the other hand, many folk-art objects are hardly difficult to understand - the functions of decoy ducks or boot scrapers, chairs or fire boards are largely self-explanatory.)

This new book usefully endeavors to set American folk art in context - to explain the objects and their circumstances. But it is the perennial freshness of art that is not exclusively the province of "art professionals" (not to mention museum experts and authors) that invests so much of this work with its immediacy and accessibility.

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