Folk finds a new home

The bright new home of the American Folk Art Museum in New York features a varied collection of both traditional and contemporary works.

Make way, Museum of Modern Art and American Craft Museum! There's a new kid on the block. The block of West 53rd Street, that is, between Fifth Avenue and Avenue of the Americas.

The new arrival last month is the American Folk Art Museum. The building (the museum's first permanent home in its 40-year history) and the art it contains are spectacular, making the block even more important as a cultural destination.

The husband-and-wife team of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects squeezed a mountain of surprises into a molehill site only 40 feet wide and 100 feet deep - the size of two townhouses. In a recent lecture to the Architectural League in New York, Mr. Williams said, "Even though we had a small site, we had a big ambition - to make something permanent that would be here longer than our lives."

The challenge, he said in an interview at the museum, was "to see how you can get more out of less and compound people's expectations."

Ms. Tsien told the Architectural League audience that their design started with the concept of "what makes the heart of a building." They wanted the building to feel rooted, but at the same time to soar. The solution: They would "pin the building to the ground," Williams said, "through a shaft of light."

The interior of the building comprises eight levels (two below ground), all illuminated by a slim slot of light that zooms from a roof skylight down to the lowest tier.

The whole building feels like an atrium, pierced by glass balconies and floors that jut out like shelves. Tsien cited the rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum in New York as an influence, saying, "We squished it into a shoebox."

The exterior packs a powerful punch. As open as the interior is, the facade looks opaque, heavy, solid.

Yet it's all about light, too. Composed of 63 white-bronze panels, the cladding is fiercely textured, each panel unique as a lava flow, pitted with holes. (The metal alloy was poured into concrete or steel forms, creating infinite variety in each.)

"We wanted a faceted facade," Tsien said, "to catch the light and change with the seasons."

A vertical strip of windows separates two tall trapezoids, capped by an upside-down triangle, making the exterior a play of abstracted geometry. The varying shades of color in the panels - fog, slate, silver, pewter - resemble a patchwork quilt worked in a Y-shape.

Once past the dramatic facade, there's plenty of excitement inside: Staggered cantilevered staircases, where light cascades down from above; a grand central staircase of bush-hammered concrete, polished to look like terrazzo; and a slender hidden staircase connecting the top two floors provide a plethora of choices for exploration.

Vistas appear on every level: up, down, across, and outside. As Williams put it, there are "a lot of tricks crammed in this little, bitty building."

In their sophisticated, complex composition, architects Williams and Tsien have combined opposites: smooth and rough, solid and void, machine-made and natural, warm and cool. The lean lines, industrial materials and technology, and geometric abstraction put the building in the camp of neo-modernism.

Its warm wood floors, benches, and handrails; sensuously detailed materials; and animating bolts of natural light invest the modernism with a heart. It's a humane building, rife with secrets, inner life, and joy. Like an origami swan, overlapping planes create a form that rises to the light.

Inside the building, the densely installed inaugural exhibitions show the dual facets of folk art today: traditional objects and contemporary Outsider art.

Interest in American folk art began in the 1920s, when it was called naïve, vernacular, or primitive art. A 1974 exhibition at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art brought it wider attention.

Folk art had originated in the craft tradition of rural areas. The objects - decorative and utilitarian - were produced by artisans who lacked formal training.

Traditional folk art, developed primarily from 1776 to 1876, includes objects for trade and domestic use, like weather vanes, shop signs, portraits, quilts, samplers, scrimshaw, ship figureheads, pottery, and furniture. With the accelerating machine age and the urbanization of the late 19th century, it began to fade.

Today, the concept of folk art has broadened to include not only craft-based objects but work by contemporary self-taught artists, known as "outsider artists." (The French artist Jean Dubuffet termed this "raw" art "l'art brut.") Outsider art is often utterly original, produced by inmates of asylums, prisoners, and those on the margins of society driven by inner urgency. Like traditional folk art, it's not subtle. It is direct and forceful.

Shining examples of traditional folk art occupy the top three floors in an exhibition entitled "American Radiance: The Ralph Esmerian Gift to the American Folk Art Museum" (through June 2).

This important collection of more than 400 objects is shown in its entirety. It includes iconic 19th-century pieces such as the portrait "Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog" by Ammi Phillips and the familiar Quaker painting "The Peaceable Kingdom" by Edward Hicks.

Although both painters lacked formal training and could not reproduce appearances realistically, the works illustrate classic traits of folk art: a strong sense of design, vigor, and a boldly inventive style.

Unfettered imagination is evident in objects such as a wooden toy kangaroo (c.1840). Obviously, the artisan had no clear image of an actual kangaroo, and this one, painted with black spots, looks more like the Loch Ness sea serpent. The highly original interpretation departs charmingly from reality. It's made by the hand of a craftsman, but shaped by an artist's eye and mind.

One gallery is devoted to the work of the reclusive Chicago artist Henry Darger (1892-1973). "Darger: The Henry Darger Collection at the American Folk Art Museum," through June 23, displays paintings, drawings, and manuscripts showing the obsessional world of this self-taught, or "outsider artist." His scroll-like watercolors and typed texts are like nine-foot-long comic strips filled with bizarre characters from his private fantasy world.

Embedded in the body of the building are niches with shadow boxes, lit in colors like violet or chartreuse, housing prime objects from the permanent collection. These pieces - such as a carved wooden tiger and a snake made of bottle caps - are delightful to encounter while wandering the museum.

Another standout is a wall of weather vanes, a menagerie of animal silhouettes, from a fox to a pheasant, presided over by a nine-foot-tall native-American chief, whose shadow enlivens a bare wall.

The building and the art constantly vary in scale, from small objects and narrow, compressed galleries to larger spaces, as in the lobby atrium, where an eight-foot metal curlew (c. 1870) hangs. In its sleek simplicity, the bird looks like a contemporary minimalist sculpture.

Folk art objects may be humble, made by naive craftsmen for domestic use. But encountering them offers a welcome shock of freshness.

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