Monday, February 28, 2011

Meditation by the Sea

I just got back from a trip to Boston to see the new American wing at the Museum of Fine Arts. The museum is a far cry from my graduate school days of the early 1990s. The new wing is huge, inviting, and loaded with the museum's formidable collection of American art from prehistory through the present.

Of course, I took particular note of the folk art collection, which was always a strong component of the museum's offerings since their main benefactor, the collector Maxim Karolik (a Russian immigrant who married into the wealthy Codman family of Boston) was a major enthusiast of the works of American self-taught artists. I was delighted to find out that the folk art pieces appear in a number of galleries throughout the new wing, and are also featured in one large gallery on the second floor. While perusing that space, I reacquainted myself with a singular, enigmatic piece that has captivated critics and the public for decades: the unassuming little painting called "Meditation by the Sea."

It'a a wonderful little painting, with all of the bold patterning of forms that make folk art so much fun. But it has more than that. It has an air of mystery and tension that is inescapable. Who is the figure in the foreground? Why is he at this beach? Most important, what is he thinking as he contemplates the sea before him?

The accompanying label offered two tidbits. One, that this painting was based on a print of the beach at Gay Head, Martha's Vineyard, that appeared in Harper's Magazine in the early 1860s. And two, that perhaps the tension and anxiety some see in the picture has something to do with the Civil War going on at the time.

Both ideas are tenuous. I'm reproducing the print here to make my point that there is no conclusive way to say it is the inspiration for the painting. At least not to my eye. This lack of visual connection throws into question, obviously, the latter contention that the mood is related to the Civil War. I'm not sure we know when this picture was painted.

None of this matters, of course, when considering this work as an American masterpiece. It is, unquestionably. It's just a pity we don't know what that little guy is thinking. In the meantime, we can fill in the blanks with our own imaginations, and admire the liveliness of the unidentified artist's brush strokes, which delight the eye, and the composition, which invites us to take a walk on that beach and lose ourselves for a moment or two.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Cat in a Box

Sometimes you get tired of all the folk paintings of kids and their pets. This piece is a welcome relief from that monotony, at least for me. We've had it in the Fenimore Art Museum collection since 1992, when it was bequeathed to us from a donor in California. It's an 11" square painted "box," actually stretched canvas, painted to look like an actual cat in a carrying case. The artist painted leather straps along the front side to allow the feline to look out and, presumably, to breathe. This artist obviously had a love of animals had a sense of humor.

We think the painter was Florence Elizabeth Atkins, who was born in Louisiana in 1876 and spent most of her working years in San Francisco, where she moved just a few years after the great earthquake of 1906. Atkins never married, and died in San Francisco in 1946. Aside from working as a clerk for Western-Union Telegraph Company, she was known for her painted and sculpted animals, particularly her bird studies, and her work was included in prestigious venues such as the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia.

Atkins did study art formally in California and in Europe, so strictly speaking she is not really a folk artist. But there is something about pieces like this that have a homespun and offbeat quality about them that appeals to me. This is a piece meant more for a middle-class parlor than a formal art gallery in a mansion.

What also appeals to me is that Ms. Atkins is truly a lost and under-appreciated artist. It is very difficult to find information about her on the internet, and their are no images of her work to be readily found anywhere. Maybe this post will help get the ball rolling. In the meantime, it is hard to look at this painting without smiling. Especially when you think of this kitty sitting in Florence's studio looking out longingly at all those bird studies.

Monday, February 21, 2011


Here's another one of those folk artists whose work is so recognizable that there is no debate over attribution when an unsigned piece shows up on the market. Zedekiah Belknap is well known in folk art circles but not so much among the general art-viewing public. He worked mainly in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Vermont between 1807 and the late 1840s as an itinerant portrait painter.

Belknap may not have originally intend to paint portraits for a living. In his youth, he actually entered divinity school at Dartmouth College in the hopes of becoming a minister. He graduated in 1807, and did preach for a few years, although he was never ordained. He began to paint portraits the same year he graduated from Dartmouth.

He didn't have much luck in his married life. Belknap married Sophia Sherman in Waterville, Maine in 1812, but she terminated the marriage shortly after. It seems that Belknap's relatives frightened her. Many of them were afflicted with a hereditary hip disease that left them limping.

Over the course of his forty-one year painting career, Belknap is known to have painted at least 170 portraits. They all have one thing in common, at least to my eye. Yes, it's the noses. All of Belknap's sitters, male and female, young and old, have the same bulbous nose outlined in a thick, reddish line of paint. The Fenimore Art Museum's "Two Children with a basket of Fruit," painted about 1830, is a great example of his work. I particularly like how the rounded forms of the fruit in the basket echo the two very prominent noses in this portrait. Those noses are better than any signature.

Belknap's bad luck continued throughout his lifetime. In 1857 he entered a Poor Farm near Weathersfield, Vermont and died there the following year. His delightful paintings form a legacy that belies the difficulties he endured in his 76-year life. It's both a pleasure and a relief that we never have to argue over whether any of them are really his.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Watts Towers - A New Partnership

The year I was born, the now-world-famous Watts Towers in Los Angeles nearly died. It was 1959, and the city of Los Angeles was worried, or at least claimed to be. The Towers, built over the course of many years by Italian immigrant Simon Rodia in the Watts section of LA, were neglected and in disrepair after Rodia left town. The complex of seventeen major structures built of concrete, rebar, ceramic, shells,  and glass -- the tallest of which stretched 100 feet into the sky -- appeared vulnerable to collapse, especially in the event of a tremor or earthquake.

So in 1959, the city of Los Angeles ordered the Towers demolished.

Fortunately, a group of concerned citizens formed a committee to save the Towers. One of their members was N. J. (Bud) Goldstone, and aerospace engineer (below). He devised a stress test to prove the Towers were safe. After being subjected to tremendous pressure, the Towers did not budge. So they were spared.

But they still needed work, and have continually required care and restoration ever since. In recent times this has proven difficult, as the city's budget became stretched by the severe recession. In 2011 the city had only $150,000 to offer, down from its annual allocation of $300,000.

The time was ripe for another champion of this folk art masterpiece to step forward. Michael Govan had admired the Towers ever since his grad school days at the University of California at San Diego. In his current role as Director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) he approached the city about a partnership to help preserve the Towers. Since most private foundations do not grant money to governments, LACMA became the agent for the city, and recently obtained a $500,000 grant from the James Irvine Foundation to do the conservation work along with programming for the Watts Towers Art Center and Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center.

So now a major urban fine art museum will become the primary caretaker of a folk art wonder that it doesn't even own. That's a long way from the wrecking ball prospects of a half century ago.

Friday, February 11, 2011

An Old Friend Reintroduced

This is one of my favorite folk art paintings of all time, and one that I thought would forever remain a mystery. Back in my grad school days, when i took the American Folk Art course offered by Lou and Aggie Jones here at the Cooperstown Graduate Program, this painting was one that the Joneses love to dwell upon. It's called "The Old Plantation," and it depicts a group of slaves playing music and dancing at an unidentified plantation on a riverbank. It is in the collection of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum at Colonial Williamsburg in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Physical evidence gave some clues to the painting's origins; a watermark on the paper indicated a date of around 1790. The piece was found in an antique shop in South Carolina in the early part of the 20th century. The key question was whether the work was done by a white or a black artist. It certainly looked like a piece done by someone skilled and experienced in watercolor, but there were trained African American artists prior to the American Revolution. The details of the painting, particularly the instruments (which are African or African-inspired) and the nature of the dance itself, seemed to indicate an artist who was intimately familiar with slave culture. To many scholars that seemed enough to lean toward the notion of this having been painted by an artist who was also a slave on this plantation.

Now, owing to careful research, we know that this is not the case at all. Susan P. Shames, a librarian at Colonial Williamsburg, conducted extensive research into period documents, gravestones, and newspapers to identify the artist as John Rose, a plantation owner (and watercolorist) who kept slaves at his riverfront plantation in South Carolina in the 1790s. One key breakthrough had come years ago, in 1976, when a pair of elderly sisters came to Colonial Williamsburg to see the painting and informed staff that the piece had descended in their family and that it was painted by an ancestor of theirs depicting his own plantation. It was Ms. Shames who discovered that one of the ladies' forebears was John Rose.

When I traveled to Williamsburg in the mid-1980s to conduct research on our own folk art collection, I recall vividly my reaction to seeing this piece for the first time. My first thought was "I can't believe it's that small." The iconic painting is only about 11" x 18". It occupied a small section of wall just to the right as you entered  the folk art museum's "Carolina Room," and I remember thinking how unfortunate it is that we will never know who painted it.

Now that we do know, this painting rises, in my estimation, from a larger-than-life folk art icon to an unequivocal national treasure. But it's going to be hard to adjust my thinking (and my lecture notes) after speaking about this piece to my own grad students for the past 25 years.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

My Second Acquisition - 1983

In retrospect, the museum should not have allowed me to get a taste of what it feels like to acquire artwork so early in my career. As I recounted in my last post, my first piece of art acquired for the museum occurred before I was even a staff member. So did the second. Only that one was mural sized and cost a lot of money.

Those of you who know my work as it relates to the great 20th-century folk painter Ralph Fasanella will not be surprised that his work was at the top of my list of must-haves for the Fenimore Art Museum folk art collection right from the start (see my previous posts on him). I met Ralph in the fall of 1981, my first semester in graduate school, and saw all of the incredible paintings that he had in his studio.

As I planned my first folk art exhibition here in the summer of 1982, I pressed the issue of a major acquisition. Our Director at the time had just come on board and, I think, was eager to make a statement, so he encouraged me. It didn't hurt that he had been Director of the Cooperstown Graduate Program when I started my studies, and so he knew me quite well.

At any rate, imagine that same 23-year old summer intern again, only this time with money to spend. I went back down to Ralph's studio in Westchester County with a different eye. In the end, the work I chose had it all: it was one of Ralph's best urban scenes; it was autobiographical; it was large and colorful; it was New York; and it included his trademark political viewpoints without being overbearing. It was "Dress Shop," oil on canvas, 1972, 45" x 90". After a few months of getting the necessary approvals, we purchased the painting as our first accession of the year 1983.

The painting depicts the garment factory where Ralph's mother worked in the 1920s and 1930s, but it is more conceptual than that. On the right is a neighborhood from the early 1920s, when Ralph was a youth getting up at the crack of dawn to help his father deliver ice. On the right is the Bronx as Ralph knew it from the 1960s. As he  put it: "This painting took fifty years to create."

The price? Hefty for that time, a grand total of $23,500. Our Director got a kick out of saying that the price had him hyperventilating but he did not hesitate to support the purchase. And I felt like a conquering hero. It was only much later that I understood the full complexity of this painting, and the deep personal meaning it held for its maker.

At the lower right Ralph included a plaque dedicating the painting to the memory of the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911. Just above the sign he has placed his mother and sister working away in the dress shop. The proximity is not coincidental; for Ralph, the union organizer and antifascist, the notion of family was a universal expression of love for a whole people. I think I really got it when Ralph was talking about the painting over the phone with one of our upper-level administrators and said "that one is right from the belly."

Friday, February 4, 2011

My First Acquisition: 1982

This is where it all started. I was a summer intern at the Fenimore Art Museum in between semesters at the Cooperstown Graduate Program in Museum Studies, working on my Master's degree and searching for a niche in the museum world. I was tasked with the research and installation of a major exhibition of the American folk art collection. Heady stuff for a 23-year-old. I think I got the internship because I was the only applicant who had taken the folk art graduate course offered by our former director Louis C. Jones and his wife Aggie. Lucky for me, as it turned out to be the defining moment in my career.

One of my first assignments as an intern was to seek out and acquire an Otsego County folk painting that the director had heard existed. It was owned by a local woman whose mother had found it in an antiques shop along Route 20, just a few miles north of Cooperstown, sometime in the mid-20th century. According to the information our director had, it was an oil on board, about 20" x 30" and depicted a local building.

When the museum's then-curator and I first got a look at the piece we were more than pleasantly surprised. For a simple painting on board, this work offers a lot. The late 18th-century saltbox clapboard structure with a log addition. Figures rowing, washing clothes in the lake or stream, walking across the lawn toward a horse, fishing. And the variety of animals: a cow, geese, a sheep, and a large pig.

My favorite detail is the tavern sign high up on the pole to the left of the building. I only wish it was legible. It seems likely that this piece depicts a local scene, although it would be difficult if not impossible to identify conclusively. It is also worth remembering that Route 20, where this was found, was once called the Great Western Turnpike, so this painting may have originated in New England and migrated westward as so many people and objects did in the early 19th century. We acquired the piece, of course (the mother had made her daughter promise to give it to us eventually) and gave it a place of honor in the new exhibition.

The tavern in the painting looks like a friendly and welcoming spot for any weary traveler making their way along that hilly route. But to me it represents the start of a nearly 30-year journey exploring the variegated world of American folk art, with each new valley more exciting than the last.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Enigmatic Foursome

Group portraits are usually pretty straightforward. You know how the father is, along with the mother and the children. If they do not depict obvious family members, as in my previous post about the strange group of ironers, these works can be very puzzling. This is one of our oddest examples of this phenomenon.

The "Enigmatic Foursome" came out of the barn of Mr. and Mrs. William J. Gunn in the late 1950s, found there by Mary Allis and sold to Stephen C. Clark for the Fenimore Art Museum. It has never been considered one of our masterpieces, but it is interesting enough that we have included it regularly in our exhibitions and catalogues.

But what an odd assortment of individuals. Who are they and why would they have a picture taken together? The inclusion of the Black man, ostensibly on an equal standing as the others, is highly unusual for portraiture of the early 19th century (ca. 1835-50 seems a good guess for this painting). That aside, no two members of this group look related, and the laughing red-haired man in front seems particularly out of place.

Our former director, Lou Jones, always had a ready answer for conundrums like this. And his "answer" was usually delivered tongue-in-cheek. When he wrote about this painting in 1960 -- the title "Enigmatic Foursome" is his -- he thought that this was a traveling theatrical troupe of the type that performed in small town taverns and country fairs across rural America in the early decades of the 19th century.

It's not a bad guess. Look at the cast of characters: The Straight Man, at the top; the Ingenue, at the left; the Clown, at the bottom; and the Black character who would have danced and performed between sets. If Jones was right, this is really a very rare piece, documenting a form of early American entertainment in a manner that we just don't see in surviving examples. Even if this portrait depicts something other than a theatrical troupe, it is a remarkable survival of a group of people who by conventional standards have no right to occupy the same canvas. That is the enigma that this picture presents to this day.
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