New York has a new art museum. The Museum for Biblical Art, formerly a gallery sponsored by the nonprofit American Bible Society, is going independent in newly refurbished quarters at Broadway and 61st Street, near Lincoln Center on Manhattan's West Side.
The inviting, high-ceilinged galleries currently hold two inaugural shows: a small exhibition of historically important Bibles and the large, sprawling "Coming Home! Self-Taught Artists, the Bible, and the American South."
"Coming Home!" contains a whopping 95 paintings and sculptures, from a total of 73 different southern artists. Such a focus is logical at a Bible museum, as evangelism, common throughout the south, is often based on a literal reading of the Bible, and therefore provides plenty of impetus to create works of art that visualize biblical themes.
The show begins with a section titled "Southern Religious Life" that introduces work closely related to the Bible. The Power of Praying (1960) by Elijah Pierce, a barber and Baptist minister noted for his "sermons in wood," is a low relief using stripes of white paint against a dark background to depict the mystic rays from God and Christ. Sparkles of glitter indicate the heat of this energy-projecting vehicle of faith, and the words "FAITH" and "PRAYERS" seem to be crackle in the air between the heavens and the crowd of worshipers depicted at the bottom of the painting.
Words underscore the message of many of the works in the show. Sister Gertrude Morgan's drawing Poem of My Calling (1972) illustrates in pictures and script the way that this street preacher heard a call from God to take up her ministry.
Using found objects, Jim Shores constructs a life-sized sculpture of a man handling snakes in Taking Up Serpents, Speaking in Tongues, Singing God's Praises (2003). It's one of many works that is less interested in proselytizing than it is in testifying about ways of worshipping.
John "J. B." Murry's two colorful, amoeboid-filled abstractions (both 1987) are covered with a form of glossographia, or spiritual esoteric script. The Baptist church that Murry belonged to in Texas practiced glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, which may have inspired his approach. Although illiterate, Murry evolved into one of our greatest abstract artists. Having seen hundreds of his works, all using a similar technique yet often radically different in feeling, I am constantly amazed that he has not yet had a major museum show. His drawings look great here.
The title of the show -- "Coming Home!" -- is derived from a gospel hymn that speaks of the "end-times," of the apocalypse before the Second Coming of Christ. After the introductory rooms, the show is divided into sections that reflect the eschatological concerns of evangelism as outlined in the Bible. This method of organization is fresh -- even if individual works range from great to not-so-great.
The Garden of Eden (1988) is Tim Lewis' impressive rendering of Adam and Eve in stone, while Days of Creation, a painting by Howard Finster -- the most famous of southern evangelical preacher-artists -- offers a Genesis-inspired survey of the first week of creation. Finster's thousands of paintings, sculptures and constructions may have been made for converting the lost, but they often contain wonderful bits of poetry along with their Biblical quotes.
Chester Cornett's Crucifix (1968), a moving crucifix in wood with human hair, done at about half human scale, is a standout, as is Purvis Young's imposing Black Jesus (1974) and William Hawkins' great Last Supper #6 (1986) with collaged magazine photos serving as the heads of his multi-racial apostles.
The largest category in the show is devoted to "The New Heaven and Earth," which admirably explores the Biblical ideas behind the "end-times." This part of the show is itself subdivided into three sections, the first of which, "Prophecy," contains a number of charts illustrating a belief in the end of the world as predicted by William Miller, who announced Christ's Second Coming would be in 1843, then 1844 (when the time came and nothing happened, there came what was known as "The Great Disappointment.") Some of the 20th century charts that curator Carol Crown has uncovered for the show are more alluring sociologically than visually, yet as artifacts they are utterly fascinating.
The next section, "Day of Reckoning," contains two of the best pieces in the show. Alyne Harris' Devil Devouring Angels, an acrylic from 1987-1988, reminded me of Goya's Saturn Devouring One of His Sons, as white-robed angels disappear into the maw of a monstrous head. Myrtice West's surreal Satan Takes Over, an oil from the 1980s, overlays rural vignettes with a gigantic, pointy-eared male face.
The last part of the show, also called "Coming Home!" includes Roger Rice's Homecoming (1995), in which a black soul struggles into paradise while trumpets sound. This work presents a problem for me. A prisoner-preacher, Rice is also a trained artist. I would not have included it in the exhibition. At the very least, Rice's training should have been noted prominently. For a show that omits work by such self-taught artists as Dilmus Hall, Ezekiel Gibbs and Bessie Harvey, among others, I would have saved Rice's piece for a different exhibition.
I also wish there had been room for more than a single anonymous sculpture -- a carved Bible pedestal is the only one featured -- and more than one quilt -- Yvonne Wells' The Whole Armor of God I (1995) is the sole example -- though both the works featured are good examples of these important categories of work. The topic of environmental-scale yard shows is only indicated in the show. However, it is explored in depth in a wonderful essay by N. J. Girardot in the show's excellent catalogue (available for $65 in hardcover, $30 in softcover).
"Coming Home!" was seen in a slightly larger form at the Art Museum of the University of Memphis (organized by curator Carol Crown, associate professor of art history there), and at the Florida State University Museum of Fine Arts in Tallahassee, Florida. The show can be seen at the new Museum for Biblical Art in New York through July 24, 2005.
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Another notable show on view in New York is at the American Folk Art Museum on West 53rd Street. "Ancestry and Innovation: African American Folk Art from the American Folk Art Museum" is a fine chance to see work from the Folk Art Museum's permanent collection. Several artists in "Coming Home!" like J. B. Murry and Clementine Hunter, can be seen at AFAM, too.
One highlight of the AFAM show is a spectacular Bessie Harvey sculpture made from painted wood, Black Horse of Revelations (1991). This work would have fit in perfectly in "Coming Home!" The selection of quilts here is also excellent. The show is open through Sept. 4, 2005.
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The third important folk art show is on view up at the Studio Museum in Harlem. "Bill Traylor, William Edmondson, and the Modernist Impulse," on view through July 3, 2005, is a terrific exhibition that examines the work of these two masters in detail. The show was organized by the Krannert Art Museum in Urbana-Champaign and curated by Josef Helfenstein, director of the Menil Collection in Houston, and Russell Bowman, former director of the Milwaukee Art Museum. Enhanced by photographs of both artists, the show is a real joy.
Bill Traylor (1854-1949), born a slave, worked as a farm laborer for most of his life. He left the Alabama countryside for the streets of Montgomery, Ala., where he began to draw on cardboard while in his 80s. His three years of activity, 1939-1942, resulted in about 1,500 drawings in pencil and paint. His spare forms, mostly animals and figures in silhouette, pack a tremendous wallop. His multi-figure tableaux are often very funny. Collected by the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Modern Art and many other institutions, Traylor is now considered one of our most important American artists.
Sculptor William Edmondson (1874-1951) also grew up poor, outside of Nashville. He worked for a railroad until an accident forced him to quit, and then he worked as a janitor in a hospital. Around 1933, he began to make tombstones, inspired by God. From carving tombstones, he progressed to carving small, free-standing figures in stone that possessed both sweetness and monumentality. Edmondson crafted angels, preachers, Adam, Eve, a church, nudes, animals, birds, local people and the black boxer Jack Johnson (an Edmondson Angel and Preacher here offer differing interpretations of themes that also appear in "Coming Home!"). In 1937 he became the first black artist to be given a one-man show at MoMA.
Despite the fame of these two artists in the 30s and 40s, they dropped out of sight until folk art enthusiasts banded together in the 60s and began to collect and study this kind of work. The effort was led by Herbert Waide Hemphill Jr. who co-founded the Museum of Early American Folk Arts, later rechristened as the American Folk Art Museum. His collection has become part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
The same impetus that sparked the Civil Rights movement also prompted a reexamination of the many artists left out of art history because they were not male, not white, or disadvantaged economically, socially or neurologically. The category of "self-taught art," "contemporary folk art" or the more commercially acceptable but usually erroneous "Outsider Art," made room for all these artists.
In his catalogue introduction, curator Josef Helfenstein states, "It is time to discuss and recognize the role and place of Bill Traylor and William Edmonson and their work outside the ghetto of 'outsider' and 'self-taught' art." Hmm. If the category of "self-taught art" hadn't been around, it's quite possible that many would not even remember the pioneering work that Alfred H. Barr, Jr. of MoMA did on behalf of Edmondson or that artist Charles Shannon did on behalf of Bill Traylor.
Academic institutions are only beginning to understand the importance of "self-taught" artists, something people dealing with this material have known for a long time. And despite the efforts of some institutions, including the Menil and the Milwaukee, which have done more than most to further the integration of "self-taught art" into the dialogue of art history, I still don't see many other talented self-taught artists in one-man, two-man or even group shows in museums or university galleries.
This is changing with shows like "The Quilts of Gee's Bend," now opening at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and similar shows elsewhere. Currently, MoMA is considering the acquisition through gift of a huge number of drawings by self-taught artists. Even the Metropolitan has bought Traylors.
Me, I'm back in the ghetto with J. B. Murry and other self-taught art enthusiasts, hoping that curators -- and everyone else that loves art -- can forget the terminology and embrace "Art" when they see it.
What appreciators of self-taught art know is that the greatest art, no matter who makes it, is Art with a capital A.
N. F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.