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    American Monument
by N. F. Karlins
William Edmondson
by Louise Dahl-Wolfe, ca. 1936
Mother and Child
Bess and Joe
Jack Johnson
Three Birds
Seated Nude
Tombstones for sale
Noah's Ark
"The Art of William Edmondson," May 20-Aug. 27, 2000, at the Museum of American Folk Art, 2 Lincoln Square, New York, N.Y. 10023.

Finally, a great American sculptor is getting his due. William Edmondson (1874-1951), the first African American artist to have a one-man exhibition at the Museum of Modern art (in 1937), has not had a major retrospective -- until now. "The Art of William Edmondson," a traveling show currently at the Museum of American Folk Art, is a joy from start to finish, the best installation of his work I've seen.

Edmondson's limestone carvings are monumental, albeit small in size. His subjects include generalized portraits of people he knew in Nashville, Tenn., like Bess and Joe, figures from the Bible, like his sexy Eve with her fig leaf, and celebrities like Eleanor Roosevelt or the black boxer Jack Johnson. He gave textured fur and feathers to his stone animals and more ambiguous "critters." He made one important architectural work, a few abstract pieces, birdbaths, and the tombstones with which he began his roughly 15-year-long career as a sculptor.

Edmondson can best be compared with Constantin Brancusi in his use of direct carving in stone, his development of a unique, abstract style from folk roots, and his integration of base and sculpture into a single work of art. It's no wonder that the Museum of Modern Art, alerted to his talent by the photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe, wanted to show his work.

Edmondson and his sculpture, which he displayed in a yard-show next to his house and studio in Nashville, was photographed extensively by Dahl-Wolfe in 1934-37, by Edward Weston in 1941, and shortly before his death in 1950 by Consuelo Kanaga. Prints by all three are part of the exhibition.

Starting as a field hand in rural Tennessee, William Edmondson, the uneducated son of slaves, gravitated to nearby Nashville along with the rest of his family. He held a series of modest jobs, one of which was helping a tombstone carver. A devout man who experienced visions throughout his life, Edmondson claimed that God spoke to him one day in 1933, at age 59, directing him to make a tombstone, then to "cut the figures."

I don't doubt that Edmondson did get a call to start carving, and he may have heard or attributed it to God. If you are a believer, that's what you do. And we know he attended local church services regularly, especially the Primitive Baptist Church, where his nephew was a deacon. But it also makes sense for Edmondson to say something like this to questioning white newspaper reporters, who might understand that better than simply saying that he wanted to try his hand at making tombstones.

Edmondson was a quiet, shrewd guy. His niece remarked that while he was employed at the local white Women's Hospital, when he didn't want to do something, he wouldn't do it. Describing his Seated Nude, one of three works on the same subject, Edmondson is quoted as saying to visitors from the hospital to his yard that the piece referred to a sharp-tongued coworker: "That's Miss Wooten, I put her on the pot." For his revenge, she seems to be sitting on a commode.

Edmondson worked at the hospital as a janitor for several years, then quit or lost his job in 1931. He worked briefly as a porter and mason's assistant before his "conversion" in 1932. Being unemployed during the Depression meant he had to do something fast to support himself and his home when he lost his hospital job.

Edmondson was a religious man, no doubt. Much has been made of his Noah's Ark, and rightly so. The two-story work resembles a house more than a boat and may have actually referred to the Primitive Baptist Church. Local African Americans often referred to their places of worship as "Noah's Ark." Displayed atop several slabs of limestone, its composite base made it the tallest of the works in his yard. It was also centrally located and Edmondson's only carving on a specific architectural theme.

The excellent catalogue, like the show, also a product of the Cheekwood Museum of Nashville, contains an illuminating article by Judith McWillie on Edmondson's works and photography. One shot by Edward Weston of a seemingly abstract tombstone, unfortunately not in the show, may be connected with the Masonic Lodge, another institution to which Edmondson probably would have belonged along with the church, according to McWillie. I suspect it may represent the top of a compass that other Masons, if not the general public, would have recognized immediately.

Edmondson never married. He was turned down by a coworker at the hospital. Could that have been why he left his job? He did create more of his li'l ladies than any other subject, perhaps to keep him company.

Among his most arresting and unusual figures are his large, blocky Mermaid and his figure of a nude man. The male figure may possibly be a portrait of a local writer who developed his own secret script. The figure has odd markings down its spine.

Talking with Rusty Freeman, Cheekwood's associate curator and the show's organizer, he felt the most important thing about "The Art of William Edmondson" was its bringing some balance to the previously stressed religious aspects of Edmondson's sculptures.

Whatever their theme, Edmondson's pieces have never looked better. I've seen them in exhibitions and at Cheekwood against light walls and admired them, but they are even more impressive here, spotlighted against a charcoal background. Chelsea art dealer Frank Maresca deserves kudos for the exciting installation.

The show subsequently appears at the Memorial Gallery at the University of Rochester in New York, Sept. 23, 2000-Jan. 21, 2001; the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Feb. 24-May 20, 2001; and the Mennello Museum of American Folk Art in Orlando, June 2-Aug 26, 2001.

N. F. KARLINS is a New York writer and art historian.