The Museum of American Folk Art has entered the art-world's millennial sweepstakes with "Millennial Dreams: Vision and Prophecy in American Folk Art." The exhibition contains everything from a photographic reproduction of a 17th-century gravestone and an Edward Hicks Peaceable Kingdom to an almost life-size 1968 Crucifix by Chester Cornett of Kentucky, originally made for a contemporary ark.
A squadron of angels blows their trumpets, literally on high, to welcome you into the exhibition space. Four angels on either side of the entry corridor are dramatically lit and cast shadows further emphasizing their two- or three-dimensional shapes. The Museum's iconic Archangel Gabriel weathervane, a painted sheet-metal cutout from around 1840, is among them. Hanging just above your head between the lines of angels is another delight, a pudgy three-dimensional painted and gilded wood Gabriel (1800-1825), once a tavern sign.
The show is rich in material relating to particular sects that held a variety of millennial beliefs. The modest Shakers, who felt the Biblical millennium had already begun and attempted to create a paradise on earth, might not have approved of the dramatic way a series of their ladderback chairs are arranged from floor to ceiling as if one chair were being drawn up to heaven, but viewers will. Gift drawings in pastel-colored inks profess Shaker faith through emblematic trees, flowers, and designs. An exceptionally large Tree of Light drawing from 1845 by the noted Shaker artist Hannah Cohoon, recently rediscovered, is among them.
More unusual is the material from the Church of Latter Day Saints, or Mormons -- a sampler with the Nauvoo Temple worked in silk on linen, a painting of the trek West by Mormon pioneers, and a large allegorical carving with a couple facing a baptismal font decorated with Mormon imagery. A now-unpainted carved wood lunette with peek-a-boo eyes, Sunburst from the Original Salt Lake Tabernacle from 1852, is especially powerful.
A number of retablos and bultos from the Southwest show St. Michael the Archangel slaying the devil. St. Michael is about to skewer a horned Satan in an oil-on-oilcloth from South Texas (early 20th-century) that was once a backdrop to the Christmas play Los Pastores.
A Lutheran minister from Pennsylvania, Daniel Schumacher, drew a comet that appeared in 1769. He interpreted the comet as a sign of the coming of Christ and the need to repent. His small but impressive ink-and-watercolor drawing, Auf Zum Gericht (which also has an angel with book and horn) is one of several works in the Pennsylvania German fraktur tradition.
Several of the artists are religious leaders, at least in their own eyes, and their art serves their callings. Reverend Howard Finster, an evangelical minister and one of our most important and prolific contemporary artists, preaches through his art. His shimmering gold-glitter painting There is a House of Gold and a Plexiglas and mixed media construction Visions of Holy Crystal Cities Beyond illustrate that he can take just about anything and transform it into compelling art with a religious message.
It is a shame that the entire James Hampton Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations General Assembly (ca. 1950-64) a gold and silver foil-covered construction of breath-taking imagination, could not be shown. Even the few pieces on display are elegant artworks that are deeply spiritual at the same time. Hampton created the multipartite Throne in a garage, where it was discovered after his death.
Sister Gertrude Morgan, a well-known street preacher in New Orleans, includes herself in white robes with Jesus as her airplane, a favorite motif, along with scripture in a huge angel-filled painting executed on a window shade. William Edmondson's stylishly coifed angel in limestone and Morris Hirshfield's multi-patterned Daniel In the Lions' Den are proof positive that works by these artists simply must be included in any survey of important 20th-century art, especially American, pace MoMA and the Whitney.
"Millennial Dreams" is a lovely show, yet I miss the edgy pieces, especially the more contemporary ones, that celebrated an explosive, apocalyptic millennial vision in Roger Manley's exhibition "The End is Near!," with its well-earned exclamation point. It appeared in 1998 at The American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. The Museum of American Folk Art's present site is much smaller than the Visionary's, of course. But the sensibility is vastly different, too. Museum of American Folk Art director Gerard C. Wertkin, a Shaker specialist and organizer of this show, has a quieter and more upbeat take on the year 2000. Here are dreams, not nightmares.
In "Dreams," the Pieties Quilt, made from thousands of red and white bits of cotton pieced into geometric designs with blocks of sayings, was stitched by Maria Cadman Hubbard of Columbia County, N.Y. At the top of the quilt, this one exhortation dominates the others: "Little acts of kindness/ Little works of love/ Make our earthly eden/ like our Heaven above." Not a bad thought for 2000 as well as 1848.
"Millennial Dreams: Visions and Prophecy in American Folk Art," Nov. 13, 1999-May 14, 2000, at the Museum of American Folk Art, Two Lincoln Square, New York, N.Y. 10023.
N.F. KARLINS is a New York writer and art historian.