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American Folk Art Museum


by N.F. Karlins
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The American Folk Art Museum looked more plucked than plucky at the close of 2011. The museum owns the most extensive collection of American folk art anywhere, along with a large selection of folk art from other countries, but trustee mismanagement had led to the sale of the museum's 53rd Street showplace facility and a retreat to its smaller, original Lincoln Center location. Some boardmembers apparently wanted to throw in the towel altogether and close the museum.

But 2012 brings with it the American Folk Art Museum’s 50th anniversary and a new commitment to the future. The museum continues to produce great exhibitions even in its more straitened circumstances. Presently on view, celebrating the 50th, is “Jubilation / Rumination: Life, Real and Imagined,” for which longtime curator Stacy C. Hollander selected about 100 works donated to the museum, largely during the past decade.

Workers’ Holiday – Coney Island (1965) by the self-taught Italian immigrant Ralph Fasanella (1914-1997) certainly falls into the celebration category. At about 6 x 12 ft., this bright cityscape provides a sweeping view of the city’s towers with Coney Island and its rollercoaster in the distance. The flattened space of the beach buzzes with excitement created by the inclusion of hundreds of small figures.

For rumination, visitors only have to turn to the left to see Vestie DavisBeach with Litter Baskets (1964). It’s a painting he called “an empty,” because most of his Coney Island scenes were more populated. Here, litter baskets stretch into the distance, lonely sentinels, without a human being in sight.

The curatorial strategy placing diverse works with similar motifs next to each other collapses space and time. A delicate blue-ink drawing, made by one Shaker woman for another as a gift inspired by “Holy Mother Wisdom,” dates from 1847, a period of religious revival among the Shakers. It is filled with tiny images, including a horn. Nearby is a sheet metal Archangel Gabriel Weathervane (ca. 1840), blowing his trumpet. Not far away is Fame (ca. 1890), a more three-dimensional copper and zinc weathervane attributed to E.G. Washburne & Co. of New York, in which a charming winged angel balances on one pointed foot and raises her trumpet to her lips.

A double portrait in oil by Sheldon Peck of David and Catherine Stolp Crane (ca. 1845), from Aurora, Ill., seems like long-lost kin to an over-three-foot-tall Duke and Duchess of Windsor in carved and painted wood by Jim Colclough from Westport, Ca., made sometime after 1961.

Well-known 20th-century American artists like Henry Darger, Martin Ramirez, Bill Traylor, Morris Hirshfield, Nellie Mae Rowe, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, Sam Doyle, Justin McCarthy and James Castle share space with Kevin Sampson’s Blue Meat from (2000), an edgy construction with found objects and bone. First-rate examples of earlier art abound, including the beguiling Sallie Hathaway Needlework Picture from around 1794. Radical shifts of scale between an oversized vase of flowers and several figures provide this silk-thread-on-silk textile with its own awkward, even surreal pleasures.

Quilts are always popular, and there are several varieties here. The most interesting won a quilt contest for its maker, Dorothy Yaffe Frank (1916-2005) from Syracuse, N.Y., but might be better described as embroidery with assemblage. Oriental figures, birds and animals are stitched and then encrusted with embroidery, beads, pearls and other fancy bits. A head of the maker’s mother appears studded with heavy beading, while a beloved cat with a real chain and tiny bells around its neck sits in a halo of red sequins.

Like abstraction? Then the eye-popping black-outlined designs filled with rich hues by Eugene Andolsek of Pennsylvania or the moody black ink swirls of a drawing by Raphaël Lonné of France will appeal to you. Works by artists from Mexico, Jamaica, Switzerland, New Zealand and Japan are also in the show.

Filling the center of one gallery is Marino Auriti’s Encyclopedic Palace of the World (ca. 1950s), a spectacular construction, 11 feet tall. The seven rising domes of this mythic skyscraper are made of lathe-turned wood with additions of plastic, glass, metal, hair combs and model kit parts. It took Auriti, an auto mechanic who loved architecture, three years to build. This Italian immigrant hoped that his vision might actually someday rise in Washington, D.C., and that it would eventually hold all the knowledge of the world. The lower levels are emblazoned with ideas like “Forgive the first time” -- a sentiment which we might now apply to the Folk Art Museum.

A reduced staff and balanced budget, no debt and a new board, led by former investment banker Monty Blanchard, hold promise of a better future for the American Folk Art Museum. Blanchard told me that "the title of the exhibition says it all. This is a time for us to be thoughtful about our past, but more importantly a time to celebrate our future, to be jubilant.”

“Jubilation/Rumination: Life, Real and Imaged,” Jan. 17-Sept. 2, 2012, at the American Folk Art Museum, 2 Lincoln Square, New York, N.Y. 10023.

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