American Traditions: A Taste for Folk Art

January 10 to March 29, 2002
Exhibited at the Archives’ New York Research Center

The definition of American folk art is notoriously difficult to pin down. In the twentieth century “folk art” has embraced everything from Pennsylvania German frakturs to eccentric architectural environments.

Holger Cahill in his landmark 1932 exhibition American Folk Art: The Art of the Common Man in America, for the Museum of Modern Art, looked to the pre-industrial past for “the simple and unaffected childlike expression of men and women who had little or no school training in art, and who did not even know that they were producing art.” In the 1940s, art critic and collector Jean Lipman pointed to folk art as the product of a great democracy. It was spontaneous, home-grown, non-derivative, and non-academic. Three decades later, Herbert Waide Hemphill, Jr., and Julia Weissman in their book Twentieth Century American Folk Art and Artists, expanded the scope to include living artists, and asserted that &ldqou;the vision of the folk artist is a private one, a personal universe, a world of his own making,” unaffected by the mainstream art world.

The Archives of American Art has collected a wealth of primary sources documenting the contested terrain of American folk art. In celebration of the opening of the American Folk Art Museum’s new building at 45 West 53rd Street, the Archives presents selected documents from the papers of the tastemakers who advanced the aesthetic appreciation of these individual expressions.

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American Traditions: A Taste for Folk Art

Sister Sarah braiding a chair

Sister Sarah braiding a chair, ca. 1936

Photograph of Sister Sarah braiding a chair. Part of a press package to promote the exhibition “New Horizons in American Art” at the Museum of Modern Art. Photograph by Vincenti-Herlick.

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American Traditions: A Taste for Folk Art

American Folk Gallery

American Folk Gallery, after 1931?

Creator: Colten Photos

Edith Halpert's American Folk Art Gallery, incorporated on October 9, 1931, was located on the second floor above the Downtown Gallery at 113 West 13th Street in New York.

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American Traditions: A Taste for Folk Art

Charles Sheeler and Edith Halpert

Charles Sheeler and Edith Halpert, 1953

Creator: Musya Sheeler

Painter Charles Sheeler (b. 1883 d. 1965) and his dealer Edith Halpert, 1953. Sheeler had a first-rate collection of folk art and particularly Shaker objects, which he sometimes included in his paintings. Photograph by Musya S. Sheeler.

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American Traditions: A Taste for Folk Art

Sketch of a woman's legs

Sketch of a woman's legs, ca. 1980

Creator: Inez Nathaniel Walker

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American Traditions: A Taste for Folk Art

Sister Gertrude Morgan's religious proclamations

Sister Gertrude Morgan's religious proclamations, ca. 1970

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American Traditions: A Taste for Folk Art

Victor Joseph Gatto letter to Sterling Strauser

Victor Joseph Gatto letter to Sterling Strauser, 1959 Dec. 5

Creator: Victor Joseph Gatto

Illustrated letter, December 5, 1959, to folk art picker Sterling Strauser from painter Victor Joseph Gatto recalling the day he was born.

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American Traditions: A Taste for Folk Art

"American Ancestors" exhibition, 1931 Dec. 14-31

Annotated catalogue of the first folk art exhibition at the Downtown Gallery, “American Ancestors,” December 14 to 31, 1931.

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American Traditions: A Taste for Folk Art

Catalogue of weather vanes manufactured by L.W. Cushing and Sons

Catalogue of weather vanes manufactured by L.W. Cushing and Sons, 1883

Creator: L.W. Cushing and Sons

Edith Halpert collected wood and iron weathervane molds produced by this firm, and in 1954 reproduced six of the most aesthetically desirable models, each in a limited edition of fifty.

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American Traditions: A Taste for Folk Art

Tin Man

Tin Man, ca. 1930

Creator: David Goldsmith

David Goldsmith’s (b. 1901 d. 1980) Tin Man, ca. 1930, in the window of Goldsmith’s West End Sheet Metal and Roofing Works in Long Island City, now in the collection of the American Folk Art Museum. Photographer unknown.

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American Traditions: A Taste for Folk Art

Lone Deer Sculpture

Lone Deer Sculpture, 1977 Aug.

A statue from Fred Smith&rquo;s Concrete Park in Phillips, Wisconsin.

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American Traditions: A Taste for Folk Art

Pail Mail

Pail Mail, ca. 1980

Creator: Inez Nathaniel Walker

Inez Nathanial Walker, Pail Mail, graphite and colored pencil on paper.

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