Lesson Plan: Modern Art: Outside Art & Jean Dubuffet - Reading 3 - FULL ARTICLE

Altered Views in the House of Modernism.

New York Times (newspaper), by author, Roberta Smith. [New York Times, copyright 2005.]

MODERNISM'S house has many rooms, with more being added all the time. Some are new additions, others are forgotten chambers reopened after being inexplicably nailed shut for years. Either way, the structure has become complex almost beyond comprehension, and "Bill Traylor, William Edmondson and the Modernist Impulse" at the Studio Museum in Harlem only increases its marvelous sprawl.

This show originated at the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, where it was organized by Josef Helfenstein, the director of the Menil Collection in Houston, and Russell Bowman, former director of the Milwaukee Art Museum. It is more rediscovered room than new addition. Traylor (1854-1949) and Edmondson (1874-1951) have been considered great folk artists (or outsider or self-taught artists) since the early 1980's, when a groundbreaking exhibition of black folk art at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington displayed their work in the same room and brought the two back into public view.

But the Studio Museum show considers Traylor's drawings of flat, antic weathervane-like figures and Edmondson's serene and blocky stone carvings of animals, people and biblical characters in the light of another history. In the catalog at least, the exhibition examines the simplified forms of their work as proto-modern, placing it within the context of American modernism and the nascent New York art world of the late 1930's and early 40's, when both artists had brushes with official recognition and were then forgotten.

Edmondson's brush was the more substantial. A native of Nashville, he worked as a janitor until 1931, when he began carving tombstones and grave figures for the city's black community. A few years later, Edmondson met the fashion photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe, who took wonderfully sympathetic pictures of the artist, his work and his surroundings. (Edward Weston and Consuelo Kanaga would also photograph Edmondson's sculpture yard.)

Angel , c. 1942, William Edmondson,
Private Collection
Female Drinker, c.1942 , Bill Traylor,
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dahl-Wolfe's photographs were eventually shown to Alfred H. Barr Jr., founding director of the Museum of Modern Art. A few months later, in the fall of 1937, Edmondson became the first African-American to have a solo show at the Modern, with a display of 12 sculptures that was covered by the national press.

While this story is a well-known part of Edmondson lore, Mr. Helfenstein's catalog essay retells it with particular sharpness and argues that the show, along with the Modern's exhibitions of pre-Columbian art, self-taught painters and children's art (the latter as part of the Dada and Surrealism survey of 1937) "demonstrated Barr's belief in the pluralistic roots of international modernism." It was a belief that his trustees did not share.

Traylor didn't get as far as Edmondson, which makes his story all the more tantalizing. A former slave and sharecropper, Traylor moved to town, the small city of Montgomery, Ala., in the 1930's, after his wife died and his children scattered. He was in his 80's and soon took up drawing on scraps of cardboard, working for the most part in a doorway on Monroe Street, the main thoroughfare of the city's black community. There he was befriended by a local white artist, Charles Shannon, who brought him supplies, organized the first exhibition of his work in a local cultural center and saved his art for posterity. Shannon also photographed Traylor at work, in images that often show him surrounded by curious children.

In 1941 Shannon took some drawings to New York and showed them to Victor D'Amico, director of education at the Modern, who organized an exhibition of Traylor's work at the Fieldston School in Riverdale, where he also taught. D'Amico showed the work to Barr, who set aside 16 drawings for the Modern's collection but proposed such low prices (about $1 each) that Shannon was outraged. He put Traylor's art away until the late 1970's, when he started sending slides to New York dealers. (The Modern acquired its first work by Traylor only in 1995, when Shannon gave it eight drawings. It owns nothing by Edmondson.)

But by the early 1940's, Barr's wings had been clipped. Edmondson's show had been followed by an exhibition of paintings by the folk artist Morris Hirschfield, organized by the dealer Sidney Janis, that almost cost Barr his job (he was fired in 1943 and then reinstated, but not as director). The multicultural view of modernism would be further thwarted by the dominance of Abstract Expressionism.

Would the Modern have been a different place if it had had 16 Traylors in its collection for the last 60 years? It is impossible to know, but one likes to think that they would have worked their magic on some of its curators. They certainly work magic now, especially in communion with Edmondson's sculpture.

The two bodies of work seem almost made to be seen together. Traylor's angular renderings of people - dancing, pointing, fighting, drinking - drawn or painted on irregular pieces of cardboard, adorn the walls like slightly demonic Gothic illuminations. Edmondson's rural Romanesque rules the floor: the bulky beatific carvings, which include several, but not enough, of his wonderful animals, form a generously spaced peaceable kingdom. His subjects here include the black boxer Jack Johnson, a preacher holding a Bible overhead, a striding lawyer, a big-haired angel with folded arms and a rabbit sitting on its haunches whose great rounded nose and dangling front paws give it a commanding solidity. A plainly stated dove with slightly raised wings seems equally airborne and rooted to the earth.

Both Traylor and Edmondson were great abbreviators. And while it may be proto-modern, their penchant for reduction can be found throughout the history of art. Like the Cycladic carvers, they devised a geometry of the body that balanced simplified shapes with telling details. Traylor had a sublime way of dovetailing his drawn forms with their irregular cardboard supports, tilting and rounding shapes to echo the cardboard's vagaries; his works are structurally poetic, full of rhyming angles and curves.

Traylor's clambering silhouettes, especially his drinking bouts, bring to mind hieroglyphic versions of Dutch genre painting and presage the acerbic antebellum silhouettes of Kara Walker. In one great drawing, he enumerates the tools and activities of a blacksmith shop. In another, a man drives a donkey-drawn plow while a gaggle of people and dogs chase a rabbit down and around the edges of the cardboard, with the participants moving from vertical to sideways to vertical again.

Edmondson's dense forms swell and then taper to small hands and feet, and are characterized by subtle variations in texture. His shapes can evoke Brancusi and African sculpture. A crucifix depicts a muscular Christ, who has the thick, slightly bumbling appeal of one of Marsden Hartley's male bathers; he seems unfazed by the cross - his arms might almost be raised to stop traffic. A relief of a mother and daughter evokes Greek and Egyptian art. Nashville, after all, has been the home of a replica of the Parthenon since 1897.

This exhibition suggests that as the rooms of the modernist house multiply, the walls seem less and less likely to hold. The dichotomies of insider and outsider, modern and naïve, are losing their pertinence. Over the last two decades, solo and survey exhibitions have offered repeated proof that African-American folk art is as richly varied and innovative and as important to American culture as blues and jazz. This further diminishes the distinctions between folk and modern, and outsider and insider artists, because African-American culture has always given them less credence than has white America.

Consider, for example, the similarities in the work of the self-taught Horace Pippin and trained artists like Jacob Lawrence or William H. Johnson. Or visit the American Folk Art Museum, where "Ancestry and Innovation" presents a dizzying display of quilts, paintings, sculptures and painted reliefs from the collection, by African-American artists like Nellie Mae Rowe, David Butler, Bessie Harvey, J. B. Murry and Clementine Hunter. Or study the way the black British artist Chris Ofili merges popular, folk and African sources in his small watercolor portraits of regal "Afro Muses," in the galleries downstairs from the Traylor-Edmondson exhibition.

Barr's multicultural modernism may have failed in the short run, but the enduring art of Traylor and Edmondson proves that short is not the run that matters. And with exhibitions like this, contemporary art is recovering a past commensurate with its present unruliness.

Copyright 2005, New York Times.