Folk Art in America

By Charles Hopkins Published 12/8/2013 | Crafts

In the antiques world, the term folk art is generally used to describe a wide range of 18th- and 19th-century objects from paintings to weather vanes, from furniture to needlework samplers, from quilts to woodcarvings -- objects that, while utilitarian in function, have an esthetic quality that elevates them to the realm of art.

Interestingly enough, the people who first perceived these esthetic qualities in the 1920s were artists themselves. Charles Sheeler, Elie Nadleman, William Zorach and Charles Demuth, now all famous names in the history of 20th-century American art, were among the earliest folk art collectors. With the wisdom of hindsight it now seems quite logical that these young artists would be attracted by the bold forms and strong colors created by the hands of the imaginative, talented, though untutored, folk of early America.

American folk art is a sleeper. Its popularity dates back to the 1920's, when it was first espoused by artists including Elie Nadelman and Kuniyoshi who, in turn, took their cue from Picasso and other European Modernists championing the likes of Henri Rousseau. In addition, there were connoisseurs such as Maxim Karolik and Howard and Jean Lipman, and the influential dealer, Edith Halpert.

Naive painting and sculpture may not be supported by an elite wealthy class or have anything to do with fashionable art movements or trendy art schools. Its practitioners have generally turned to art late in life and without training, and appreciation of their efforts requires no specialized knowledge. Still, it is unlikely that the mode would have caught on if the public's sensibilities had not been conditioned by Modernism, itself the result of European artists rejecting their own inheritance and turning for inspiration to people 'uncontaminated' by civilization. Tribal sculpture, the paintings of peasants, the drawings of children and the insane all became grist for the disaffected's mill, which received a further boost when Pop Art ordained that kitsch, too, had esthetic value.

But American folk art has had a somewhat different history from the European. The 19th- century work that is the most prized was made in all seriousness and to fulfill practical needs - for portraits, trade signs, figureheads and the like. One notable example is James Bard's 1860 painting of the paddlewheeler Ella, one of 4,000 such pieces produced by the artist, with and without his brother, John; another is the 1854 quilt by Harriet Knapp, a former Stamford resident.

Contemporary folk art, on the other hand, is either a form of mystical expression or, like high art, is made for its own sake - often with an eye to the booming market in it.

Sophy Regensburg, in her study of a pitcher and two baskets, scarcely counts as a primitive at all. In fact, she did spend time studying in museums until discouraged by others from doing so, for fear of spoiling her talent. The Cuban-born 'Pucho' Odio, with his workmanlike carving of a Doberman pinscher, could be taken for a disciple of the sculptor Anne Arnold, while Norton Latourelle, represented by a fanciful black and white wood cow, might, at the age of 35, count as an ordinary artist-in-the- making.

Another artist for whom painting was more a didactic, religious activity was Sister Gertrude Morgan, who specialized in all-over designs of humans and angels, accompanied by words. But for sheer zing there is nothing to beat Miles Carpenter's beautifully carved red devil, pitchforking a man into a furnace. Suspended head down over flames painted on crumpled plastic, the impaled sinner, impeccably dressed, continues to hold a cigarette in one hand, a can of beer in the other.