Posts Tagged ‘American Folk Art Museum’

Holy Family-  American Folk Art MuseumI wasn’t going to write anything today but I opened a book that I have featuring works from the American Folk Art Museum, one that I browse on a regular basis.  The page I turned to is near the middle of the book, a page that I always seem to turn to when I open the book,  showing a carved piece, Holy Family,  that I  just love.  It is attributed to the 19th century  woodcarver John Philip Yaeger, a German born craftsman who worked in the Baltimore area.  I’m not religious in any traditional sense of the word but I thought this would be a fitting image to show today, which is Ash Wednesday on the Christian calendar.

There’s something irresistibleabout this carving,  beyond the subject matter,  that I just can’t put my finger on.  The color of its patina is beautifully golden and warm. The lines are smooth and rhythmic.  There’s a wonderful balance of fineness and roughness in the way the pieces of wood that make up the sculpture are put together.  It has a modern feel yet seems old– a timeless quality.  Everything about it has that sense of rightness that I have tried to describe here without much success in the past.

I also am intrigued but he damage on the left shoulder of the father.  I don’t know if this is just a property of the wood after these many years but it looks like it may have been near a cat who saw this as a perfect scratching post.  But even that doesn’t lessen the power of the piece.  It fits right into the wholeness of it.  Imperfectly perfect.

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Morris Hirshfield TigerThere are so many artists out there, both now and from the past,  that I’m not surprised when I come across an artist with which I am not familiar whose work knocks  me out.  But sometimes I come across work that is so strong and consistent in its vision that I just can’t understand why the name is not known to me.  That’ happened recently when I was browsing through a book on the collection of the American Folk Art Museum and came across the name Morris Hirshfield.  The name didn’t ring a bell but the work was so wonderful.   It had a naive feel in the rendering of the figures but there was a sophistication in the composition and coloring that made me feel that it was anything but folk.

I definitely had to find out more about Morris Hirshfield.

Morris Hirshfield Angora CatBut there’s little to learn about the man.   Not a lot is written, only a few mentions in books. That surprised me.  But his story is pretty simple.

He was born in Poland in 1872 and came to America around 1890 at the age of 18.  Like many many of the Jewish immigrants of that time who settled in the New York area he began working in the garment industry.  With his brother, he opened a coat factory that evolved into a slipper factory which was very successful.  Morris  encountered health problems and retired in 1935, at which point he took up painting, following up on an artistic urge he had as a child but had put aside long ago.

Morris Hirshfield Girl With PigeonsWithin four short years, his work had attracted the attention of collector and art dealer Sidney Janis, who used two of Hirshfield’s paintings for an exhibit he was putting together in 1939 for the Museum of Modern Art, Contemporary Unknown American Painters.  MoMA , at that time, was committed to collecting and showing the work of self-taught artists.  In 1941, MoMA purchased two of Hirshfield’s paintings for its collection and in 1943 gave  Hirshfield a solo show.  He had only painted 30 pieces up to that point in his career.   There was great controversy over the show at the time as the critics of the era savaged it.  It was, according to Janis’s biographer,  “one of the most hated shows the Museum of Modern Art ever put on.”  It led to the dismissal of the museum director at the time.

Morris Hirshfield Dogs and PupsBut Hirshfield survived and painted his paintings of animals and the occasional figure for a few more years until his death in 1946.  His career spanned a mere 9 years over which he produced only 77 paintings.

I don’t really understand the controversy of the time or why Hirshfield hasn’t inspired more  writers or artists.  Or maybe he has and I just can’t find  much evidence of it. When I clicked on the Google image page for him, I was immediately smitten.  There was that sense of rightness that I often speak of here.  Just plain good stuff.  Just wish Morris Hirshfield had been around longer so there might be more to see.

Morris Hirshfield Beach GirlMorris Hirshfield Baby Elephant With Boy 1943Morris Hirshfield Lion 1939Morris Hirshfield Zebras




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Ulysses Davis- Lost Tribe in the Swamp with Alligators

I recently came across the work of another folk/outsider artist whose work really resonates with me.  It is by Ulysses Davis, a barber who lived in Savannah, Georgia, passing away in 1990 at the age of 76.  His medium was woodcarving and over the course of his life he created a very diverse body of work that had both the simple and free feel of the Outsider artist’s vision and the compositional sophistication of a fine artist.  His subjects covered a wide spectrum,  ranged from the fantastic to straight portraiture including a series of busts of all of  the US Presidents up to the year of his death. Very striking stuff.

Ulysses Davis- No No Bird

He  seldom sold his work, saying “They’re my treasure. If I sold these, I’d be really poor.”   As a result, his work never garnered the exposure or the recognition it deserved although he did receive a few honors before his death, his work showing in an important 1982 exhibit of modern Black Folk Art at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.  In the years since, the American Folk Art Museum did mount a retrospective of his lifework in a 2009 exhibit called The Treasure of Ulysses Davis,  the title playing off of Davis’ own words on his work.

And what a treasure it is, one that we are fortunate enough to at least share in images and in a few museums.  Beautiful work with a unique vision…

Ulysses Davis- Get Off My Back


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