Art Of The People

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In 1938 the pioneer American folk-art enthusiast Jean Lipman set down a thoughtful answer to a question that still is being debated: what marks the difference between a primitive masterpiece and an ignorant daub? “The typical American primitive,” Lipman concluded, is “based … upon what the artist knew rather than upon what he saw, and so the facts of physical reality were largely sifted through the mind and personality of the painter. The degree of excellence in one of these … paintings depends upon the clarity, energy, and coherence of the artist’s mental picture rather than upon… the subject matter.… The outstanding artists… arrived at a power and originality and beauty which was not surpassed by the greatest of the academic American painters.”

Lipman had to choose her words with particular care for, at the time, there were still a good many people who utterly rejected the idea that folk painting was valid art. Fortunately, the art has proved stronger than its detractors, and the past decade especially has witnessed an extraordinary vindication of those who first promoted it. Now, the Whitney Museum is mounting a superb new exhibition: “American Folk Painters of Three Centuries,” which will be accompanied by a book of the same title, edited by Lipman and Tom Armstrong, and published by Hudson Hills Press.

Both book and show celebrate what Lipman calls the “six decades of discovery,” which began in 1924, appropriately enough at the Whitney Studio Club, predecessor of the present museum. There, a group of contemporary artists—among them Charles Sheeler, Charles Demuth, and Elie Nadelman—assembled a show featuring examples drawn from their private collections. Soon after, the term “folk art” entered the language, and interest began to grow. With it came increasing scholarship, as students began to pull from obscurity the sign painters and schoolteachers, the maiden aunts and wheelwrights who had done the paintings. The new show is unique in that it focuses on the works of thirty-seven painters whose lives are well documented; prior to this, attention generally has been given to the paintings themselves rather than to the people who created them. As the selection on the following pages attests, this most American form of art is—in the words of Holger Cahill, another early enthusiast—“an honest and straight-forward expression of the spirit of a people.”