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Looking for America

March 19, 2019 to July 03, 2019

On August 22, 1939, my grandfather, Otto Kallir, landed in New York, along with my grandmother, father and aunt. The family had made it out of their native Austria a mere three months after the Nazi Anschluss in 1938. Thereafter split between Switzerland and France due to differing residency requirements, they were finally reunited in America. The Galerie St. Etienne opened its doors in Manhattan on November 13, 1939.

My grandfather, who as founder of the original Neue Galerie in Vienna dealt mainly in what Hitler termed “degenerate” art, escaped before the Nazis began inventorying and taxing Jewish collections. The Austrian art he was therefore permitted to export, however, elicited scant enthusiasm in America. Whereas classic nineteenth-century material had been a mainstay at the Neue Galerie, the Galerie St. Etienne’s opening exhibition, “Austrian Masters” was dismissed as “quaint” by the New York press. The prognosis for Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, introduced to the U.S. by the gallery in the summer of 1940, was equally grim. “It is difficult to awaken enthusiasm at this time for artists so little known and appreciated here and for many years passed from the contemporary scene in Europe,” wrote the New York Herald Tribune.

Otto Kallir had eclectic tastes. In Vienna, he even mounted a show of cacti. However, New York’s contemporary art scene struck him as impossibly provincial. “It reminds me of Berlin in 1918, with all the speculative snobbism and lack of understanding,” he said. “I am increasingly attracted to a field that is much more interesting: primitive American painting. I was already interested in this type of art over there, but here it is much more important.” In early 1940, a New York collector named Louis J. Caldor showed Kallir a group of sundry “finds” he’d picked up on travels though the countryside. My grandfather immediately singled out the work of an elderly widow from upstate New York, Anna Mary Robertson Moses. “What a Farmwife Painted” opened at the Galerie St. Etienne in October 1940. Shortly thereafter, a reviewer noted that in her hometown of Eagle Bridge, the artist was known as “Grandma Moses.” The name stuck.

Kallir’s interest in what was then labeled “primitive” art expanded from here. In January 1941, the Galerie St. Etienne presented an exhibition of Hopi and Navajo weavings, accompanied by photographs of Native Americans. On August 22, 1941, exactly two years after arriving in the U.S., the entire Kallir family could be found in New Mexico, fording a muddy riverbed by car to reach the San Ildefonso Pueblo, home of the famed potter Maria Martinez. Over the course of the ensuing years, the self-taught painters Bertha Trabich, Abraham Levin, Josephine Joy, Juan de ’Prey, Fred Robertson (Anna Mary’s brother), Ladis Sabo, Popovi Da (the son of Maria Martinez) and Streeter Blair were given solo shows at St. Etienne, but none ever achieved the renown accorded Grandma Moses. The gallery also repeatedly exhibited the work of nineteenth-century American “primitives,” such as Edward Hicks.

Kallir was not alone in his search for authentic American art. Historically, American artists had been largely dependent on European models, but in the early twentieth century, people began asking whether there was such a thing as an autonomous domestic idiom, and if so, what did it look like? The answer could take three forms, singly or in combination with one another. Art might be considered distinctly American in terms of its subject matter, its style or—most idiosyncratically—its value system. The Regionalists (also called American Scene painters), who flourished in the 1930s, adopted the first approach. However, those familiar with European modernism rejected the Regionalists’ retrograde realism. Bemoaning the absence of an American counterpart to Cubism or Surrealism, the Museum of Modern Art discovered what turned out to be a temporary stopgap in the work of self-taught painters. Alfred Barr, the museum’s founding director, considered this genre a principal strand of modernism. In 1941, when MoMA opened its first gallery devoted to the permanent collection, the selection was limited to material by untrained artists. Barr believed the display offered an accessible introduction to the formal tenets of modernism.

The idea of a kinship between modernists and “primitives” had initially been broached prior to World War I by Europeans like Picasso and Kandinsky. The follow-up search for an “American Rousseau” yielded results in 1927, when John Kane was admitted to Pittsburgh’s prestigious Carnegie International Exhibition. Beyond any superficial stylistic similarity to le Douanier, Kane, a self-styled “brawny-man” who had worked in construction, epitomized the American Dream. The same grassroots, up-from-nothing mythos that made Abraham Lincoln a folk hero (and favorite subject of Kane and countless other amateur painters) lodged in the persona of the American self-taught artist. Others who were soon taken up by the art world included William Edmondson, Morris Hirshfield, Lawrence Lebduska, Israel Litwak, Joseph Pickett, Horace Pippin and of course, Grandma Moses. They represented a melding of self-reliance, individualism and egalitarianism that proved perfectly in sync with Depression-era populism.

For a brief moment, self-taught artists constituted the quintessence of American-ness, combining national virtues with formal originality and subjects that were often (though not always) tied to American themes. From the outset, however, some trained artists resented being upstaged by amateurs and conspired to sabotage them. Kane was denounced as a fraud for painting over photographic enlargements, and in 1943 Barr was ousted from his post at MoMA for exhibiting Hirshfield. After World War II, the art world backed away from self-taught painters, throwing its weight behind the Abstract Expressionists.

Meanwhile, the reassuring landscapes of Grandma Moses caught on with an American public traumatized by war and disdainful of abstraction. Moses was among the most famous and successful artists of the immediate postwar era, but this did not win her fans within the art establishment. On the contrary, critics at the time made a sharp distinction between what Clement Greenberg called “avant-garde and kitsch.” Moses’s popular appeal, and the fact that millions bought greeting cards and commercial products reproducing her work, disqualified her from serious consideration. America, now a superpower, wanted a sophisticated national art that could hold its own against European modernism, and Grandma Moses simply did not fit the bill.

Moses, who died in 1961 at the age of 101, far outlived the other self-taught painters who came to the fore during the Great Depression. In the intervening period, the self-taught genre had largely fallen off the art world’s radar. America’s bicentennial in 1976 triggered an incipient revival and two pertinent exhibitions at the Whitney Museum: “The Flowering of American Folk Art” (1974) and “American Folk Painters of Three Centuries” (1980). Unfortunately, the cutoff date for the first show was 1876, and the second did not extend beyond the 1940s. It was then widely believed that legitimate “folk art” (now replacing “primitive art” as the term of choice) had been killed off by the industrial revolution. The Corcoran Gallery’s 1982 exhibition “Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980” thus proved a game-changer, legitimizing contemporary material generally and highlighting African-American contributions in particular.

The efflorescence of what came to be called “outsider” art in the last two decades of the twentieth century was not witnessed by Otto Kallir, who passed away in 1978. Soon thereafter, his longtime business partner, Hildegard Bachert, and I took over the Galerie St. Etienne. My grandfather’s galleries, first in Vienna and then in New York, had focused on contemporary material that was now becoming historical. Our focus shifted accordingly. Between 1980 and 1982, Hildegard and I organized four exhibitions commemorating my grandfather’s achievements. These were curated like museum shows, with loans from private individuals and public institutions—a practice, then virtually unheard of at a commercial gallery, that has since become comparatively common. The first two exhibitions featured the Austrian Expressionists and the second two, self-taught artists.

“The Folk Art Tradition” (1981) and “Grandma Moses: The Artist Behind the Myth” (1982) were accompanied by book-length catalogues that laid out principles which have since guided our approach to the field. Subtitled Naïve Painting in Europe and the United States, The Folk Art Tradition confronted the abiding confusion about terminology head-on. “Folk art” at the time was used in the U.S. to designate both crafts and nonacademic paintings of all periods, whereas in Europe the adjective “folk” was reserved for pre-modern peasant artifacts. “Naïve,” the preferred European descriptor for twentieth-century self-taught artists, referenced the genre’s progenitor, Rousseau, as well as a decisive break with all predecessors. Originating in Europe as a protest against academic tradition, the field as a whole proved impossible to define, because it threw together artists who had nothing intrinsic in common. “The concept of folk art is one of negation,” I wrote in the foreword to The Folk Art Tradition. “It is a catchall category for misfits—wallflowers at the dance of Western civilization.”

The other thread we pursued in The Folk Art Tradition and thereafter was the persistent connection between self-taught artists and academic traditions. Because this work was widely seen as the antithesis of academia, it was held to be entirely uninfluenced. But that was absolutely untrue, as we showed over and over again. New Mexican santeros copied Spanish and Mexican religious prints, Hicks copied Bible illustrations, and by the late nineteenth century, just about everyone was copying Currier & Ives. Grandma Moses: The Artist Behind the Myth was the first book to comprehensively explore a self-taught artist’s process, a project facilitated by a trove of source materials that we purchased from the artist’s great-grandson, Will Moses. During her lifetime, Grandma Moses kept her sources secret, wisely recognizing that to reveal them would destroy the myth of “purity” surrounding artists of her ilk. She in fact worked with an immense collection of magazine and newspaper clippings, culling from them vignettes that she traced onto her supports. Through the tracing process, human figures were transformed into abstract archetypes with whom everyone could identify. An intuitive sense of color and compositional balance, combined with a farmer’s sensitivity to seasonal nuances, brought the completed scenes to life. Piecing together the myriad roots of the famous “Grandma Moses style” showed her achievement to be all the more remarkable.

Grandma Moses was joined by John Kane and Morris Hirshfield in the Galerie St. Etienne’s 1989 exhibition “Folk Artists at Work,” which paired finished paintings with preliminary studies. When we assumed representation of the Kane estate in 1984, the artist’s daughter, Margaret Corbett, told us that the estate’s first dealer, Valentine Dudensing, had instructed the family to destroy all Kane’s drawings. Fortunately, they did not do so. The artist evidently drew everything and everywhere: people on trams, copies of work by academic painters, copies of illustrations in instructional manuals and most significantly, snatches of Pittsburgh scenery. Tallying the actual locales with those drawings makes it possible to reconstruct how Kane combined views from different vantage points to capture the city’s essence: a mental image more real than reality. The drawings of Morris Hirshfield, provided to us by his grandson, Robert Rentzer, likewise afford crucial insights into the artist’s thinking. Hirshfield worked in the Manhattan garment industry, and his preliminary studies were conceived along the lines of dress patterns: full-scale templates that were meticulously transferred to canvas through pricking or tracing. These studies had never before been publically exhibited, because, as I wrote in the accompanying essay, “critics preferred to believe that folk artists came to their tasks fully developed, somehow bypassing the agonies of protracted study and struggle to which ordinary artists are subjected.” We demonstrated that the best self-taught artists work in a manner comparable to their trained colleagues and deserve to be approached with the same degree of academic rigor.

Kane, Moses and Hirshfield were fundamentally different from the artists later taken up by the “outsider” movement. Like “primitive” and “naive” art, the idea of “outsider” art originated in Europe. The name derived from Roger Cardinal’s 1972 book of that title, intended as a rough translation of “Art Brut.” Jean Dubuffet, following in the footsteps of Picasso and Kandinsky, conceptualized Art Brut (literally, “raw art”) as a cri de coeur against European civilization, which had come to seem unacceptably compromised in the wake of the Holocaust. Accordingly, the standard of “purity” applied to Art Brut was more extreme than that applied to earlier generations of self-taught artists. To qualify, an artist needed to be completely untouched by “received culture,” which in practice limited the genre to socially marginalized individuals. Whereas first-generation “primitives” and “naïfs” tended to look outward, creating generally recognizable views of their surroundings, “outsiders” and Art Brut artists looked inward, recording private fantasies and visions fully comprehensible only to themselves.

Much theoretical hair-splitting went into separating the “outsiders” from the “naïfs.” Dubuffet refined his criteria endlessly, finally designating a new category, “Neuve Invention” for artists who fell somewhere between the truly “brut” and the fully acculturated. The standards were impossibly subjective, with lurid biographical details often overshadowing the art. “Authenticity,” for some, trumped quality. The vetting committee for New York’s Outsider Art Fair (founded in 1993) routinely rejected artists deemed too knowing. Nevertheless, the boundaries between “in” and “out” were much fuzzier in the U.S. than in Europe. “Folk,” “outsider” and “naïve” were all a-jumble here.

When the Galerie St. Etienne began participating in the Outsider Art Fair in 1994, our primary purpose was to provide the emergent field with some historical grounding by introducing people to its early twentieth-century forerunners. Gradually, we began representing more contemporary self-taught artists. Given the gallery’s European origins, we were especially interested in the way the genre manifested itself in countries like Austria, Russia and the former Yugoslavia, where social and political conditions were very different than in America. Among those whom we regularly exhibited were Ilija Bosilj, Michel Nedjar, Josef Karl Rädler and artists from the Gugging psychiatric hospital. The only American “outsider” we represented for any length of time was Henry Darger.

In terms of biography, Darger is the quintessential “outsider.” A recluse who shuttled between a Chicago rooming house and menial jobs at local hospitals, he secretly created an epic saga, in words and pictures, about an imaginary war against children. Yet Darger was hardly removed from “received culture.” His fifteen-volume narrative mixed elements from Civil War histories, The Wizard of Oz and Booth Tarkington’s Penrod series. His visual inspirations included coloring books, comics and advertisements. Like Grandma Moses, Darger culled vignettes from printed sources and traced them onto his supports, in time learning to enlarge the original illustrations photographically. Where Moses depicted a pastoral American ideal, however, Darger undermined the saccharine intent of his source material by interpolating the images into scenes of combat and torture. Himself a victim of abuse, he knew that the notions of childhood innocence promulgated by American popular culture were deceptive fantasies.

American interest in “outsider” art, stimulated by the protest movements of the 1960s, stemmed in part from a desire to expose and redress national failings. “Outsiderism” directed significant attention to the work of previously marginalized artists. Nevertheless, the label itself was demeaning, suggesting mental deficiency, denying the artists any sort of agency and presupposing a degree of isolation that made it impossible to understand the material in its rightful context. Like any concept defined in the negative, the self-taught genre remained dependent on the thing negated. The field as such was an artifact of modernism, whose learned proponents set the agenda and determined which self-taught artists merited consideration. Per the title of a landmark 1992 exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, “insiders” and “outsiders” pursued “Parallel Visions.” The “outsiders” were accidental modernists, creating works that looked like sophisticated art without intending to.

As modernism began to break down in the last decades of the twentieth century, so too did the dichotomy between “us” and “them” that had been used to cordon off “outsiders” and “naïfs.” The distinction between “high” and “low” art was eroded by a new heterogeneity that accepted inputs from all sources. Film, television, comics, cartoons, advertising and pop cultural artifacts of every stripe became grist for the mill. Debased non-art materials—pipe cleaners, feathers, beads, mailing tubes and so forth—proliferated in the work of amateurs and professionals alike. Gone, also, was the linear narrative, with its formalist orientation and privileging of white male contributions, that shaped the history of modernism.

Absence of narrative and the search for a replacement have become significant drivers of curatorial practice since the turn of the current century. In 2006, 2007 and 2008, the Galerie St. Etienne presented a trio of exhibitions exploring alternative ways of grouping work by trained and untrained artists, based on commonalties such as an interest in fairy tales, myth, fantasy, spirituality, pattern or design. A similar approach was taken by Massimiliano Gioni in his exhibition, “The Encyclopedic Palace,” at the 2013 Venice Biennale. But this approach requires an extremely light touch if it is to avoid the errors made in “Parallel Visions”: the juxtaposition of inherently different objects that just happen to look similar. A more rewarding curatorial avenue is the monographic deep dive, which permits artists, regardless of educational background, to be studied in terms of their specific creative intentions, methods, development and socio-historical contexts.

In many respects, the late twentieth-century revival of interest in self-taught artists anticipated and spurred the increased concern with inclusivity that is now found throughout the art world. Diversity has always been a hallmark of the self-taught genre. Kane was a Scottish immigrant, Hirshfield a Polish Jew, Pippin the son of slaves and Moses a grandmother whose ancestors arrived on the Mayflower. Yet despite these differences, their work foregrounded a shared American identity. By comparison, artists today, self-taught or otherwise, are harder to extricate from the particularity of their personal experiences. The present focus on diversity encourages us to honor this particularity, but it also feeds the partisan factionalism that is curdling our politics. While campaigning for President in 2008, Barack Obama gave a speech titled “A More Perfect Union”—words lifted from the opening line of the U.S. Constitution. “We cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together,” he said, “unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction.” The search for America continues. — Jane Kallir

We would like to express our warmest thanks to the lenders who have made this exhibition possible: Mickey Cartin, Josh Feldstein, Audrey Heckler, the American Folk Art Museum in New York City, Robert A. Roth, Frank Tosto and a number of anonymous private collectors. We would also like to convey our deep appreciation to the families of Grandma Moses, John Kane and Morris Hirshfield for their support and friendship over the years.