The first exhibition of American folk art took place at the Whitney Studio Club in February 1924. Under the banner “Early American Art,” the exhibit aimed to elevate the perception of folk art, marking its first true foray into the American—and more specifically, New York— public’s eye. The diverse range of work on exhibit included hand-made furniture and hooked rug tapestries, as well as a number of paintings depicting 19th Century quotidian life. Amongst these painted scenes were “Baby with Cane”, “Young Woman with Elaborate Lace Collar and Holding a Red Book” (1824), and “Locomotive Briar Cliff” (c. 1860).
This past summer, in another room in New York, those very same paintings, along with several other pieces from the 1924 exhibit, were once again on display at the American Folk Art Museum’s “Folk Art and American Modernism.” Almost 90 years later, and now within an entire museum dedicated to the display of such art, “Folk Art and American Modernism” was nothing short of a celebration.
In this regard, the collection of almost 80 works on display were meant—as per the exhibit’s description—as a display to document the influence of America’s earliest self-taught artists on American modernism and the folk art discourse. Executive Director of the American Folk Art Museum, Dr. Anne-Imelda Radice, expanded on this exhibit’s intentions, noting:
“Were it not for those spotlighted in this exhibition, the field of study that we know as folk art, and the works of art we so treasure, would probably not exist.”
This statement would have likely resonated with Juliana Force, director of the Whitney Studio Club at the time of the 1924 exhibit. As one of the earliest champions and collectors of folk art, Force represented one of the key figures whose work largely contributed toward the existence of institutions such as the American Folk Art Museum today.
It was only appropriate then that Force’s influence informed the subject of a talk presented as part of the “Folk Art and American Modernism” exhibit’s programming. Taking place on the evening of September 10th, within the American Folk Art Museum’s atrium, noted author and cultural reporter Avis Berman expanded on Force’s work and her role in the folk art movement. According to Berman, it was Force and her circle of fellow collectors who helped elevate the “aesthetic understanding of folk art and establish a kinship with contemporary art.” Through Force’s efforts New York’s art community was made aware of this otherwise overlooked field, and cemented this art form as a vital piece of American art history.
Speaking to the crowd gathered around her, Berman said, “The rapid acceptance of folk art in New York was evidenced by the fact that when the Whitney Studio Club exhibited the collection of the dealer Isabel Carleton Wilde, considered to be amongst the earliest dealers of American Folk Art, in February 1927, the reviewers accepted the show without reservations.”
In receiving this recognition at that time, folk art’s place in society was solidified. For that reason, it’s important that an exhibit like “Folk Art and American Modernism” exist, not only for the art itself, but in its capacity to recognize figures such as Force and others for the role they have played in contributing to our understanding of folk art.
Quoting Force, Berman noted, “a healthy art needs roots in its own soil, and folk art [is] part of that fertile cultural realm.”