Regarded as among the most vital and intriguing spheres within 20th-century art, the work of self-taught artists continues to elude firm categorization. Loosely characterized as artists without formal artistic training, self-taught artists have not yet been the subjects of an expansive overview and balanced assessment. Self-Taught Artists of the 20th Century: An American Anthology, an exhibition organized and circulated by the Museum of American Folk Art, New York, and premiering at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from March 10 through May 17, 1998, will offer an authoritative and provocative view of a field about which there has been much recent excitement and a steady increase in ambitious scholarship and serious connoisseurship.
Self-Taught Artists of the 20th Century will feature some 300 works by over 30 artists. Included are works by such established luminaries as Grandma Moses (1860-1961), Horace Pippin (1888-1946), Martin Ramirez (1895-1963), and Morris Hirshfield (1872-1946), as well as younger artists such as Purvis Young (born 1943) and Ken Grimes (born 1947).
Spanning more than a century, beginning with Henry Church (1836-1908) and continuing through Lonnie Holley (b. 1950), the exhibition includes paintings, sculpture, drawings, constructions, installations, and built environments. Materials used within these works range from traditional artistic media, such as oil on canvas, photographic prints, and carved wood and stone, to chicken and turkey bones, glass eyes, glitter, hair, corrugated cardboard, roots, wire, tin, fur, acorns and other found objects.
Subject matter of the self-taught artists is similarly diverse. Humor and riddles abound; extraterrestrial and apocalyptic visions are here as well. Eroticism is never far below the surface, and permeates the artistic conceptions of such artists as Henry Darger (1892-1973) and Steve Ashby (1904-1980). Much of the work, such as that of Howard Finster (born 1916) or Sister Gertrude Morgan (1900-1980), bears public witness to profound religious faith; others enact more intensely private dramas, as seen in the obsessional multi-media homage to his wife, Marie, created by Eugene von Bruenchenhein (1910-1983). All of the artwork reflects the deeply felt convictions, passions and viewpoints of their makers, within a wide range of techniques and approaches to making art.
Elsa Longhauser, Director of the Paley/Levy Galleries at Moore College of Art and Design, Philadelphia, and an authority whose experience presenting self-taught art began 20 years ago, is guest curator of the exhibition. Collaborating with Ms. Longhauser is noted Swiss independent curator Harald Szeemann, and the installation in Philadelphia will be coordinated with assistance from Ann Temkin, the Museum's Muriel and Philip Berman Curator of 20th-Century Art, and Jack Lindsey, Curator of American Decorative Arts.
The mid-Atlantic region contains many strong private collections of works by self-taught artists, and is particularly rich in works by religiously inspired Southern artists. A gallery installation in the Museum's American Wing will present additional works by several artists in the main exhibition drawn primarily from private collections in the area. Included will be painted fans by Sister Gertrude Morgan; Howard Finster; William Edmondson (c. 1870-1951), a Tennessee railroad worker who began carving biblical stone sculptures at age 60; and the simple yet lyrical compositions of Bill Traylor (1856-1949), who was born into slavery in Alabama in 1854 and at age 83 was called by divine inspiration to draw.
A full-color catalogue, published by Chronicle Books in association with the Museum of American Folk Art, will accompany the exhibition. Included are major essays by art historian and curator Maurice Berger, philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto, and folklorist Gerald Davis, as well as individual biographical and interpretive texts by writers from a broad range of disciplines.
Self-Taught Artists of the 20th Century: An American Anthology is presented with the generous support of the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund and The Henry Luce Foundation, Inc. Additional support for the catalogue was provided by the Dolfinger-McMahon Foundation and Jill and Sheldon M. Bonovitz. In Philadelphia, the exhibition is supported in part by The Pew Charitable Trusts, and Sun Company, Inc.
Following its presentation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the exhibition will travel to the following sites: High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA (July 14-September 20, 1998); Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, TX (October 31, 1998-January 24, 1999); Memorial Art Gallery, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY (February 20-April 18, 1999); Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH (May 7-August 15, 1999); and the Museum of American Folk Art, New York, NY (September 19-December 11, 1999).