by Margaret Browne
On January 29 in New York City, American Folk Art Museum (AFAM) curator emerita Lee Kogan beamed as she introduced the 20th-consecutive symposium (now the Anne Hill Blanchard Symposium) that she has organized for the museum in conjunction with the annual Outsider Art Fair. The standing-room-only crowd in AFAM’s small lobby, in marked contrast to the previous year’s sparse attendance, was a welcome sign of the museum’s enduring vitality and relevance in the face of extreme financial hardship and upheavals in its leadership.
The museum has decamped to its erstwhile headquarters at 2 Lincoln Square, 5,000 square feet of Spartan gallery space, its entryway sandwiched between a deli and a Mormon church. (In a deal that allowed AFAM to retire more than $30 million of debt on which it had defaulted, The Museum of Modern Art acquired the Tod Williams Billie Tsien-designed structure that AFAM inhabited from 2001 to 2011.) At one point last year, its survival as an institution in question, AFAM had even considered transferring its collections to the Smithsonian and the Brooklyn Museum. Donors, understandably, shied away from giving to a seemingly lost cause.
But AFAM has regrouped, having rid itself of its massive debt obligations and found reliable new leadership in Board of Trustees President Monty Blanchard and Acting Director Linda Dunne. About a week before the symposium, Bloomberg.com reported that the philanthropist Joyce Berger Cowin had pledged $2 million to the museum, and trustees and others had given about $1 million. Since the sale of the West 53rd Street building, all contributions to AFAM now go to programming, not repaying debt. Blanchard, a former Merrill Lynch investment banker who collects antique forged-metal West African currency as well as contemporary self-taught American art, was present at the symposium, warmly greeting attendees and accepting plenty of heartfelt thanks from them for assuming the mantle of leadership at such a critical moment.
AFAM Curator Stacy Hollander was the first presenter at the dais, introducing audience members to the museum’s current show, Jubilation/Rumination: Life: Real and Imagined. Hollander admitted that she once thought the show would be her last for AFAM. “This put me in a unique position to think about the museum’s collection,” she said. “But after this near-death experience . . . this became the first show I would be doing in this new iteration” of the museum’s existence. The exhibition is based on ten years of gifts to the museum, with Marino Auriti's (1891-1980) giant Encyclopedic Palace of the World as its focal point.
“The whole show is a series of sequences,” said Hollander, arranged according to formalistic and thematic parallels among the works. Among the themes represented are “Life Review,” “Wings,” “Crowned Women,” and “Ancestors/Respect for Previous Generations.” Many of the pieces, including Encyclopedic Palace, are on display in the museum for the first time.
Carol Crown, professor of Art History at the University of Memphis, then presented her cameo talk, “Howard Finster: Preacher Man.” Much of Crown’s recent research has focused on the connection between religion and self-taught art, and she noted that while the religious themes in Finster’s art have often been the subject of controversy, his artworks have rarely been examined from a theological standpoint. Crown explained both the theological content of Finster’s work and its theological and religious context -- the varying evangelical and fundamentalist strains of Christianity that were present in Finster’s upbringing and in his rural, northwest Georgia surroundings. The nuances among various forms of non-mainline Protestantism are not familiar to many people who live outside the regions where these faiths are common, she noted.
“Finster’s works are rooted in evangelical Christianity. He identified himself as a Baptist,” said Crown, and he aligned himself as an adult with the Missionary Baptist Church. However, she pointed out that unlike many Baptists, “he was tolerant of a wide range of religious beliefs.” The primary characteristic of Finster’s evangelical Christianity was “loyalty to scripture, belief in the Bible’s infallibility: the Bible is the word of God. Angels are concrete reality, God’s Great Staff. He also maintained that Satan, devils and Hell were real, although his take on them could be humorous.”
Despite this conservative interpretation of the Bible, Crown asserted that Finster’s beliefs were actually quite different from those of hard-core fundamentalism, especially with regard to his interpretation of the Book of Revelation. The crux of Crown’s theories on Finster is her characterization of his theology as “amillennial,” as opposed to “premillennial” fundamentalist theology. As an “amillennial” Christian, Finster had little interest in the Rapture, the Tribulation (the struggle of Christ vs. the Anti-Christ) or the Millennial Kingdom (Christ’s rule on Earth for 1,000 years). Instead of believing that the faithful should prepare for an imminent Rapture and Millennial Kingdom, Finster’s art and writings suggest a belief that “the reign of Christ takes place daily in the heart of humankind.”
Finster’s art was “ennobling of people” in general, Crown said, which probably had to do with his belief in free will. How interesting, she pointed out, that he so often shows a spacecraft -- built by us -- as part of the divine realm in his paintings, rather than one of God’s chariots coming to pick us up.
The second cameo talk, “Women and Love, Real and Imaginary: Aloïse Corbaz and Morris Hirshfield," by Charles Russell, professor emeritus at Rutgers University and author of Groundwaters: A Century of Art by Self-Taught and Outsider Artists (Prestel, 2011), echoed Hollander’s talk as he drew visual and thematic parallels between two artists’ work. Both Corbaz’s and Hirshfield’s work attest to “the power vested in the romantic imagery of women in western culture,” Russell said. “Personal animation of popular imagery” is another common thread. Both artists incorporated images seen in popular media into their work, in a way that “attunes the viewer to the psychic events of our own minds.”
Hirshfield’s women often appear surrounded by patterns and drapery, as if on stage; they also often appear to be footless or floating, a motif present in Corbaz’s work, as well. His paintings have an “aura of dream and myth about them; they reflect both a visionary quality of folk painting,” and popular images of women from high and popular culture of Hirshfield’s time.
Corbaz’s relationship to the images of women she created may have been more complicated than Hirshfield’s. The artist was institutionalized for much of her life and “lived in a state of extreme dissociation,” said Russell. The women tower over the men in her pictures and command the attention of the viewer, creating an impression of powerful sexuality. She often depicted women painting at an easel, which suggests the works may have been idealized self-portraits. Corbaz’s women sometimes have features of sirens, sphinxes or mermaids -- “women who live at the heart of the Western imaginary,” said Russell. Some scholars have seen the work as the product of a “feminist, utopian” imagination," while others, like Germaine Greer, have described it in darker terms: “repetitive depictions of the sex object.” Russell agrees that Corbaz’s work reflects the constraints that the artist, along with other women of her time, faced in expressing selfhood. “The works are embedded within a certain conception of womanhood. . . . She animated the culture’s representation [of women], both in their beauty and their horror,” he said.
"Beauty and horror" might come to mind when one is thinking of Henry Darger’s work, too. The final cameo talk of the day was “Dating Darger,” by Galerie St. Etienne Co-director Jane Kallir. “To my knowledge, Henry Darger never dated anyone, but I am trying to date him,” joked Kallir. “What’s needed is a catalogue raisonée, making use of all the archival materials at the American Folk Art Museum, which have yet to be excavated,” Kallir said. Darger made dating his works difficult by often painting the verso of a sheet eight to ten years earlier than the recto, and by not adhering to a linear narrative in his epic tale, In the Realms of the Unreal. But there are stylistic and thematic evolutions in his work that make it possible to estimate when particular pieces were created.
Darger began to amass and collage newspaper clippings and photos -- source material for his artwork -- before beginning to make his own paintings. The earliest of his paintings can be categorized as “cataloging activities,” Kallir said. First, in the early 1920s, came portraits of his Vivian Girls and of generals in military uniforms, who were to become the characters in his Realms. The Blengins, his fantastical creatures, begin to appear in the late 1920s and early 1930s, along with maps detailing the geography of the Realms and the locations of battles. “Around 1930, Darger began to illustrate the Realms,” only after he finished writing his novel. But his narrative evolved over time, and Kallir believes the earlier paintings bear a closer relationship to the written novel than do the later paintings.
“Darger gradually taught himself to create larger and more complex compositions,” Kallir explained. Darger’s illustrations from the early 1930s are characterized by smaller figures and smaller-scale artworks as a whole. Then one sees an increase in scale, with works from the later 1930s showing “sweeping views of battlefields.” Then Darger changed his approach to depicting the war. In the 1940s, as news of atrocities and genocide began to reach Americans, he began to show graphic close-ups of fighting, less majestic, more brutal. By the 1950s, “his works were up to 120 inches long, drawn on both sides of a sheet at the same time,” so one begins to see continuity between recto and verso at this time. “His works were densely populated, as he had a large array of figures in his source material to draw upon” at this point.
The defeat of the Glandelinians is the final chapter of the Realms, and the depictions of Glandelinian propaganda that appear in his later work look strikingly like his earlier work. “It’s as if he were vilifying or disowning his earlier fantasies,” Kallir speculated. His last works, depicting the victory of the Abbiennians, are extremely joyful. “Nearly the entire 20th century filtered through his isolated little room,” Kallir said of Darger, and “his synthesis is nothing less than an allegorical history of the modern era.”