American Folk Art's Informal Delight and Humor

Article excerpt

Folk Art in American Life

By Robert Bishop and Jacqueline M. Atkins

Viking Studio Books

228 pp., $29.95

The modern constructivist sculptor Naum Gabo paid a tribute to Alfred Wallis, an English fisherman and rag-and-bone merchant, who late in life started to paint on odd pieces of cardboard. Gabo's homage read: "To the artist on whom Nature has bestowed the rarest of gifts, not to know that he is one."

Although the self-taught Wallis, heralded by modern artists in Britain, is mostly characterized as naive or primitive, Gabo's words might apply equally to a folk artist.

But "folk art" is one of those terms that can prove to be rather wider in scope, or nebulous in concept, than suspected.

Perhaps it is easier to determine that a particular painting, sculpture, or artifact is definitely not folk art, than to be absolutely sure that one is. Either way, subjective judgment tends to enter in. One criterion is that an object mass-produced by machine cannot be called folk art. But then, it cannot (usually) be called art at all. That an object is handmade, however, does not in itself guarantee it's being folk art.

A recent book, "Folk Art in American Life," by Robert Bishop and Jacqueline M. Atkins, includes work by craftsmen, professional to their fingertips, who unquestionably knew they were "artists," as well as a great many who did not. Nor are all the artists featured in the book by any means untaught. Some carried on craft traditions brought from the Old World to the New. Others based their work on prints after respected artists and aimed at a similar accomplishment. In 18th-century America, as in Britain at the same period, some painters - Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley for example - started as naive painters and matured into respectable "high" artists. But the dividing line between folk and art was probably less distinct than we imagine.

This book illustrates a range of artifacts. Here is a sampling: a charmingly amateurish early 19th-century needlework picture by an unknown "young lady attending a female academy" (according to the caption); Simon Rhoda's ambitious and visionary Watts Towers in Los Angeles (1921-54); an elegant corner cupboard from Pennsylvania (1830-45); 12 consummate Shaker boxes; and a wooden gatepost in the form of a penguin (1890-1920).

The illustrations shown here are from this book. The lion rug shows something of the childlike innocence and unconscious humor usually associated with folk art. It is also a utilitarian household object (a picture to be walked on).

But the whirligig is made to amuse. Unlike the weather vanes that are so special to American folk art, whirligigs are not really wind-indicators: They are made, more like toys, to delight. In this one, the cyclist pedals when the wind blows. Functionality is not necessarily a measure of folk art, any more than degrees of sophistication are. …