Lesson Plan: Modern Art: Outside Art & Jean Dubuffet

Reading 3 - Altered Views in the House of Modernism.

Excerpts from newspaper article by author, Roberta Smith. [New York Times, copyright 2005.] (full article here)

MODERNISM'S house has many rooms, with more being added all the time. Some are new additions, others are forgotten chambers reopened after being inexplicably nailed shut for years. Either way, the structure has become complex almost beyond comprehension, and "Bill Traylor, William Edmondson and the Modernist Impulse" at the Studio Museum in Harlem only increases its marvelous sprawl.

the Studio Museum show considers Traylor's drawings of flat, antic weathervane-like figures and Edmondson's serene and blocky stone carvings of animals, people and biblical characters in the light of another history. In the catalog at least, the exhibition examines the simplified forms of their work as proto-modern, placing it within the context of American modernism and the nascent New York art world of the late 1930's and early 40's, when both artists had brushes with official recognition and were then forgotten.

Edmondson's brush was the more substantial. A native of Nashville, he worked as a janitor until 1931, when he began carving tombstones and grave figures for the city's black community. A few years later, Edmondson met the fashion photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe, who took wonderfully sympathetic pictures of the artist, his work and his surroundings. (Edward Weston and Consuelo Kanaga would also photograph Edmondson's sculpture yard.)

… Mr. Helfenstein's catalog essay retells [this story] with particular sharpness and argues that the show, along with the Modern's exhibitions of pre-Columbian art, self-taught painters and children's art (the latter as part of the Dada and Surrealism survey of 1937) "demonstrated Barr's belief in the pluralistic roots of international modernism." It was a belief that his trustees did not share.

… This exhibition suggests that as the rooms of the modernist house multiply, the walls seem less and less likely to hold. The dichotomies of insider and outsider, modern and naïve, are losing their pertinence. Over the last two decades, solo and survey exhibitions have offered repeated proof that African-American folk art is as richly varied and innovative and as important to American culture as blues and jazz. This further diminishes the distinctions between folk and modern, and outsider and insider artists, because African-American culture has always given them less credence than has white America.

… Barr's multicultural modernism may have failed in the short run, but the enduring art of Traylor and Edmondson proves that short is not the run that matters. And with exhibitions like this, contemporary art is recovering a past commensurate with its present unruliness.