THEY TAUGHT THEMSELVES
American Self-Taught Painters Between the World Wars
January 7 through March 14, 2009
“THEY TAUGHT THEMSELVES”: American Self-Taught Painters Between the World Wars, based on Sidney Janis’s groundbreaking book of the same name, is the first exhibition ever to trace the origins and development of the “outsider” art field. The exhibition includes significant loans—most of them now rarely on public display—from the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art. The show coincides with the annual Outsider Art Fair (7 West 34th Street, January 9–11).
Comprising over 50 oil paintings, “THEY TAUGHT THEMSELVES”: American Self-Taught Painters Between the World Wars documents how the prewar American art world wholeheartedly embraced the work of self-taught painters. Many of the major self-taught artists of the 20th century were “discovered” in the period between the two world wars, and the exhibition features works by such renowned artists as Morris Hirshfield (among them his very first painting, Beach Girl, 1937-39, and his famous Lion, 1939, both from MoMA), John Kane (From My Studio Window,1932, and Monongahela Valley, 1931, from the Metropolitan Museum, as well as other paintings from the Whitney, MoMA and various private collections), Grandma Moses (Going to Grandma’s,1944, The Old Covered Bridge,1944, and others) and Horace Pippin (Sunday Morning Breakfast,1943, from the Merrill C. Berman Collection, plus oils from MoMA and the Whitney). Also in the exhibition are rarities like the work of Patrick J Sullivan, an unemployed housepainter who created a small oeuvre of idiosyncratic, densely layered paintings that he called “parables in picture form.” Joseph Pickett, widely acknowledged as one of the foremost self-taught painters of the early 20th century, is represented by three of his four known oils, among them his seldom-seen masterpieces Manchester Valley (c. 1914-18) and Coryell’s Ferry (borrowed, respectively, from MoMA and the Whitney).
Starting in 1927, when John Kane was admitted to the prestigious Carnegie International Exhibition, the American art-world recognized untrained painters as adjuncts to the modern movement and regularly exhibited their work side-by-side with that of leading modernists. Kane appeared in “Annuals” at major museums like the Art Institute of Chicago and the Cincinnati Art Museum, was included in the first and second Biennial Exhibitions of the Whitney Museum, and until his death, continued to show every year at the Carnegie International. The Museum of Modern Art’s founding director, Alfred Barr, considered self-taught art one of modernism’s three principal strands (alongside Surrealism and abstraction). In 1938, MoMA mounted a survey of contemporary European and American self-taught artists, “Masters of Popular Painting,” that included the recently discovered artist Horace Pippin. Morris Hirshfield and Grandma Moses made their debuts at a more private MoMA showing in 1939. Israel Litwak, a retired cabinet-maker, was accorded a one-man show at the Brooklyn Museum that same year. In 1941, when MoMA opened its first gallery devoted to the permanent collection, the selection was limited to the work of “Modern Primitives” (as untrained artists were then commonly called). Sidney’s Janis’s 1942 book, They Taught Themselves, was the culmination of fifteen years of intense art-world interest in self-taught artists and the first to comprehensively document this nascent field.
“Modern Primitives [represent] the best introduction to a general survey of modern painting….They work in no tradition, either technical or esthetic…. Though each developed in personal isolation, [they] seem international in character even more than their professionally trained colleagues.” —Alfred Barr, 1941
The romance between modernism and self-taught art came to an abrupt end in 1943, when MoMA gave Morris Hirshfield a retrospective. American painters, who resented the museum’s emphasis on European modernism, were enraged that a major exhibition was being accorded an untrained former tailor. The ensuing scandal cost Alfred Barr his directorship and effectively ended MoMA’s advocacy of self-taught art. From here on, modern American art and self-taught art would go their separate ways. Many of the self-taught artists whose careers were launched in the 1930s faded into obscurity, while a few, like Grandma Moses, went on to ever greater fame. However, in the 1990s, burgeoning interest in “outsider” art revitalized the field, and today the boundaries between untrained
artists and the mainstream art world are once again being called into question. “THEY TAUGHT THEMSELVES”: American Self-Taught Painters Between the World Wars retraces a history that has direct bearing on our contemporary art world.
“THEY TAUGHT THEMSELVES”: American Self-Taught Painters Between the World Wars is accompanied by a detailed checklist containing a scholarly essay by Galerie St. Etienne Co-Director Jane Kallir, which is available free of charge by mail, or can be downloaded from our website: http://www.gseart.com.