By Edward Dolnick
Special to the Rappahannock News
In 1982, a new art exhibition so stunned visitors and critics that its echoes still sound today. The show was entitled Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980.
The Washington Post hailed it as “vast and vivid, important and uncanny,” and Time called it “a fiery, marvelous folk show.”
Now, in honor of Black History Month, the 2nd Friday RAAC Talk on Feb. 9 at 8 p.m. will look at that dazzlingly successful show and will examine its ongoing impact today.
The show was co-curated by two renowned art historians, Jane Livingston and John Beardsley, who are both Rappahannock residents. Beardsley, who will present the 2nd Friday RAAC Talk at the library, discussed the exhibition in a recent interview. He had not quite anticipated just how rapturous the critics would be, he recalls.
“Jane had more experience, and she might have had an idea of how this could fly,” he says, “but I was just amazed.”
The Post review came first and set the tone for all the others. Livingston and Beardsley had unearthed works of art that were “sudden miracles” of “astounding beauty.” The success of that show, at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., led other museums to similar ventures. The most recent opened Jan. 28 at the National Gallery of Art; the new show explicitly hails its “game-changing” predecessor.
The “miracles” in the folk art show were created by self-taught artists who often worked in isolation. That made the Corcoran show a breakthrough of two kinds at once.
First, museum-goers confronted work far different from what many of them knew. Second, a grand, establishment museum had ventured far from its usual bounds. The critics reacted with awe tinged with bewilderment.
“How can unknown art so strong exist?” the Post asked. “How did these 20 artists — these laborers and barbers, most old, poor, and untutored, working by themselves in the alleys of this city, in the basements of New Orleans, or in tattered southern shacks — produce objects of such power?”
The work was not truly unknown, but it had seldom been treated as worthy of display in the nation’s leading, and sometimes stuffy, museums. “Many of these artists were known in their own communities,” Beardsley says, “but not really known to each other, and not known to most of the art world, except perhaps a few specialists and collectors.”
One star of the Corcoran show was named Bill Traylor. Livingston and Beardsley heard of his work from another artist, who said that they needed to learn about “an old guy who had lived in the back of a funeral parlor and painted on shirt cardboards.”
They ended up including 36 Traylors in their show. Since then this ex-slave’s work has been shown across the nation, notably at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art.
The opening up of grand temples of art to outsiders is no simple thing. The whole vocabulary that deals with “folk art” is charged, Beardsley notes, because some terms seem to elevate certain kinds of art and to write off others. “Folk art” might sound like the scruffy little brother of “fine art,” for instance, and “naïve” art might conjure up thoughts of “primitive” art.
More important than labels, in Beardsley’s view, is the quality of the art. “What we were saying,” he emphasizes, “is that this is first-rate contemporary art, by artists who come from groups that tended to be left out of the conventional art narratives.”
That credo, which once rang out like a battle cry, now sounds like a levelheaded observation. Ideas that seemed radical three decades ago may have found their moment today, Beardsley says. “There’s been a resurgence of interest in questions of inclusion and identity and diversity. Thirty-five years later, there’s a lot more airtime for artists of all kinds.”
Edward Dolnick is a writer who lives in Rappahannock.