The Mod Look in Folk Art

the folk artist as saavy modernist?

Earl Cunningham, Blue Sail Fleet Returns, 1949.

Is a “folk artist” simply a modernist with a good marketing plan? My old friend Karen Rosenberg has a review of the Earl Cunningham exhibition at the Lincoln Square Branch of the American Folk Art Museum in New York.

We learn this about Cunningham:

He was well aware of the “discovery” of folk art during the Depression (he is known to have clipped news articles about Grandma Moses) and marketed himself accordingly. He signed one of his paintings “Earl Cunningham, American Primitive” and printed business cards with the label “primitive artist.”

In fact, when Cunningham displayed his paintings in his own gallery in St. Augustine, Florida, he put up a sign that read, “Not For Sale,” as if he knew that the appearance of anti-marketplace sentiment might eventually bring in fame and fortune. “Someone is going to come ’round here and buy all my paintings at one time for $40,000,” he told Marilyn Mennello, his most eager collector.

Karen finishes up her review with a tantalizing conclusion:

Whether you think of Cunningham as a folk artist or a Modernist, his paintings display an intuitive grace. They are the product of history, selective memory and a well-traveled life.

This “American primitive” raises all the questions of why we distinguish between folk art and Modernist art at all other than to signal a different status-level of the artist’s milieu, the particular corner of the world in which he or she has a studio (or doesn’t).

But since folk art and Modernism seem like Siamese-twinned oppositions with a funny intersection to them, what would it mean to simply say that all folk art is Modernist and all Modernism is folk art? It might mean that we let go of the othering that occurs and focus on what Rosenberg does: art always as “the product of history, selective memory and a well-traveled life.”

See followup post: “The Folk Look in Mod Art.”

1 thought on “The Mod Look in Folk Art

  1. This was a thought provoking blog. I think folk art by the modern artists has it’s own audience and has been accepted by the art lovers. Art is beautiful as long as it is genuine and made with an inspiration. The folk art painting on display is lovely.

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