Monday, July 19, 2010

American Folk Art Museum

5/21/2010; Friday 
American Folk Art Museum ……………....….... 45 min

American Folk Art Museum ……….....……....… $12 for both (with 2 for 1 coupon)

This is the day we finally did it.  After months of trying, we’ve broken the 4 museum barrier and seen 5 complete museums in a single day!  You may not be impressed, but let me give some background.  When we first started this project, we assumed two things about the 180 museums of New York, critical to the success of this project: 1) that while New York City has several very large, very famous museums (i.e. the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Natural History Museum, and the Guggenheim), the bulk of the 180 would be much smaller affairs; and 2) that we could get through these smaller museums quickly.  “We’ll breeze through large swaths of them in 30 minutes or less,” I naively assumed.

We were right about the first assumption.  Outside of a few famous behemoths, most NYC museums aren’t very large (NYC real estate prices being extremely good motivation for small floor plans).  However, we were completely wrong on the second.  Small museums have to fight for both patrons and financial survival, and as a result many are focused and captivating places with jewel-like collections: small but breathtaking.  Also, they’re often staffed by zealots.  People who have given up their Saturday, spending the entire day on their feet, without pay, just to talk to you about one particular subject.  These are not the sort of people you ignore.  So, while we spent 2 hrs in the Guggenheim, fighting the crowds and viewing the Picassos in this large and justifiably famous museum, we spent almost as long in the tiny one room Onassis Cultural Center, viewing ancient paintings that are surely some of Greece’s national treasures, and we spent even longer (3 hrs) in the miniscule Van Courtland House Museum listening to a detailed lecture on life in the 1800’s given by a very passionate and well informed docent/historian. 

Most of today’s 5 museums were small (with the exception of the Whitney), and the majority held true to the rule of small museums being well worth the time.  In fact one of these (the Grolier Club) ranked among our favorite museums to date.  We made it through all 5 in one day by being willing to spend nearly 7 hours just seeing museums (a 10 hour day when you including transit time, lunch and one coffee break), an experience that we wouldn’t recommend to the novice museum viewer, and one we probably won’t repeat too often.
Paul was looking forward to the first museum of the day, the American Folk Art Museum.  Neither of us had been exposed to much folk art, but Paul (as an amateur historian) was interested in its historical context.  We were also looking forward to the museum’s impressive facade of tombasil; a white bronze alloy used in boat propellers and tombstones, and never before used architecturally.  The tombasil was indeed impressive, appearing both stone-like and metallic (see picture of facade above), and it stood out from the rest of midtown like someone had dropped a 4-story tombstone between office buildings.  Paul, who has a fascination with tombstones, was captivated and declared his intention to one day encase his house with it.  (Pauline is hoping he forgets about this if we every buy a house.)  Regrettably, the facade ended up being the best thing about the museum. 

I think our dissatisfaction was less about the art itself, and more about the museum’s vision which came off as highly fragmented and kind of ditsy.  We liked quite a bit of the historical pieces; there was a lovely section on women’s art in 1800’s America (with detailed quilts and sweet family portraits), a nice collection of painted duck decoys, and a few striking weathervanes (see the weathervane of an angel at the top of this post).  However, the museum mixed in a lot of the very trendy “outsider art,” defined as art done by self taught artists working outside of cultural norms.  I think it saw this as a kind of contemporary folk art.  The outsider art displayed included works by the mentally disabled, the clinically insane, and things that appeared to be the inexpert doodling of perfectly average people.  There was an entire floor devoted to a series of battered rough magazine picture collages done by a janitor in Chicago (see image at right).

In summary, to us, it felt like the American Folk Art Museum had a ragtag and confusing collection, with no real direction or focus.  We felt the best pieces were those that connected to the people and events of an era, but most of the outsider art seemed abstract and disconnected.  Even the concept of outsider art itself was not well defined, as several featured “outsiders” are successful artists and teach art themselves, making them decidedly “insiders.”  I left the museum feeling a bit confused, like I had missed the point somehow.  Paul left feeling a bit ripped off.  Twelve bucks is a lot to pay for doodles and duck decoys. 

Images in this post, from the top: Archangel Gabriel Weathervane, United States c. 1840; tombasil facade of the American Folk Art Museum; Girl with Cat and Dog, Ammi Phillips (1788-1865) Amenia, NY; Untitled (Man and Boy, twice), Henry Darger; Untitled (Vehicle 82/82), Dwight Mackintosh (1906-1999), Oakland CA; Loon, Artist unidentified, New England, 20th century.

1 comment:

  1. I have to admit that I'm very much *not* a fan of "outsider art". As far as I've been able to tell, the majority of the "trendy" or "exciting" outsider art seems to be the product of non-artists suffering from mental issues. These are not people who are challenging artistic norms; these are people who are challenged. The whole genre strikes me as exploitative.