A Master Sculptor, No Longer A Secret

Tessa Decarlo, The New York Times , May 14, 2000

WILLIAM EDMONDSON of Nashville had his first one-man show in New York in 1937, when a dozen of his elegantly spare limestone sculptures went on view at the Museum of Modern Art. Despite the venue, the New York art world seems to have regarded Edmondson less as a modern artist than a folkloric primitive -- according to the blithely condescending press reports of the time, an ''innocent Negro'' (Newsweek) whose ''guileless use of plastic symbol language'' (New York Times) revealed the ''imaginativeness of true naivete'' (New Yorker).


On Saturday the Museum of American Folk Art opens the first major New York retrospective of Edmondson's work since the 1937 show. And despite the venue, Edmondson this time around is being presented not as a simple folk carver but as an outstanding 20th-century artist prominent in both the pantheon of self-taught art and the history of American modernism.


What has changed over the last 63 years is not only the nation's racial politics but the perceived value of art created by people like William Edmondson, a man with no formal education whose life and artistic practice unfolded far outside the narrow precincts of the fine-art world.


''Edmondson's work is gorgeous in its simplicity and striking in its sophistication,'' said Brooke Anderson, director of the Folk Art's Contemporary Center, its new department for modern self-taught art. ''He was very rooted in the South and in the African-American community and very much a man of his time, but his work also transcends those things. That's part of its greatness.''


''The Art of William Edmondson,'' which will be on view through Aug. 27 in New York before traveling to Rochester, Atlanta and Orlando, Fla., aims to bring the artist to a wider audience. ''After the 1937 show, Edmondson's life didn't change; he got hardly any recognition,'' said Rusty Freeman, associate curator at Nashville's Cheekwood Museum of Art, which organized the current exhibition. Today the artist is highly regarded by art insiders familiar with his work, ''but he needs to be exposed to the mainstream,'' Mr. Freeman said. ''He's been an art-world secret for too long.''


The ups and downs of Edmondson's public career are a reminder that the current popularity of what's variously called vernacular, outsider or self-taught art reprises the craze for ''naive'' artists that swept the American art world in the 1930's. Back then modern art was widely attacked as the alien spawn of European decadence. Modernism's proponents, who found inspiration in everything from African masks to the daily newspaper, turned their omnivorous gaze on folk art and the idiosyncratic work of untrained artists, and found proof that modern art's radical visual ideas had deep American roots.


One of the first museum exhibitions of American folk art was organized at the Museum of Modern Art in 1932, drawing from the collection of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, also a prominent modern-art collector. At the same time, John Kane, Morris Hirschfield and Anna (Grandma) Moses were among the scores of ''modern primitives'' welcomed into the Modern and important New York galleries.


It was during this era that Edmondson came to the attention of the art world, an intersection that was otherwise unlikely in the extreme.


Born just outside Nashville in 1874, the son of freed slaves, barely able to read or write, Edmondson worked as a railroad laborer, then as a hospital janitor. In 1931 he left or lost his hospital job, but shortly thereafter he found a new, divinely inspired career. According to Edmondson, God appeared at the head of his bed and announced he had come to confer the gift of cutting stone. Edmondson obediently made himself a crude hammer and chisel, and soon God appeared again with models of tombstones for Edmondson to copy.


''I looked up in the sky and right there in the noon daylight he hung a tombstone out for me to make,'' Edmondson later recalled.


The novice stonecutter put up a sign reading ''Tomb-stones for Sale'' and went to work. His raw materials were limestone blocks from demolished buildings and curbing torn out when the city replaced stone with concrete.


He sold only a few tombstones to his neighbors, but the love of carving for its own sake drove him on. As he grew more adept he began carving animals, angels, nurses and preachers. ''First he told me to make tombstones, then he told me to cut the figures,'' Edmondson reportedly said. ''He give me them two things.''


Judged by the standards of ordinary funerary monuments, Edmondson's handiwork might look unskilled and crude. But to sophisticated eyes the sculptures' pared-down forms, subtly varied textures and enigmatic presence evoked the work of such modernist masters as Constantin Brancusi and Elie Nadelman, while at the same time looking like nothing except themselves.


Word about this phenomenon spread through the local white art community and from there to New York, and in 1936 Louise Dahl-Wolfe, a rising fashion photographer, went to Edmondson's house and took a series of photographs of the artist and his sculpture-filled backyard.


Several of her photographs are on display in the current show, along with later ones of the sculptor and his environment by Edward Weston and Consuelo Kanaga. The formal beauty of these images, particularly Weston's Cubist-inspired close-ups of the sculptures' stark shapes and shadows, shows the chord the unschooled Nashville carver struck in his high-modernist fellow artists.


Dahl-Wolfe showed her photographs to the Museum of Modern Art's director, Alfred Barr, and the next year Edmondson became the first black American to receive a one-man show at the Modern.


The show received enthusiastic reviews, but none of Edmondson's work went into the Modern's collection. Articles about Edmondson appeared in Time, Life and Newsweek as well as the art magazines, but most of them focused on his illiteracy and religious visions rather than the quality of his work.


The New Yorker's prediction that ''after the show closes, Mr. Edmondson will soon be forgotten'' came true, at least within the New York art scene.


Edmondson continued carving until age and disability forced him to stop in 1950. But the triumph of Abstract Expressionism made ''naive'' art seem as out of style as hoop skirts, and after 1937 Edmondson had only one more show in his lifetime, at a local black university. He died of a heart attack in 1951.


A handful of collectors continued to value Edmondson's work, however, and over the years his pieces made their way into Cheekwood and other museums.


When the overheated, increasingly academic art scene of the 1980's fueled widespread new interest in folk and self-taught art as more ''authentic'' and affordable alternatives, Edmondson once again became a star. The current show is the latest evidence that, at least within the vernacular art world, he has achieved the status of old master.


Could fashions shift again and send Edmondson's work back into obscurity?


''It's inconceivable,'' says Frank Maresca, a New York gallery owner who specializes in self-taught art. He points out that the most important Edmondson sculptures now command prices approaching half a million dollars, adding, ''You might as well say the art world is going to forget about Warhol.''


Even more important, in the last 20 years self-taught art has developed its own institutional infrastructure. ''Should this category exist? I have no idea,'' Ms. Anderson says. ''But it does exist, and there's a whole community of museums, dealers, collectors, curators and scholars devoted to it.''


The field is still struggling to define itself, however, and there's little agreement on what it should be called or how the material should be handled.


Take the issue of context. Those who work with self-taught art are often criticized for presenting artists like Edmondson as isolated creators operating outside society, implying that the source of their art is deep eccentricity if not outright insanity. By contrast, the catalog for ''The Art of William Edmondson'' describes an artist who was very much a part of the world around him, with essays tracing the folkloric and topical references in Edmondson's work and the ways his heavenly visions are rooted in African-American spiritual traditions.


But while the Cheekwood exhibition emphasized the content of Edmondson's work, grouping the sculptures by subject (angels, animals and so on), the New York version of the show takes an artier approach, accentuating Edmondson's stark modernity with a gray-on-gray display that echoes the look of Weston and Dahl-Wolfe's black-and-white photographs. In addition, the New York museum has added 6 pieces to the 40 in the original traveling show, including 2 -- a striking abstract angel and a geometric ''critter'' -- that some believe may be unfinished.


Mr. Maresca, who designed the Folk Art's installation, indignantly dismisses that idea. ''One aspect of Edmondson's work relates to a minimalist aesthetic'' more familiar to the contemporary art world than to folk art, he says. ''To say Edmondson didn't finish them suggests he wasn't capable of exploring that aesthetic. And he was one sophisticated guy.''


The larger question remains whether slotting artists like Edmondson into the vernacular category makes them more visible but harder to see truly.


''It's time people stopped making these little boxes for things, either to defend them or to dismiss them,'' says Robert Storr, the Museum of Modern Art's senior curator of painting and sculpture and an Edmondson aficionado.


''If Edmondson were just appealingly odd, he would fit in that little box and stay there. But his work is more lovely and enduring than that.''


For her part, Ms. Anderson makes no apologies for showing Edmondson at a folk art museum. ''I don't see that it's problematic for there to be a place in New York City where audiences can explore Edmondson's work as nonacademic art,'' she says. ''In no way does that exclude any other institutions from exploring the work in their own way, whether it's the Studio Museum in Harlem or the Museum of Modern Art.''