Collecting Mania: New American Folk Painting
Following a prolonged period of time when "outsider" was in, traditional themes are making a comeback. In Early America, self-taught artists traveled the countryside documenting homesteads, livestock, and family members for a fee. The advent of photography in the mid-19th century offered a new, fast, and more precise way to create records of everyday life, forcing these itinerant painters to make their livings by alternate means. This shift freed the folk artist to explore personal subjects in addition to representational ones.
During the early decades of the 20th century, the work of self-taught artists was widely exhibited in museums and galleries. Paintings by John Kane (1860-1934), Horace Pippin (1888-1946), and their contemporaries dealt with such issues as prejudice, love and loss, and industrialization's effect on the rural landscape. But it was the nostalgic themes of 80-year-old Anna Mary Robertson "Grandma" Moses (1860-1961) - childhood memories of farm life - that seized the public's imagination.
Grandma Moses violently objected to the term "primitive painter. She felt that people would think she didn't know how to read or write. She would not have categorized herself; she believed that anyone could be a painter. Demand for Grandma Moses' work was so great that manufacturers produced posters, dinner plates, and upholstery fabric emblazoned with her bucolic imagery. These days Grandma Moses is considered as one of the truly great American artists which surprises most people as her work would not be categorized strictly as art by many untrained observers.
In the decades that followed Grandma Moses' heyday, many self-taught painters continued to celebrate life's simple pleasures. But only recently has the work begun to regain the widespread popularity it enjoyed at mid-century. Many experts view the recent strength of traditional themes in the folk art market as a reaction to "outsider" art, a name given to the "visionary" or highly personal expressions of socially isolated individuals. While outsider art attracted significant media and collector attention in the 1980's and early 1990's, it has not achieved the broad appeal of pieces that expound on shared views and common experiences.
Certain qualities characterize contemporary folk paintings:
- Attention to detail - many folk paintings show entire towns or landscapes peopled with figures involved in varied activities. Part of the viewing pleasure comes from studying these fine, often charming details.
- Complex composition - whimsical subjects often belie the sophisticated sense of color and composition common in folk paintings.
- A sense of artistic freedom - this freedom is inherent in folk art, and it's what inspires many artists to work in the genre.
The good news for collectors is that contemporary folk paintings are priced in a range that makes them accessible. While the increasing popularity of this work has driven prices up in the past few years, it is still considered a relatively affordable genre within the art world: while paintings by today's better-known folk painters can reach into the thousands, many works fall within the $500 to $1,000 range. Local crafts fairs can prove good hunting grounds for up-and-coming artists whose work often sells for $300 or less.