Sunday, July 25, 2010

American Folk Art Museum: Outsider Art or Just Weird?

For some reason, I have been dragging my feet on writing this post, which makes me think that either A) Conducting Camp Mom in this heat has completely fried my brain. Or at least what’s left of my brain after birthing three children (Remember the egg? This is your brain. This is three kids. This is your brain after having three kids. Any questions?) or B) American folk art just kind of eludes me. There’s also a third, likely possibility and that is that I picked up The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot yesterday and don’t want to put it down for anything. Who knew that cell culture research could be so riveting? So let’s just get it done already, so that I can get back to my very important reading while a feverish Jack takes a long summer’s nap and the laundry magically folds itself.

The American Folk Art Museum is a hodgepodge of some weird and wonderful things created by outsider artists with no formal training. A sliver of a building tucked next to its splashier and more glamorous neighbor, the Museum of Modern Art, the Folk Art Museum is all vertical space and gray concrete. Here are some things that Vivi and I were taken with when we were there:

  • A 1964 painting of Columbus Circle by Vestie Davis
  • A round rag rug made not out of scraps of cloth as one would expect, but out of bits and pieces of Wonder Bread bags (yes, Wonder Bread bags)
  • A menagerie of tiny sculptures cut, twisted, and reconstructed from tin cans and encrusted with beads, baubles, and curios that had been unearthed at a Chelsea thrift shop
  • All sorts of nifty weather vanes: a unicorn, a grasshopper, a donkey, a pig, a train, and an assortment of angels
  • A model of the Empire State Building made out of interlocking wooden pieces without the benefit of glue or nails
  • The Button Tree, an old tree limb covered entirely by colorful buttons
Columbus Circle by Vestie Davis (1964)

Fame Weathervane, attributed to E.G. Washbourne & Company (c. 1890)

Button Tree by Gregory "Mr. Imagination" Warmack (1990-1992)

We were less impressed with Henry Darger, whom the museum boasts is one of the most prominent artists of the 20th century. The American Folk Art Museum houses the largest public collection of works by Darger and touts itself as the most important institution for scholars interested in the work of this self-taught artist. While I don’t doubt the veracity of that claim, I do question its merits. It’s kind of like someone bragging that they have the world’s largest collection of twist-ties or airplane sick bags (Nick Vermeulen of the Netherlands has already laid claim to this latter title, but the former is still wide open for all of you still looking to make your mark in the world).

Darger—janitor by day, outsider artist by night-- and his watercolors meant to illustrate his bizarro 15,000+-page manuscript about little girls being enslaved by evil forces and a series of his cardboard collages framed by Christmas Seal Stamps just gave me the creeps. Not to get all Jesse Helms or anything, but I think I’d like to stick to Grandma Moses and her folksy, quilt-making sisters.[*]

Vivi and one of the wholesome quilts: Sarah Ann Garges Applique Bedcover (1853)

Taking the wholesomeness up another notch: Pieties Quilt by Maria Cadman Hubbard (1948)


  • Grandma Moses by Alexandra Wallner
  • The Year With Grandma Moses by W. Nikola-Lisa with writings and paintings by Grandma Moses

American Folk Art Museum, 45 West 53rd Street (between 5th and 6th Avenues, New York, New York 10019, (212) 265-1040,; Tuesday to Sunday 10:30 AM to 5:30 PM, Friday 11:00 AM to 7:30 PM; Closed Mondays; Admission: Adults: $12; Children under 12 are free.

[*] It should be noted for the record that even though I would put Henry Darger squarely in the "weird" category, his artwork was actually completely innocuous and I didn’t feel in any way that it was inappropriate for children.


  1. Seriously your blogs are hilarious. Love that info regarding Darger.

  2. So how does the Folk Life Museum compare to AVAM here in Bawlmer?

  3. I knew what you meant ;) Haven't been to the AVAM in years, but would love to go and take the kids and compare it to the American Folk Art Museum. I seem to think it might be a bit hipper...

  4. I think you should stick to folding clothes. Your "insights" into Darger are nothing but offensive. And a model of ignorance.

  5. Oh, come on, Anonymous Henry Darger-phile, do you really think I'm the only person who is heebed out by Darger?

    Thanks, though, for my very first hate post, which I"m taking as a positive sign that I've really made it in the blogosphere!

    Perhaps instead of sending anonymous and rather nasty emails, you should instead channel your energies into ensuring that the American Folk Art Museum lives to see another day as, up until yesterday, it was in serious danger of being closed for good (which, for the record, I think would have been a real shame).

    Oops--the dryer buzzer just went off, so it's back to folding laundry for me! I'm sure an intellectual like you doesn't have to stoop to such menial tasks...