A folk art encyclopedia

ANTIQUES

April 07, 1991|By Lita Solis-Cohen

"The Museum of American Folk Art Encyclopedia of Twentieth Century American Folk Art and Artists," by Chuck and Jan Rosenak (Abbeville, $75), has people saying they don't know what folk art is anymore.

"Is it handmade weather vanes, professional traveling artists, young women's handiwork, mass-produced decoys, a slave quilt, or is it the expression of self-taught artists, urban and rural, who respond to the world as they see it?" asks Robert Bishop, director of the Museum of American Folk Art, who wrote the preface to the book.

"Folk art is now an umbrella term that covers a lot of different kinds of art and come the year 2000 it may mean something altogether different again," Dr. Bishop suggests.

"I'm not sure I'm a folk art dealer anymore," says Frank Miele. "The scarcity of 19th century folk art and high prices make its purchase a major investment, instead of pure pleasure. That has made me change direction."

From his apartment on Madison Avenue at 90th Street in New York, Mr. Miele sells what he calls the work of 20th century "sophisticated naifs who have tapped into 19th century sensibilities." He points to crosshatching on Stephen Huneck's recently carved snake similar to that on a carving by Aaron Mountz or a Wilhelm Schimmel, Sally Cook's latest still lifes reminiscent of century-old schoolgirl art, animated toys made this year by Richard Gachot recalling 19th century whirligigs and stylized flowers in pictures by Eddy Arning echoing those on painted dower chests.

Roger Ricco and Frank Maresca, of Ricco/ Maresca Gallery on Hudson Street in Manhattan, say they, too, are getting further and further away from folk art, although the artists they exhibit are all in the encyclopedia. They show "Outsider Art," including the work of Southern self-taught black artists, which looks more like contemporary art than traditional folk art.

"We are after the few geniuses working in this field," Mr. Ricco says. "We consider ourselves art dealers. The inventive multimedia work of the Dial family, and William Lawrence Hawkins, and the fantasy paintings by Victor Joseph Gatto -- all are American self-taught art."

The Rosenaks have still another point of view.

"We don't think some of Miele's artists are folk artists; they are trained artists working in a 'faux folk' style," says Jan Rosenak. "The artists in the encyclopedia are all self-taught and untrained; that is why we call their work folk art."

The new illustrated encyclopedia lists 255 artists documented with biographies. It covers painters, carvers, potters, creators of environments and memory painters such as Grandma Moses and Matty Lou O'Kelly, as well as accepted masters from earlier in this century, such as Horace Pippin and Morris Hirshfield.

The Rosenaks do not consider traditional American Indian art to be folk art, but they collect the work of a number of American Indian artists working in innovative folk styles, and they are included in the encyclopedia.

The Rosenaks live on the top of a mountain in Tesuque, near Santa Fe, N.M. The facade of their house, designed by architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen, looks like a frontier town movie set, giving no clue that inside one is stunned by a panorama of forest land and collections of Pueblo storyteller dolls, fish decoys, face jugs, life-size carved animals by Filipe and Leroy Archuleta and paintings by the Rev. Howard Finster, Mose Tolliver and many others included in their book.

An exhibition of nearly 100 works from the Rosenaks' collection, called "The Cutting Edge: Contemporary American Folk Art," was shown at the Museum of American Folk Art this winter to celebrate the publication of the encyclopedia. Through May 27, it can be seen at the New Britain (Conn.) Museum. From June 14 to Aug. 18 the exhibition will be at the Laguna Art Museum in Laguna, Calif.

Among the 72 artists represented, 22 are African-American, eight are American Indian and eight are Hispanic. There are 56 men and 16 women. It is the first time the works of self-trained American Indian artists who break with tradition have been shown as 20th century folk art.

A beaver and a carved and painted bear with a fish in his mouth are part of the life-size menagerie created by the Hispanic artist Filipe Archuleta, who died in Tesuque on Jan. 1. An armadillo and a leopard by Filipe's son Leroy are some of the best work by these Southwest carvers, who inspired a whole Sante Fe school of carvers who produce watermelons, snakes and coyotes for the tourist trade.

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