You can get very close to someone through his or her trash. Henry Darger — artist, writer, janitor, outsider — knew this. His life’s work was collecting the trash of Chicago residents and taking it home. With this trash, Darger designed a new world called The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Though Chicagoans never knew the secret story of their trash, you could think of In The Realms of the Unreal as a collective work. Darger picked up the threads of cast-off stories, breathed new possibility into rejected paths. Though Darger is Chicago’s most famous recluse, In The Realms of the Unreal is a conversation — a deeply intimate and private conversation. Garbage, and the art Darger teased out of it, was the mediator between the artist and Chicagoans, who never knew they were being spoken to until Darger died in 1973 and his titanic efforts were made forever public by his landlord.
The American Folk Art Museum in New York City, the largest public repository of Henry’s Darger’s work in the world, is — by the nature of Darger’s work and much of American folk art — a public repository of trash. Yet by this definition, it is also a public repository of intimacy. Folk artists — or “self-taught” or “outsider” artists as they are sometimes called — tend to be more concerned with the aesthetics of their own lives, rather than, say, formal aesthetic principles of concern to professional artists. Because folk artists often make their work without the concerns of viewers in mind, isolated from any dialogue with the art world, you’re often getting a slice of a folk artist’s actual experience when seeing their work. The art is not the result of an artistic statement, it is simply who they are. As such, the American Folk Art Museum is as much a site of recorded conversations had between artists and their immediate surroundings as a museum.
Sometimes, this conversation happens between an artist and his wife, or an artist and his wallpaper, or an artist and his dinner, or even all of the above, as in the Museum’s current exhibition, “Eugene Von Bruenchenhein: ‘Freelance Artist — Poet and Sculptor — Inovator — Arrow maker and Plant man — Bone artifacts constructor — Photographer and Architect — Philosopher.’” The artist’s work appears to be multidisciplinary simply by fact of Von Bruenchenhein’s multitudinous and intimate engagement with everything in his own home. The show is an abundance of careful geometric diagrams drawn with a ballpoint pen on the backs of wallpaper samples, pinup photographs of the artist’s wife, fantastical cityscapes painted on chunks of cardboard, and ceramics sculpted into planty organisms that look like regal crowns. Also on display is a conversation had between the artist, his wife, and their chicken bones, which Von Bruenchenhein spray-painted silver and gold and fashioned into delicate thrones and towers and spires in homage to Von Bruenchenhein and his wife’s aristocratic heritage. So, Von Bruenchenhein’s works are also conversations had between the artist, his wife, and their dreams.
Just a few weeks ago, the American Folk Art Museum announced it would be selling its long-fought-for exhibition space at 45 West 53rd Street and moving back to its old smaller digs at 2 Lincoln Square, a 5,000-square-foot space that was once a public arcade. Space is a big deal for museums, especially in New York City where space and art (space and everything) live as a codependent, symbiotic organism.
As Roberta Smith aptly described it, 45 West 53rd Street is “a blank, vaguely lunar, metal-clad facade that is armored and fortresslike, positively foreboding.” Even for fans of the Folk Art Museum (and I am one), there is an undeniable rupture between this scary exhibition space and the very personal work it displays. It’s been a long struggle for the defenders, patrons, and enthusiasts of American folk art to fight for space for folk artists, all to prove that folk artists’ private conversations have value and ought to be publicly shared. And it’s been a struggle to prove that folk artists — though they make their work with modest means — deserve a serious, prestigious space for their work. Yet, much as they might be honored to see their works in an institution that takes them seriously, I would guess that artists such as Darger and even the grandiose von Breuchenheim would be overcome with agoraphobia had they ever visited 45 West 53rd Street. Their little Vivian girls and tender turkey-bone towers sometimes feel as if they were being swallowed into the “blank.” Likewise, the Museum’s permanent pieces on display, such as Ammi Phillips’ iconic “Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog,” lose something of their immediacy on the “vaguely lunar” walls of 45 West 53rd Street and make one think of Robert Smithson’s words about how museums are simply tombs, that “visiting a museum is a matter of going from void to void.”
Though many American folk artists want to be taken seriously, there is little in their work that evidences a desire for reverence. As such, vast museum halls do not, in fact, do folk artists the justice their defenders claim. Perhaps the rub lies in the fact that the American Folk Art Museum, like most museums, was initiated by collectors. It is therefore susceptible to the danger that threatens all esteemed museums: that it become an exhibit primarily of a collector’s ambitions, with the needs of artists or their audiences in second place. The museum as collector’s stage goes back to the very beginning, in the grand Wunderkammer of Europe, like that of Rudolph II. These collections included ordinary objects taken from the natural world — rocks, plants — that were displayed among the great artworks and scientific achievements of the day in a glorious manner far removed from their original humble surroundings. The thing we’ve now been able to learn about folk art is that “humble” doesn’t have to mean “unserious,” and that having a real relationship to folk art may actually benefit from a more humble, and personal, home.
It is appropriate, then, that 45 West 53rd Street has been purchased by the Museum of Modern Art, a museum whose raison d’être is to inspire reverence. Reverence requires distance; for MoMA, the more space it can put between art and viewer, the more the institution itself can be seen, the more reverence its collection can inspire. The American folk art tradition dissolves distance — between the artist and materials, between the art and art-recipient. Even when taken outside of their private realm, the works of self-taught artists still retain an inherent privacy difficult to communicate over great distances. It is for this reason that the American Folk Art Museum’s collection might happily reside at 2 Lincoln Square, the former arcade. Designed as places of commerce, arcades are the sites of conversations. There’s no doubt that a smaller, more intimate space might be more difficult for seeing. But perhaps it will be a better place for listening. • 6 June 2011