Self-Taught Genius: American Folk Art

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday November 8, 2017

Conversational use of the word “genius” often conveys opposite sides of the spectrum, from schoolyard taunts to recipients of the MacArthur Fellowships (referred to as the “genius grants”) and, of course, Albert Einstein. And “self-taught” usually infers a somewhat lowly status, especially where art is concerned—think clunky wood knick knacks found at craft fairs. But when the two words combine to name an exhibition organized by the American Folk Art Museum that toured the United States for four years—Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum—the self-created conundrum is cause for celebration, and reconsideration of what it means to be an artist. 


Original installation of Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum, 2014

First off, the show was such a success in bringing thousands of people into museums from coast to coast that its original sponsor, the Henry Luce Foundation, has funded a namesake gallery for the show, in Long Island City. The Self-Taught Genius Gallery presents highlights from the landmark exhibition by folk and self-taught artists from the eighteenth through twenty-first centuries, all drawn from the museum’s collection of more than 8,000 works of art. Info

Getting back to the conundrum: much is written about what it means—and what it takes—to be an artist today. Art can seem like a market-driven global industry that can’t be cracked without an MFA. The frenzy that surrounds the major art fairs is palpable, with international collectors who increasingly attend art fairs rather than gallery openings to acquire increasingly larger-scaled works of art. But luckily, there are still smaller art fairs that don’t exclude the less well-heeled—as well as the Outsider Art Fair, which now includes a Paris venue in addition to its New York show. Info


Ralph Fasanella (1914 To 1997) Subway Riders, 1950

So this is a good time to dispel any taint that might be attributed to the self-taught, because being a self-taught artist today is actually a good thing. In becoming proficient in studio skills, for example, most artists spend a good part of their training emulating works by others whom they admire—then teaching themselves how to discard those influences in developing a unique style that will inform their more mature work. And folk art remains an irresistible part of the cultural landscape, where uniqueness is the single element that remains a constant throughout the nearly 300 hundred years over which the AMFA collections have been drawn. ‘Nuff said.


Mary T. Smith (1904/5–1995). Untitled, 1976

The Self Taught Genius Gallery of the American Folk Art Museum is located in AMFA’s Collection and Education Center, 47-29 32ndPlace, Long Island City, NY. Although hours are limited, the gallery is open later for special events, upcoming, November 28, 6 pm:  Critical Walk-through with Teju Cole, limited to 45 attendees. Tickets Location The museum will be offering a free Metro Card for visitors' return trip through March 2018.

Upcoming Critical Walk-throughs at the American Folk Art Museum at Lincoln Square include Katherine Knauer on the Politics of Quilting, Thursday, November 30/tickets and Hank Willis Thomas on Transforming Uniforms, Wednesday, December 13/tickets. Location All images courtesy the American Folk Art Museum


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