Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum

November 14, 2014 - March 14, 2015
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Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum

Artworks are often a window into the soul of the artist, but they also can be an eloquent expression of the historical and social trends of the era in which they were made. Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum, coming to the Figge on its first stop outside New York City on a national tour, gives fresh perspectives on both the artistic impulse and our national character. The exhibition features 115 artworks made between the early 18th and early 21st centuries, ranging from portraits and needleworks to wooden shop figures and found-object sculptures. All are the compelling, beautifully realized work of self-taught artists.

Curators Stacy C. Hollander and Valérie Rousseau of the American Folk Art Museum present the concept of the “self-taught” as a defining principle of our national character. From Revolutionary times to the present, we have prided ourselves as a nation in which all men are created equal to seek and achieve success without regard to social status or privilege. The works in the exhibition are not limited by academic or stylistic traditions. They are sometimes straightforward and heartfelt, sometimes mysterious and private; yet, all show a deep respect for materials. In short, they are classically American.

One of the exhibition’s masterworks, Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog by Ammi Phillips, is an exquisitely painted early 19th century portrait, stunningly modern in design. The artist, a traveling painter of the early 1800s, has carefully observed his sitter, her clothing and her beloved pets, and has rendered them without a single wasted stroke.
The works in the exhibition are masterpieces that also provide intimate insights into our history. A cut-paper love letter, known as a Liebesbrief, was made by Hessian artist Christian Strenge, who came to the colonies as a soldier for the British. A pieced quilt from the late 18th century features fabrics block-printed by John Hewson, an English-born printer who was captured by the British during the Revolutionary War for printing fabrics in the colonies; all printed textiles had to come from England. The impeccable c. 1855 Whig Rose and Swag Border Quilt from the Morton Plantation in Kentucky was sewn by slaves for their mistress. Looking at the tiny, perfect stitches, one can imagine the setting in which the quilt was made.

Later works in the exhibition reflect changes in society as the country grew and matured. The nation-building agenda of the colonial aesthetic gave way to fanciful creations that played on the national character that had developed, and popular figures emerged, such as the full-size baseball player on view. The idea of the “genius” as a singular individual who sees the world differently became more pronounced by the 20th century. Works by artists such as Martín Ramírez, who created his remarkable drawings in a psychiatric hospital, and George Widener, a “calendar savant” who interprets the world as series of cycles and infinite sequences, focus more on the concept of the self than on the concept of national identity. With their innovative use of materials and bold expression of their own inner dynamics, these artists have profoundly influenced mainstream contemporary art.

SelfTaughtW2.jpgThis exhibition will be on view in the Katz Gallery November 15, 2014 through March 15, 2015.

(top) Artist unidentified, Flag Gate, Jefferson County, New York, c. 1876, paint on wood with iron and brass, Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York, Gift of Herbert Waide Hemphill Jr. in honor of Neal A. Prince, 1962.1.1. Photo by John Parnell, New York.

(left) Ammi Phillips (1788–1865), Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog, Vicinity of Amenia, New York 1830–1835, oil on canvas, Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York
Gift of Ralph Esmerian
2001.37.1. Photo by John Parnell, New York

Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum is organized by the American Folk Art Museum, New York.

This exhibition and the national tour of Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum are made possible by generous funding from the Henry Luce Foundation, as part of its 75th anniversary initiative.

Local support generously provided by

Funded in part with a grant from the Iowa Arts Council, a division of the
Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, and the National Endowment for the Arts


Companion Events
Opening Reception & Curator Talk - November 20
Musical Tour - February 12, 2015
Exhibition Tours

Past Exhibitions

Orientation Gallery
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