Don’t Miss Of Dogs and Other People: The Art of Roy De Forest at the Oakland Museum

If you haven’t made it to the Oakland Museum yet this summer, we highly recommend you time your visit before the special long overdue Roy De Forest retrospective closes on August 20th. (Pro tip: don’t miss the Dorothea Lange exhibit while you’re there).

Designed to simulate an adventurous exploration of the artist’s dream-like and often humorous works, instead of chronological order the show is organized by themes such as ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’, ‘Horse of a Different Color’ and ‘Flashback’.

“Immersing yourself in an artwork by De Forest is like going on a treasure hunt.”

Some of the most fun and inspiring features of the show are the ‘Faithful Companions’ presented through audio listening stations that both charm and inform.

One particularly thought-provoking narrative in front of ‘Hans Bricker in the Tropics’ has Ilán Casián-Issenberg, Actor and Fifth Grader, ask the viewer:

“If you were to talk to the Brick Man which language would you use?”

De Forest was an influential American painter and sculptor who was also involved in the Funk art or Nut art movements, a genre made famous by artists in the 1960s in the San Francisco Bay Area, including De Forest, Wayne Thiebaud, William T. Wiley, and Clayton Bailey.

The accompanying catalogue is richly illustrated and was written by curator Susan Landauer, whose appreciation for De Forest dates back to her childhood. A fascinating biography, the book reassesses De Forest’s art-historical position, placing him in a national rather than solely West Coast context. To go deeper into both the exhibition and catalogue, see Hyperallergic‘s review.

“It is a major book, a deeply researched biography of De Forest and an analysis of his art and career.”—The San Francisco Chronicle
“In this thoroughly professional, immaculately organized, and factually overflowing book, the reader is set to be inspired by the adventure that was Roy De Forest.”—New York Journal of Books

This exhibition is particularly kid-friendly and will delight the young and the young at heart. We think the same holds true for the catalogue.

Jennifer L. Roberts Awarded the 29th Annual Eldredge Prize by the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Congratulations to Jennifer L. Roberts on winning the Smithsonian American Art Museum‘s 29th Annual Charles C. Eldredge Prize for Distinguished Scholarship for her book, Transporting Visions: The Movement of Images in Early America.

The jurors wrote in a joint statement:

“Roberts’s adventurous account provides an exciting indication of where the field of American art is going as it pushes analysis of visual material into new terrain.”

UC Press is incredibly proud of this recognition in particular, and the continued acknowledgement of our American Art History publishing program by the Eldredge Prize: we have now won this distinguished award a total of nine times.

Jennifer L. Roberts is Elizabeth Cary Agassiz Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University. She teaches American art from the colonial period to the present, with particular focus on issues of landscape, expedition, material culture theory, and the history of science, and is the author of Mirror-Travels: Robert Smithson and History and Jasper Johns/In Press: The SI-207-2017 2 Crosshatch Works and the Logic of Print.



Topical, Not Timeless

This story, written by Erica Ciccarone, first appeared on the Chapter 16 website on April 25, 2016 and is cross-posted here with their kind permission.

Rhodes College professor David McCarthy writes a history of protest art in America

9780520286702_McCarthyWhat role do artists play in a democracy? To what extent can their work affect political leadership? How does art shape our understanding of our place in the world? In American Artists Against War, 1935-2010, David McCarthy charts a history of art that has protested and challenged U.S. foreign policy since 1935. Beginning with the short-lived but influential American Artists’ Congress, which sponsored a viewing of Picasso’s seminal antiwar painting Guernica in the U.S., McCarthy establishes that art has the power not only to shape public consciousness but also to act as our public conscience.

In just a hair under 200 pages, McCarthy walks readers through a rich history of artists who have criticized U.S. foreign and domestic policy, sometimes to their own professional peril. This kind of work often runs counter to art’s usual goals. Antiwar art must be topical, not timeless. It is less interested with originality and influence and more dependent on viewer response. It requires contextualization that affects the way it is displayed to the public—it may appear in a New York gallery or on the side of a California highway. The artist must position political artwork so that its message is keenly felt.

DMcC Head
Author David McCarthy

Though it aims to affect behavior, political art is unlike advertising—the artist employs strategy, but the art itself is more than simply strategic. As McCarthy lays out in the book’s introduction, American antiwar artists begin from two key premises: one, that the U.S. is a guarantor of liberty; and two, that the individual has a right to voice her opinion in public discourse. Thus, the antiwar artist meets a simple obligation of citizenship.

McCarthy, a professor of art and art history at Rhodes College in Memphis who has published several books on this subject, writes elegant descriptions of artwork and pairs them with strong analysis. Thus individual artworks function like landing places throughout the book: the reader moves from one discussion to the next, picking up historical context and expert opinions along the way. The book opens with artists against fascism in during the 1930s and moves through World War II, the Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, and contemporary military interventions through 2010.

As might be expected, the intensity of the art reaches a peak during the Vietnam war, when artists like Nancy Spero, Robert Colescott, and Martha Rosler worked to expose the grotesque power wielded by the U.S. military, connecting it to sexism and racism at home. For these artists, McCarthy writes, “local civic conflict had to be understood in terms of global struggle.” Much like the feminism of the same time period, the personal became the political. These artists aimed to close the distance between Vietnam and the U.S. as a way of shedding light on economic, racial, and class-based strife at home.

McCarthy points to broad coalitions during the 1980s that opposed Reagan’s agenda in Central America and his arms race with the Soviet Union. American activist-artists networked with those in South and Central America to show solidarity and to help make direct-action protests viable. Art critics, academic institutions, museums, and curators joined in supporting grassroots coalitions like Political Art Documentation and Distribution (PAD/D) and Artists Call. The work was diverse, often employing dark humor and a sardonic wit, as in Mike Smith and Alan Herman’s Government Approved Home Fallout Shelter Snack Bar, an installation that situated a family room inside a bomb shelter, complete with a snack bar and entertainment.

McCarthy continues his history through Operation Desert Storm, noting the necessity of antiwar art at a time when the Bush Administration imposed a media blackout the conflict. With Storm, Hans Haacke constructed a beat-up shopping cart that held several motorized American flags waving in hysterical motion. The German-born expat expressed his concerns for “unfettered national pride and patriotic frenzy” and contested the notion that war in the Middle East could bring honor and glory to the U.S. In this work, however, U.S. foreign policy wasn’t the only problem Haacke and others were up against: they were also making art in a social climate of complacency. Artists were tasked with drawing attention to the human consequences of using “smart bombs” for “clean deaths.”

Tasks like these gained an international stage in 2004, when large-scale protests gained momentum and elicited media attention. Artists in the 2000s leveled their criticism at human-rights abuses in interrogation tactics, government censorship, the Patriot Act, and others, using diverse media to explore the consequences of U.S. foreign policy for men, women, and children at home and abroad. In his final chapter, McCarthy invites us to look into artists who are still working today, building adversarial narratives in opposition to those promulgated by the federal government.

American Artists Against War is not only a living history: it is a call to action. As McCarthy writes in his conclusion, art used as political protest is evidence “that imagination is a necessary component not only of creativity, but also of citizenship.” To McCarthy, artists are heroic when they insist that we acknowledge our own vulnerability and our limits as human beings.

Erica Ciccarone thumbnailErica Ciccarone is an independent writer living in Nashville. She holds an M.F.A. from the New School and contributes regularly to several arts magazines and to Nashville Public Radio.

The Late Great Folk Artist Superstar and Cultural Hero Howard Finster

Visionary artist Howard Finster, the “Southern Andy Warhol,” was born 100 years ago this year. A modern-day Noah who saw his art as a religious crusade to save the world before it was too late, he embodied and lived out the interrelationship of art, religion, and craft.

In this insightful HuffPost Arts & Culture blog post, Norman Girardot, Professor Emeritus of religion, friend to Finster, and author of Envisioning Howard Finster, explores why, in mainstream art salons, there has been an almost studied effort to ignore Finster and to belittle his artistic significance.


Howard Finster Contemplates his Mortality; c. early 1990s. Photo: Ricardo Viera

Whatever Happened to the Late Great Folk Artist Superstar and Cultural Hero Howard Finster?

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the most charismatic, productive, and celebrated visionary folk (aka self-taught, outsider, or vernacular) artists of the last quarter of the 20th century. I refer to Howard Finster (1916-2001) – someone who with varying degrees of sincerity was often called the “Backwoods William Blake“ and the “Southern Andy Warhol.” A garrulous Baptist preacher, inveterate tinkerer, and tricksterish showman living in the highlands area of northwest Georgia, Finster in the early 1960s, and then most dramatically in 1976, started to receive interplanetary visions that prompted him to construct a roadside bible park and junk assemblage that came to be called Paradise Garden. Making almost 50,000 “bad and nasty” paintings and other artworks, Finster’s sleepless busyness and raw try-anything creativity produced many extraordinarily strange works during the 1970s and 80s that brought him national and international renown. Indeed, Finster’s funky visionary work in the 70s and 80s resonated with the Pop and Neo-Expressionist turn away from Abstract Expressionism toward a figurative subject matter which for Finster involved clotted biblical imagery, cartoonish flying saucers and sleek Cheetahs, rustic sayings, and all manner of popular cultural icons like Coca Cola, Mona Lisa, Mickey Mouse, Elvis Presley, and Marilyn Monroe.

In the dark apocalyptic times after Finster’s death a month after 9/11, Finster was considered by his many fans and artworld insiders (see the 2002 Raw Vision Outsider Sourcebook and Roberta Smith’s obituary in the New York Times, October 23, 2001) as one of the remarkable outsider artists of the 20th century. Certainly also, it seemed, he was someone who deserved a prominent place in the history of 20th century American art. Even better was the sense that his art (the early works if not the myriad later cutout multiples) would significantly appreciate like the work of other outsider giants such as Martin Ramirez, Henry Darger, and Bill Traylor. So in Finster’s centennial year, the question is simply: what happened? Allowing for a few important exceptions, why does it seem that in mainstream art salons there is almost a studied effort to ignore Finster, to belittle his artistic significance, and to suggest that it was all a temporary infatuation with his eccentric personality and homespun celebrity rather than any substantive appreciation of the quality and enduring significance of his artwork.

Envisioning Howard Finster

Having just written an interpretive study of the distinctively intertwined nature of Finster’s art and religion (Envisioning Howard Finster: The Religion and Art of a Stranger from Another World, 2015), I’m admittedly biased with regard to these matters. However I do not think that that I am totally misreading the signs of the times with respect to the relative eclipse of critical interest in Finster. The fact is that outsider art gatekeepers no longer spontaneously invoke Finster as an outsider giant alongside the pantheon of Ramirez, Darger, and Traylor. I do not mean to cast doubt on the greatness of this extraordinary triumvirate, but what explains the diminishment of Finster? What is truly curious about the case of Howard Finster is the rather dramatic shift in opinion and, even more peculiar given his cultural impact, the general lack of serious interest, analysis, and interpretation of his life and body of work. In the words of the new folk art curator at Atlanta’s High Museum Katherine Jentleson, the time has come for a “reappraisal“ of Howard Finster (Art Papers July-August 2015).

There are numerous issues to consider not the least of which is a kind of “nostalgia for authenticity” and an escapist tendency to evaluate and promote outsider artists in relation to the quaintly exotic and colorfully “primitive” quality of their biographies. But what I want to emphasize is an important factor that all too often is avoided within the typical and largely secular narrative of modern, contemporary, and still largely Western history of art. I refer to Finster’s in-your-face evangelical religiosity as a Southern Baptist and the fact that he always said he was making “sacred art” for the End Time. One way to frame this issue is to consider the perspective of the astute New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl who, when first exposed to Finster in the 1980s, was impressed and overwhelmed by the incredibly creative “irruptive singularity” of the art. However Schjeldahl tells us that he ultimately became sick to his stomach since the more he saw of Finster’s sacred art, the more he realized that it was a religiously dogmatic “prison house” of the mind. As another critic put it more crudely, Finster must finally be seen as one of those disturbing Southern “religious nutters” who cannot, and decidedly should not, be taken seriously (quoting Terry Castle: London Review of Books July 28, 2011).

Let me only remark as a scholar of comparative religion that the time has come for modern/contemporary art historians to attend more knowledgeably and sympathetically to the complex history and cultural significance of religion/s (in all their glorious and awful manifestations) in relation to the nature, practice, and meaning of art. Moreover with regard to Finster it is crucial that his “visionary” experience not be dismissed too quickly as just a con-game or some kind of hallucinatory psychosis. Paying attention to these cultural and experiential issues of religiosity and art seems obvious and necessary when considering non-Western and pre-modern Western art history, but ever since the Enlightenment era and the imperial dominance of Western ways of knowing, the reigning Eurocentric paradigm has dictated an overly secularist-naturalistic, rational, and formalist approach to art. The apotheosis of these developments in many ways comes with the rise of hyper-conceptualist approaches to the production, meaning, and critical reception of art wedded to a politically correct artspeak that is predominantly political, ethnic-racial, sexual, and socio-economic in nature.

Something important seems to be missing from perspectives that ignore, and often reductionistically trivialize, the role of religion and fail to see the deep emotional and cultural linkage of aesthetic and religious practice and experience. Finster in this regard becomes particularly interesting in that he intensely embodied and lived out the interrelationship of art, religion, and craft. For Finster his religion gave passion and meaning to his art but at the same time it was his visionary experience and resulting art that significantly expanded the meaning and ethics of his religion. The gospel truth is that while Finster was a southern evangelical he was not a dogmatic fundamentalist in terms of a rigidly literalist understanding of the Bible. Finster was actually a self-proclaimed Free Will Baptist whose overriding principle was always that he liked “to feel free.”

In many ways, Finster was a visionary evangelical in the expansive Moravian evangelical, symbolic, and visual sense of the great maverick 18th century visionary artist, romantic engraver, and prophetic poet William Blake. The key issue, then, with respect to Finster, as well as for many other passionate image makers often called visionaries, is that they represent important case studies in the intrinsically entangled nature of religion and art – thinking primarily and experientially of the religiosity and “spirituality” behind the religions and the artistic creativity and skill behind the different schooled arts. Here I can do no more than telegraphically raise these issues and suggest that as both Howard Finster and William Blake knew so well: “the man who never in his mind and thoughts travel’d to heaven is no artist” (William Blake, Marriage of Heaven and Hell, 1790-1793).

Follow Norman Girardot on Twitter.

Outsiders Inside the New Whitney

By Norman Girardot, author of Envisioning Howard Finster: The Religion and Art of a Stranger from Another World

Norman Girardot, fresh from attending the “America is Hard to See” exhibit at the (New) Whitney Museum of American Art, reflects on the collection’s missed opportunities and what he perceives as token efforts to curate outsider art in relation to mainstream tradition. He also notes that the outsider artist Howard Finster, the so-called “backwoods William Blake” and the “Southern Andy Warhol,” should be taken seriously as a maverick visionary and quasi-pop artist. 

Having just toured the new Whitney museum of American art which brazenly juts out into the Hudson like an ocean liner steaming forth from the highline docks of Chelsea, I am happy to report that the architect Renzo Piano has designed another wonderfully engaging and functional building for appreciating art. The inaugural exhibition “America is Hard to See” (May 1–September 27, 2015) is Impressive and enlightening especially for the mostly adept historical selection, thematic contextualization, and provocative juxtaposition of works in the large permanent Whitney collection (covering the years from the 1920s onward). American art is certainly difficult to see in its motley, unruly, and ever-changing splendor and the Whitney has laid it out quite brilliantly and at times hauntingly. There even was an attempt finally to bring so-called self-taught or outsider art into the larger fabric of American art history – witness on the seventh floor the evocative juxtaposition of a terse yet spritely Bill Traylor drawing (Walking Man, 1930) with a provocative Marsden Hartley portrait on one side and a more florid Thomas Hart Benton painting on the other side. Each is terrific when viewed singularly, but when seen together the real eclectic vibrancy of American art shines forth. For me this seemed to signal additional brave insider/outsider juxtapositions to come on that floor and below – for example, pairings with Calder’s glorious found object and makeshift “Circus” or Joseph Cornell’s mysterious boxed worlds. Alas that was not to be and despite the blurred exhibition of insider and outsider art promoted by the New Museum’s Massimiliano Gioni at the New Museum and at the 2013 Biennale (and as seen on a smaller scale at various NYC galleries like Christian Berst), the Whitney made at best only a token effort in this direction. The missed opportunities were everywhere, but I am not trying to suggest that incorporations of non-mainstream or unschooled art needed to be everywhere in the show. The curators might simply say that they were, after all, working only with what was available in the permanent collection and the fact is that for all sorts of (not always legitimate but nevertheless historically understandable) reasons that kind of art was not collected.

 Envisioning Howard Finster: The Religion and Art of a Stranger from Another World
Envisioning Howard Finster: The Religion and Art of a Stranger from Another World

This situation was noted in a review of the new Whitney by Ingrid Rowland in the New York Review of Books (June 25, 2015) who regretted the almost complete absence of any kind of early 20th century self-taught “primitives” or folk art (keeping in mind the Bill Traylor exception which Rowland seems to have missed). Rowland in fact suggests one plausible explanation for the Whitney’s truncated perspective on the history of American art – namely “because a collection that began as the whim of a wealthy amateur sculptor [Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney] will not easily lose its connection with her world, in all its various aspects, hidebound and libertine. The Whitney collection retains, inevitably, its connections with money and the makers of money.” No doubt it’s not that simple, but she’s got a point. Reflecting on the Whitney’s penchant for pungent and revealing juxtapositions, Rowland goes on to say that “if Andrew Wyeth can be lined up with Man Ray, why not put John Steuart Curry’s ‘Baptism in Kansas’ next to an apocalyptic vision by crazy man Howard Finster”? Why indeed, although I must say that it’s unfortunate that in many art circles (particularly in New York) it’s still taken as a secular gospel truth that Finster as a Southern evangelical Christian must have been some kind of crazy fundamentalist nut. This is not the forum to argue otherwise, but I must point out that Finster was only crazy like a crafty fox or cheetah and was certainly not a conventional fundamentalist. The truth about Finster is much stranger and interesting with reference to both his visionary religion and his “bad and nasty” art. In other words, Finster really should be taken seriously as a maverick visionary Christian and as an innovatively creative American artist. It may be remembered that Finster was often called, mostly with tongue-firmly-in-cheek, the “backwoods William Blake” (a non-conformist visionary Christian who was influenced by Swedenborgianism the way Finster was influenced by UFO contactees) and the “Southern Andy Warhol” (a creatively enterprising signage artist of cultural detritus who, like Finster, saw art as an “amazing” pop advertising medium). The truth is that these descriptive phrases are actually much more accurate than we ever imagined.

Norman Girardot is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of religion at Lehigh University.