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Approaching Abstraction

October 6, 2009–September 12, 2010

It is commonly assumed that contemporary self-taught artists work solely in a representational style, eager to engage in storytelling and personal memory. But while the narrative tradition often is a primary impulse, a significant number exhibit a tendency to be seduced by material, technique, color, form, line, and texture, creating artwork that omits or obscures representation. “Approaching Abstraction” highlights the work of more than forty of these artists and includes European art brut masters, such as Aloise Corbaz, Rafael Lonne, and Adolf Wolfli; self-taught artists from the American South, such as Thornton Dial Sr., Bessie Harvey, J.B. Murry, and Purvis Young; and lesser-known artists, such as Johnny Culver, Hiroyuki Doi, and Melvin Way. This first exploration into nonobjective expression within this field is selected entirely from the museum’s permanent collection.

Note: The museum was saddened to learn Purvis Young died April 20, 2010. Read the artist’s obituaries in the New York Times, the Miami Herald, andTime magazine. His work Untitled (Horses), illustrated above, was on view in this exhibition.


Untitled (Figure with Hat)
James Castle (1899–1977)
Garden Valley, Idaho
Early to mid-20th century
Soot and saliva on found board; double-sided
5 1/4 x 4 1/2 in.
American Folk Art Museum, gift of Dorothy Trapper Goldman, 2005.17.2a
Photo by Gavin Ashworth

Drum and Drumsticks
Eddie Arning (1898–1993)
Austin, Texas
Crayon and pencil on paper
24 x 17 15/16 in.
American Folk Art Museum, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Sackton, 1985.1.5

John “J.B.” Murry (1908–1988)
Sandersville, Georgia
Late 20th century
Watercolor and felt-tip marker on paper
14 x 16 3/4 in.
American Folk Art Museum, gift of Patricia Feiwel, 1994.3.4
Photo by Gavin Ashworth

Hens and Chicks With Rooster
Leroy Person (1907/08–1985)
Occhineechee Neck, North Carolina
Crayon on wood
13 x 15 3/8 x 8 1/2 in.
American Folk Art Museum, gift of Roger Cardinal in memory of Timothy Grutzius, 1995.14.1
Photo by Gavin Ashworth

Nellie Mae Rowe (1900–1982)
Vinings, Georgia
Crayon, pencil, and felt-tip pen on paper
18 3/4 x 21 1/2 in.
American Folk Art Museum, gift of Judith Alexander, 1997.1.1
Photo by Gavin Ashworth

Untitled (Vehicle 92/82)
Dwight Mackintosh (1906–1999)
Oakland, California
Pencil and paint on paper
26 x 39 3/4 in.
American Folk Art Museum, Blanchard-Hill Collection, gift of M. Anne Hill and Edward V. Blanchard Jr., 1998.10.33
Photo by Gavin Ashworth


“Approaching Abstraction” is supported in part by the Leir Charitable Foundations in memory of Henry J. & Erna D. Leir; the Gerard C. Wertkin Exhibition Fund; the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs; and with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, celebrating 50 years of building strong, creative communities in New York State’s 62 counties.

Online exhibition catalog

Art in America

Interview with curator Brooke Davis Anderson

Taken only as a collection of remarkable paintings and sculptures, it is a high-quality, entertainingly diverse show.
– Ken Johnson
In Approaching Abstraction, a glowing bouquet of pieces from the collection of the American Folk Art Museum, curator Brooke Anderson tries to extract a thesis from unruly variety.
– Ariella Budick
Curator Brooke Davis Anderson has mounted a thrilling exhibition from the museum’s existing collection of outsider art.
– Time Out Editors