“I am large, I contain multitudes.” – Walt Whitman
This influential line of poetry speaks to the experience of selfhood in all its multivalent and conflicting dimensions. The expansive and inclusive scope of this idea – the notion of encompassing many within one – reflects the rich, diverse, and complex history of the American Folk Art Museum on the occasion of its 60th anniversary.
Centered around this poetic vision, the exhibition Multitudes looks back across four centuries of folk and self-taught art through an exploration of related themes: creative gestures of repetition, seriality, recurrence, iteration, variation, and innovation, as seen within artistic practices and the practice of collecting. Artworks will be dynamically juxtaposed to explore the idea of “multitudes” from two perspectives: first, the sense of multiplicity encapsulated by the production of the artists themselves; and second, the idea of “containing multitudes” as a metaphor for the museum’s collections as a whole.
Multitudes will include a wide range of works – from dazzling early American portraits, needlework, and quilts, to idiosyncratic creations of the 20th and the 21st centuries, such as sculptures made of recycled materials, color-tinted photographs, and fragments of art environments. The exhibition will present objects from AFAM’s existing collections alongside new acquisitions displayed for the first time.
Conceiving art-making and collecting as aligned creative processes, Multitudes highlights both acts of identity-formation and world-building, drawing on the array of voices, identities, and experiences contained within AFAM’s deep holdings. Non-chronological by design, the show’s organization will echo these underlying creative strategies through distinctive visual contrasts, comparisons, and clusters that reveal the museum’s fundamental structure as a collection of collections.
Marking 60 years of the American Folk Art Museum, Multitudes reflects on how the museum’s collection came to be – and how it firmly advances towards what is yet to come. This exhibition contains and expands, exploring the practices and histories that have shaped the institution over time. As a thought-provoking critical investigation, Multitudes will mark a new chapter for scholarship and engagement, considering the museum’s role as a keeper of memory for the fields of folk and self-taught art.
(L to R)
Sam Doyle (1906–1985); Rocking Mary (double-sided); St. Helena Island, South Carolina, United States; c. 1983; enamel house paint on corrugated roofing tin; 52 × 26 × 1/2 in.; American Folk Art Museum, New York; gift of Elizabeth Ross Johnson, 1985.35.23B. Photo credit: John Parnell
Sam Doyle (1906–1985); Dr. Buz; St. Helena Island, South Carolina, United States; oil on sheet metal; 49 1/2 × 26 ½ in.; American Folk Art Museum, New York; gift of Dorothea and Leo Rabkin, 2002.4.8. Photo Credit: Gavin Ashworth
Sam Doyle (1906–1985); Rev Cathit; St. Helena Island, South Carolina, United
States; composition paneling, paint; 48 × 32; American Folk Art Museum, New
York; gift of Dorothea and Leo Rabkin, 2002.4.14. Photo credit: Gavin Ashworth
(L to R)
Ammi Phillips (1788–1865); Gentleman in a Black Cravat; Probably New York, Connecticut, or Massachusetts, United States; oil on canvas; 33 1/2 × 28 ¼ in.; American Folk Art Museum, New York; gift of Joan and Victor Johnson,
1991.30.2. Photo credit: Gavin Ashworth. Photo credit: Bigelow Taylor
Samuel Gottschall (1808–1898); Religious Text with Two Women in Striped Dresses; Pennsylvania, United States; ink, watercolor, and gouache on paper; 12 1/4 × 8 in.; American Folk Art Museum, New York; gift of Ralph Esmerian, 2013.1.36. Photo credit: John Bigelow Taylor
John Van Minian (act. 1791–1835); Religious Text; Pennsylvania, United States; watercolor and ink on paper; 8 1/8 × 4 ½ in.; American Folk Art Museum, New
York; museum purchase with partial funds provided by Becky and Bob Alexander, Lucy and Mike Danziger, Jane and Gerald Katcher, Donna and Marvin Schwartz, Kristy and Steve Scott, and an anonymous donor, 2014.1.5.Photo Credit: John Bigelow Taylor
(bottom row L to R)
David Cordier (act. c. 1814–1819); Birth Record for Hana Oberholtzer; Southwestern Ohio, United States; watercolor and ink on paper; 7 3/4 × 12 1/4 in.; American Folk Art Museum, New York; gift of Ralph Esmerian, 2005.8.34. Photo credit: John Bigelow Taylor
“Gott allein die Ehre” Artist; Birth Record for Lydia Kriebel; Pennsylvania, United States; 1806;
watercolor and ink on paper; 13 1/8 × 15 ¾ in; American Folk Art Museum, New
York; gift of Ralph Esmerian, 2005.8.39. Photo Credit: John Bigelow Taylor
Artist unidentified; Religious Text with Spiritual Chimes for Elisabeth Geissinger; Pennsylvania, United States; 1803; watercolor and ink on paper; 12 7/8 × 15 7/8 in.; Gift of Ralph Esmerian, 2005.8.42. Photo Credit: John Bigelow Taylor
(L to R)
Melvin Way (b. 1954); Untitled (Sinclair); New York City, United States; late twentieth century; colored pencil, pencil, and ink on paper, with scotch tape; 19 1/2 x 22 in.; American Folk Art Museum, New York; gift of Jacqueline Loewe Fowler, 2009.3.1. Photo credit: Gavin Ashworth.
Melvin Way (b. 1954); Untitled; New York City, United States; ballpoint pen on paper with Scotch tape; 3 1/2 × 4 in.; American Folk Art Museum, New York; museum purchase with the generous support of Andrew Castrucci, 2016.13.1. Photo credit: Adam Reich
- Natasha Gural