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Tuesday, February 20, 2007


Paint it White

White on White (and a little gray), American Folk Art Museum, New York, March 28–September 17, 2006

The exhibition, White on White (and a little gray), was held from March to September 2006 at the American Museum of Folk Art. It comprised three highly original, interesting bodies of work: whitework textiles, printwork embroideries, and marble-dust drawings, all of which, according to senior curator Stacy C. Hollander, “expressed aspects of classicism, from the Spartan to the divine.” In the show’s press notes, Hollander explained that this neoclassical impulse, seen in the three genres mentioned, had accorded with the return to the simplicity of whiteness during the nineteenth century (the show’s exhibits dated from 1796 through 1897). As Hollander sees it, this period of unrelenting whiteness, along with the grays produced by the mixture of marble dust on a dark board, not only looked back to an ideal of Greek beauty (even if only experienced through Roman copies); it also looked ahead to the monochromatic painting that began in the middle of the twentieth century—one immediately thinks of Robert Ryman—as well as to the stark white walls of both contemporary galleries and museums that make up most of the venues in which we see art today.

I think it is going a bit far, however, to connect the unconsciously ingenuous, mostly feminine, arts of America’s neoclassical nineteenth century, in the sense that there is a materialist and conceptual naiveté to many of the works in the show. Sometimes there are moments in art history when bodies of work seem to entertain influences that are in fact only random similarities of style: the purported relationship between Franz Kline’s large, black-on-white paintings—which genuinely seem to document an interest in Chinese traditional art but which, according to Kline himself, do not actually reflect this interest—is a famous example. So it may be overreaching to try to connect exquisitely made textiles and embroideries of the nineteenth century with the visual sophistication of the New York school. Indeed, the achievement of the nineteenth-century artists whose works were on display at the American Museum of Folk Art is substantial enough to be read on its own terms, rather than as some sort of bridge to contemporary abstraction. Too often, we contextualize through the use of superficial similarity alone, and there is the additional factor that the pieces on show encompassed a general notion of gendered activity. Being female in the nineteenth century was very different from being female now, and while it is important to view the exhibition’s artifacts as art in its own right, it must also be said that whatever the circumstances of the works’ making, the women who created them were engaged in traditional household arts (and performing traditional household piety), in which the esthetic achievement was not necessary to appreciate (or respect) what was beheld.

What must be emphasized, it seems to me, is the devotion behind the exquisite detail of the artworks and the fact that it was mostly women who were responsible for them. It is tempting to speculate on women’s efforts to create an art that was truly their own, but the truth is that the three groups of work, even including the marble-dust paintings, offered opportunities to show domestic, artisanal skill in the so-called minor arts. The whiteness the artists gravitated toward brilliantly reflected, as Hollander points out, “the perfect metaphor for the Age of Enlightenment.” As the color of an ethereal idealism, whiteness became a symbol of purity, resonant with classical history, which gave a center and contextualization to the extended involvement with the particular hue. Whiteness embodied all that is noble and true, and its tie to artisanal pursuits traditionally accorded to women upped the ante for a certain kind of purity that included domestic undertakings as well as paintings and architecture.

As Hollander points out in her article, whitework comes from “a long tradition of whole-cloth quilts of wood or silk.” The fact that such quilts were a single color allowed the women who were making them a free hand with the complicated needlework. Additionally, the use of special fabrics enabled the women working on them “to display a family’s wealth.” For these reasons, whitework became a dominant form of presentation, the exquisite handwork displaying a highly sophisticated understanding of geometric patterning, which was a conspicuous demonstration of compositional intelligence. As a term, whitework also differentiated handmade quilts from those made on looms, again emphasizing an esthetic preference for quilts done under the more rigorous circumstances of handwork. Special techniques included candlewicking, in which a whitework quilt was decorated “with a thick cotton roving similar to the wicks of candles.” The raised patterns brought about by this and other embroidering techniques resulted in compositions of remarkable achievement and sophistication. As a triumph of feminine skill, and a symbol of wealth, whitework became an object produced by highly skilled hands, and also emphasized the Enlightenment drive toward a beauty of both elegance and restraint.

The printwork embroideries taken up very early in the nineteenth century owed their pictorial precisionism to a specific event: the death of George Washington in 1799. Given the nation’s grief, engravings proved to be highly suitable expressions of mourning. These memorial prints “that flooded American markets were excellent sources of classical mourning iconography.” In response to the popularity of the engravings, women made mourning pieces that depicted such somber themes as graves and cemeteries, in which a family’s deceased were memorialized in art. In the case of this particular genre, the individual stitches covered an underdrawing “that might be rendered on the silk in ink or graphite.” The use of differently colored threads, black or brown, was, according to Hollander, a reference to the tonal variations of the Greek chromatic scale: dark and light, black and white. In the Fryer Family Mourning piece, a work from 1800, there is a rather lugubrious depiction of a cemetery with trees in the forefront and background; a single female mourner stands before a large gravestone with the initials E. F. and S. F., while, on the band at the bottom of the composition, we have the consoling words, “Sacred to the memory of Elizabeth Fryer & of Sarah Fryer, her granddaughter.” On the whole, the composition’s piety strikes the viewer as heavy-handed, but such sentiment was the acceptable means of expressing grief in the nineteenth century.

The final genre exhibited in White on White was a rather involved art, known as Grecian, in which sooty lampblack drawings were made on a board covered with iridescent marble dust. Hollander notes that the use of marble dust created a conceptual link with the marble of Greek sculpture, and that the shades of gray employed in constructing three-dimensional effects mimicked similar efforts by the Greeks as early as the fifth century BCE. Usually based on engravings, the marble-dust works relied on standardized images such as Mount Vernon and Washington’s tomb, seen in a piece made by an unidentified artist at some point between 1845 and 1865. This work’s shading effects, so dependent upon the materials used, are grand if slightly stilted: there is an image of Mt. Vernon and a group of trees with heavy foliage in the background; in the front of the picture we see a representation of the entrance to Washington’s tomb. The sky is mostly dark, with a few thin strips of white clouds showing through. Again, there is the suggestion of an idealized piety and a naively structured composition that emphasize proper emotional rectitude befitting so high a theme. This is not to deny that the shadings of the painting’s structure include complicated effects; it is only to say that the rigidity of the imagery’s presentation seems to emphasize proper behavior as well as maintaining a visual memory.

Despite the relatively small quarters of the American Folk Art Museum, White on White very successfully communicated both the themes and techniques of neoclassical America, a time when noble sentiment seemed to outweigh the technical abilities at hand. It would be unfair to characterize the works as minor in their accomplishments, for that would be judging the art by virtue of hindsight. What the museum has set out to do, it has largely accomplished. The presentation of these highly interesting folk arts sheds light not only on accepted art practices throughout the nineteenth century, but also illustrates the power of neoclassicism as a myth of integrity, purity, and beauty. By my own account, I don’t think that extending the art’s achievements to a connection with current art and architectural practices in white really does justice to the show. In fact, it is a tie that does not do justice to the accomplishments of either period. That said, White on White was a highly enjoyable and informative exhibition, in which a strict drive toward an absolute devotion and visual purity is illustrated with much intelligence and common sense.

Jonathan Goodman is a contributing editor to
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