The depth of the museum’s photographic collections is impressive; many of these pictures are rarely seen or are new acquisitions. The works of Dorothea Lange (her “Ex-Slave with a Long Memory, Alabama,” is a revelation), Walker Evans, Berenice Abbott and Arthur Rothstein are shown in abundance, but they don’t crowd out the others. Standouts include Sid Grossman’s close-up of Big Bill Broonzy’s bluesy face, signage-drenched pictures of ethnic businesses by Abbott and several rarely seen heartstring-tugging images of Depression-era children. The show admirably includes objects from, and images of, many regions of the country, not just New York City or the Dust Bowl. It also demonstrates how Farm Security Administration photographs were used by publishers.
The vernacular objects include carved birds, furniture, redware, wrought-iron pieces, rugs, fabric pieces, weathervanes and “tramp art.” Objects are mounted and lit beautifully. A Zoar, Ohio, chair is paired with its actual fabrication pattern. And rarely has a pair of wrought-iron rushlight holders been presented so effectively. Find the inscriptions and painted birds on a small, charming, eighteenth-century chest-over-drawer. A vitrine full of carved birds delights. Inside, Wilhelm Schimmel’s pocket-knife-carved “Parrot” is a masterpiece of self-taught art.
It’s important how the exhibition charts how folk art came to be sought and understood in the early twentieth century. One learns about collectors, their gifts, indexes and research projects, as well as commercial galleries devoted to the then-new interest in folk art, which was regarded as a genuine, indigenous art form. This is one of the strengths of the show overall: it displays intriguing and authoritative pieces while explaining how taste for the work developed over time. But the result is not theoretical or meta: Instead, it leads to a deeper institutional understanding of American culture.
The show is so rewarding that one barely notices that nearly every piece comes from the Art Institute’s own collection, demonstrating how museums can combine and reorient their own works to illustrate important histories. Altogether, “Photography + Folk Art: Looking for America in the 1930s” is one of this year’s must-see exhibitions. (Mark B. Pohlad)
“Photography + Folk Art: Looking for America in the 1930s,” Art Institute of Chicago, 111 South Michigan, through January 19, 2020.