American Culture

Grandma Moses: artist as celebrity

Cover, The Essential Grandma Moses by Jane Kallir (courtesy, Goodreads)

Art books tend to be heavy duty critical affairs like the Arthur Danto work I reviewed earlier  this year or large tomes full of beautiful reproductions of a master’s work that have the feel, despite their higher purpose, of coffee table books.  The books between seem to err either on the side of wanting to offer historical fiction as analysis of an artist’s oeuvre or oversimplification of an artist’s complexity – reductio ars ad absurdum, one might call it in very incorrect Latin – in order to “explain” art or an artist so that its (or his/her) worth seems undeniable to even the most philistine of audiences so as to help them learn to appreciate and support art.

Good luck with that.

Thankfully, there are always exceptions. I just finished a little book, Jane Kallir’s The Essential Grandma Moses, that offers, in a format that addresses the hypertext-y reading difficulties of contemporary readers, both an excellent sampling of her paintings and an insightful short biography and critical assessment. There are numerous asides and “sound bytes” that allow the artist to express her stubbornly American sensibility: art is something she did because she liked it, not something she ever expected to make money at or gain public acclaim for. An upstate New York farm girl who ended up the doyen of “outsider” art,  the story of Anna Mary Robertson Moses is 20th century American culture’s merging of art with celebrity in its clearest form.

Her story is the stuff of a classic Hollywood film. A farmer’s widow in her early 70′s turns to painting because arthritis in her hands prevents her from continuing her embroidery. She has painted a few pieces prior to this time, but now she sets herself the task of re-capturing a simpler time via her paint brush. Some of her work she gives away; she shows some of it at the county fair along with her canned fruits and jam. The fruit and jam win prizes – the paintings do not.

Still, she continues to paint. An enterprising tradesman’s wife in Hoosick Falls, NY, develops a co-op plan whereby her husband offers space in his drugstore for local women to display their crafts in order to sell them. Moses displays a few of her paintings. A New York collector spots them and buys them all, then contacts her directly and buys more. He solicits NYC galleries to display her work and eventually one agrees to do so. At the age of 80 Grandma Moses (a moniker given her by friends and family) has her first solo exhibition. Amazingly, her folk art renditions of rural New York farm life bring her fame (and her descendants riches). She lives to the remarkable age of 101 and completes her last painting only a few months before her death. In this most unbelievable of what Fitzgerald told us does not exist, an American life’s second act, she meets a US president (Truman), is interviewed by legendary journalists (Edward R. Murrow, for example), and is the toast of American  culture – at least American popular culture (lines of Christmas cards, prints, china,  and drapery material were all licensed to use Moses’ paintings).

As I mentioned earlier in this review, Grandma Moses’s story has two elements. The first is her celebrity as “the farm wife painter,”  a role she unconsciously (or consciously) embraced. The second is her actual stature and achievement as an artist. On that second element, opinion is divided:

“Europeans like to think of Grandma Moses as representative of American art. They praise our naïveté and integrity, but they begrudge us a full, sophisticated artistic expression. Grandma Moses represents both what they expect of us and what they are willing to grant us.” – The New York Times, 1950

Achieving fame when she did – contemporaneously with the likes of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning – Grandma Moses appealed to post WWII America in ways those complex, well schooled representatives of abstract expressionism never could. Her simple, charming – and sometimes haunting – landscapes with their oddly unconventional figures reassured people trying to recover from war and loss that if they could live in harmony with the land that all could be well again. Pollock and de Kooning offered no such assurances. Here, for example, is Pollock’s No. 5 (1948):

Grandma Moses’ artistic achievement is sometimes defended by arguing that critical judgment of her work is colored by the standard biases against outsider artists. Perhaps. That must await the judgment of history. In the meantime, here is one of her finest works, Sugaring Off (1943):

Sugaring Off - Grandma Moses

2 replies »

  1. This makes me wish you’d do a longer piece on the whole “primitive” art movement. I’ve never really known what to make of it. On the one hand, you know I value artistic expression that emerges from the lower classes. On the other, I also kinda value technical proficiency. Finster, for instance. Seems like an artistic descendent of Moses, right?

    Enquiring minds want to know….

  2. Working on a piece detailing the decline of what we’d called “literary” fiction from best seller lists for WordsDay. Maybe I’ll look at this for ArtSunday? Saving my next book review for next WordsDay (10/31). For a Halloween treat picked up a monster story by Mary Shelley and started it last Sunday. Almost nearly through it. Pretty good story about a guy trying to create life in the lab and the mess that gets him into…perhaps you’ve heard of it…? 🙂 (And, no, I don’t mean “Breaking Bad…”)