Unexpected Partners: Self-Taught Art and Modernism in Interwar America

Unexpected Partners: Self-Taught Art and Modernism in Interwar America

American Folk Art Museum

Hermann Landshoff, André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst [standing behind Morris Hirshfield’s Nude at the Window (Hot Night in July)], and Leonora Carrington (seated) at Peggy Guggenheim’s townhouse, Fall 1942, New York, NY. Digital print (original: gelatin silver print, 60 x 60 inches). © bpk. Digital image: bpk-Bildagentur/Münchner Stadtmuseum/Hermann Landshoff/Art Resource, New York.


January 12, 2023
Unexpected Partners: Self-Taught Art and Modernism in Interwar America

January 27, 2023, 11am–5pm EST

The American Folk Art Museum presents “Unexpected Partners: Self-Taught Art and Modernism in Interwar America,” in partnership with the Department of Art & Art History at Stanford University. This symposium is made possible through support from the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Organized in conjunction with the exhibition Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered (September 23, 2022-January 29, 2023) the virtual symposium reconsiders modernism’s complex interchange with self-taught art in the United States during the mid-twentieth century. The program features talks and panel discussions with leading experts, curators, and art historians across diverse geographical and cultural contexts.

Speakers include: Bill Anthes, Esther Adler, Susan Davidson, Julia Bryan-Wilson, Lynne Cooke, Jane Kallir, Jennifer Jane Marshall, Richard Meyer, Angela Miller, Rodrigo Moura, Marci Kwon, Valérie Rousseau, Nicole Smythe-Johnson and Brooke Wyatt.

This program is free and registration is required. Click on the RSVP link above to reserve your spot. 

With little formal education and no connection to elite culture, Morris Hirshfield was never expected to make history. Admired by avant-garde artists such as Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondrian, and Marcel Duchamp, and exhibited by dealer and collectors Sidney Janis and Peggy Guggenheim, his work was featured in a highly publicized one-person show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1943. Yet, Hirshfield was frequently dismissed by critics as an unschooled amateur and mocked for his tendency to display figures in an unorthodox fashion.

“Unexpected Partners: Self-Taught Art and Modernism in Interwar America” will explore the work of Hirshfield and other unconventional artists—such as John Dunkley, William Edmondson, Oscar Howe, John Kane, Séraphine Louis, Bill Traylor—who were celebrated for their originality of vision while being “primitivized” by both defenders and detractors for their perceived distance from Western elite culture. Speakers will dwell on the tensions that resulted from gestures of inclusion that simultaneously promoted and pigeonholed artists. 

Revisiting the interwar period through new research into key episodes, the symposium reveals a cultural history more diverse than is typically acknowledged. Speakers will highlight the important contributions that marginalized practitioners—particularly individuals from the BIPOC, immigrant, and disability communities—made to the development of modernism in the United States, redressing these artists’ gradual exclusion from the art-historical canon in the postwar era. Speakers will also question what remained at stake in maintaining a separation between the categories of vanguard and self-taught art despite the contradictions of that distinction. 


Jason T. Busch, American Folk Art Museum

Richard Meyer, Stanford University

Session 1: “Modern Primitives”

Introduced and moderated by Esther Adler (Museum of Modern Art), followed by a brief discussion.

Jennifer Jane Marshall, University of Minnesota
“William Edmondson at MOMA, 1937”

Brooke Wyatt, American Folk Art Museum/University of Pittsburgh
“Compensating for the Lacunae of Modern Art: Séraphine Louis and French Self-Taught Painters in Modernist Discourse”

Susan Davidson, independent curator
“The Master of The Two Left Feet Steps Out in Manhattan”

Session 2: The Inside/Outside Conundrum

Introduced and moderated by Valérie Rousseau (American Folk Art Museum), followed by a brief discussion.

Lynne Cooke, National Gallery of Art
“Autodidact: ‘only a matter of degree’?”

Bill Anthes, Pitzer College
“Painting Against Primitivism: Oscar Howe’s Modern Dakota Art”

Marci Kwon, Stanford University/Cantor Art Center’s Asian American Art Initiative
“Education and Incarceration in Midcentury America”

Session 3: Remapping Modernisms

Introduced and moderated by Angela Miller (Washington University in St. Louis), followed by a brief discussion.

Nicole Smythe-Johnson, independent curator
“In search of a Subaltern Modernism: Rethinking John Dunkley”

Rodrigo Moura, El Museo del Barrio
“A Global Naïve? Notes on the Brazilian Case”

Julia Bryan-Wilson, Columbia University/Museu de Arte de São Paulo
“Embellishment as Method”

Jane Kallir, The Kallir Research Institute
Closing remarks

For more information, please visit: folkartmuseum.org

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American Folk Art Museum
January 12, 2023

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