By Laura Beach
NEW YORK CITY – “Made in New York City: The Business of Folk Art,” on view at the American Folk Art Museum’s Lincoln Square galleries from March 19 to July 28, is satisfying on so many levels that it is hard to know where to start. For lovers of traditional American folk art, it is a happy combination of old favorites and new discoveries, packaged as the kind of big-picture survey show of which there are disappointingly few these days. History buffs and Big Apple enthusiasts will revel in the arresting, still-recognizable details of the city and its people, rendered in naïve and popular art created between 1760 and 1915.
Organized by guest curator Elizabeth V. Warren with coordinating curator Stacy C. Hollander, this extravaganza seems tailor-made for the “I Love New York” campaigns of the 1970s forward. It captures what we have come to regard as the essence of the metropolis: its freewheeling spirit, mercantile prowess and open-armed embrace of the newly arrived. The prodigious industry of the city that never sleeps may in fact be the most salient quality of its folk art, much of which speaks to the glad union of supply and demand, or, more precisely, the satisfaction of the material cravings of a prosperous middle class by ever more accomplished makers, some steeped in the crafts tradition of their European forebears.
It is hard to imagine a project better suited to Warren, a native New Yorker, longtime collector of American folk art and author of Red and White Quilts: Infinite Variety, The Perfect Game: America Looks at Baseball and Young America: A Folk Art History, among other volumes. Over coffee near her Upper West Side home recently, Warren explained, “I love studying American history through folk art, something I discovered when I did the baseball exhibition. The folk art of New York State had been done, but no one had tied the five boroughs together. Once I started looking, I found New York City folk art everywhere.” The oversight, as Warren explains in the 136-page catalog accompanying the show, arises from the common misperception that folk art is a rural phenomenon. “On the contrary, much of what we consider to fall under the definition of ‘folk art’ was produced in cities, and it could only have been created in such dense centers of population,” she writes.
An 1805 watercolor and ink portrait that Warren and her husband, Irwin, acquired at Sotheby’s set the curator on her way. By an artist tentatively identified as “Mr Thompson,” the work shows immigrant John Herman Raub, a counter at the Manhattan Bank at 23 Wall Street, with the accoutrements of his trade: a set of scales and what appear to be stacks of gold and silver coins. The Manhattan Bank – Aaron Burr’s enterprise – was the forerunner of the Chase Manhattan Bank, now JP Morgan Chase. On investigation, Warren found Raub listed in the 1805 city directory. A miniature painter named Mr Thompson lived several blocks away. Warren writes, “My research into Raub’s history led me to wonder what other folk art was produced and consumed in New York, and how that art was connected to the city’s long commercial history.”
Armed with a copy of Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace as a checkpoint for historical facts, Warren canvassed the region’s small museums and drew heavily from institutions such as the New-York Historical Society, a generous contributor to the project. Historic Richmond Town on Staten Island yielded riches; Queens and the Bronx, the latter sparsely populated in the Nineteenth Century, required more searching. Of what are now the four outer boroughs, Brooklyn was the most developed during the period studied, having been connected by ferry to Manhattan since 1814. Conjuring the image of old New York, Warren, where possible, provides addresses for the businesses she discusses. “Some of the buildings still exist, although most have been repurposed for Twenty-First Century usage,” she writes.
She divides book and exhibition into two sections. The first, called “The Art of Business,” depicts sectors of the New York economy: finance, manufacturing and retail, transportation and hospitality and the maritime industry. The second section, “The Business of Art,” looks at artists by occupation or endeavor: portrait, marine and landscape painters; makers of weathervanes and furniture; carvers of trade figures, carousel figures and gravestones; stoneware potters and needle artists.
The show opens with a jolt with an optical shop trade sign made by E.G. Washburne & Co. at 207 Fulton Street in Manhattan. Washburne & Co. was also a prominent maker of weathervanes. Warren finds new evidence that Edward G. Washburne’s father, Willett L. Washburne, made signs and weathervanes before him in partnership with Robert Brown.
Wall Street – first named “de Waal Straat” by the Dutch -began in 1653 as a protective barrier on the northern edge of the New Amsterdam settlement. Of the several bankers and financiers portrayed, Preserved Fish stands out, both because of his odd-sounding name, which was Quaker in origin, and because of his exceptional accomplishment. Born in Rhode Island in 1766, Fish sailed the Pacific as a whaler before making a fortune retailing whale oil. He joined the New York Stock Exchange Board in 1826 and was later president of the Tradesmen’s Bank of New York on Chatham Street, now Park Row. Never forgetting his beginnings, he chose to be depicted as a sea captain might have in his portrait of about 1830.
New York’s Dutch origins are never far in the past, as a discussion of the term “Knickerbocker” reminds us. The Knickerbocker Stage Line, which ran between Brooklyn and Manhattan and Knickerbocker Hall, at 23rd Street and Eighth Avenue, are depicted in a circa 1850 painting by William Seaman. The route was later used by electric trams until it was replaced by the subway system. Diedrich Knickerbocker, the fictional character created by Washington Irving, appears as a mid-Nineteenth Century carving by an unknown artist.
Portraits offer a sense of New York City’s changing complexion. The earliest, a 1767 oil on canvas by John Durand (active 1765-1782), depicts the well-born James Beekman Jr as a child. It contrasts with the circa 1810-15 portrait of former slave Peter Williams, who, born on Beekman Street, purchased his freedom and opened a tobacco store on Liberty Street years later.
There are familiar portraits by Ammi Phillips (1788-1865), Micah Williams (1782-1837) and Ira Chaffee Goodell (1800-1877), who in his diary describes the mid-Nineteenth Century decline of his profession amid a general economic downturn and the rise of photography. Some of Staten Island’s most illustrious residents were painted by John Bradley (active 1832-1847), who did full-size portraits as well as miniatures. Intent on securing for the show a distinctive Bradley miniature last owned by collectors Arthur and Sybil Kern, Warren chased it all the way to Skinner, where it sold in 2018. Tucked into the miniature’s case was the ink on paper inscription “By I Bradley/ 128 Spring St/New York/1837.”
As a major port, New York produced ship’s portraits, seascapes and harbor views in abundance. Warren uncovered a rarely seen oil by James Bard (1815-1897) of the paddle wheeler Flushing at – where else? – the Queens County Historical Society. Her close examination of paintings by Thomas Chambers (1808-1869) and his contemporaries yields new understanding of oft-painted and engraved settings such as Brooklyn Heights, Castle Williams and Castle Garden. Jurgan Frederick Huge (1809-1878) captures the impressive scale of the city’s shipbuilding industry with his precise rendering of the New-York Balance Dock Company’s massive facility on the East River.
New York City is known for its Adam and Eve samplers, of which there are two in the show, the earliest dating to 1786. Warren spotlights the training offered in the needle arts at local Huguenot, Quaker and African American schools. Mary Emiston worked her 1803 sampler at the African Free School, a forerunner of the city’s public school system, the latter charmingly commemorated by Ruth Matthews’ homely little Brooklyn sampler, marked PS8, of 1846. There are also two quilts in the show, the Civil War-era Reconciliation quilt by Lucinda Ward Honstain of Brooklyn and a Log Cabin variation quilt by Samuel Steinberger, a Hungarian-born tailor who settled in the Lower East Side before moving uptown.
The city was a powerhouse when it came to sculpture in wood and metal. It supported a community of carvers whose talent for creating figureheads translated to shop and show figures. There was Thomas J. White (1825-1902), the possible carver of Captain Jinks, plus Samuel Anderson Robb (1851-1928) and William Demuth (1835-1911). The immigrant carvers of carousel figures Charles I.D. Looff (1852-1918), Marcus Charles Illions (1865/71-1949), Solomon Stein (1882-1937) and Harry Goldstein (1867-1945) contributed to what became known as the gilded and bejeweled “Coney Island” style.
The city was equally prominent as a producer of weathervanes. The best-known makers – J.W. Fiske, E.G. Washburne & Co. and J.L. Mott Iron Works – borrowed designs from one another, making it hard to attribute common forms such as horses and eagles. Warren features a few spectacular examples: the heroic figure of the winged Fame, attributed to Washburne; the Goddess of Liberty, attributed to Mott, after whose ironworks the village of Mott Haven is named; and the Hupmobile by Fiske.
“The art of decoy-making by Americans of European descent is believed to have started on the South Shore of Long Island,” writes the curator, who included a circa 1850-60 merganser drake decoy by the city’s earliest known decoy maker, Roger Williams of Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, and a circa 1880 dowitcher shorebird by Theodore Rogers (1831-1903) of Jamaica Bay.
New York City stoneware dates to the 1650s, when Dutchman Dirck Claesen built the first kiln on Manhattan Island. Stoneware was produced in quantity in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century by several well-known potting families, some of German descent. Vines trail a graceful 1811 punchbowl by John Crolius Jr (1755-1841), paired in the show with Micah Williams’ circa 1817 pastel on paper portrait of Clarkson Crolius Sr, as well as on an 1804 flask attributed to Henry Remmey (active 1789-1810). W.A. MacQuoid and Company Pottery Works dominated the scene by the mid-Nineteenth Century. A two-gallon crock by the maker is decorated with an eagle and the inscription “Gold $1.44. Ã½,” a reference to the Black Friday financial crisis of 1869.
A shapely continuous-arm Windsor chair by James Bertine (active 1789-1797) and fancy-painted chairs attributed to Thomas Jefferson Gildersleeve (1805-1871) and William Buttre (1782-1864) complete the show’s small selection of furniture, documented examples of which are more elusive than one might suppose. Buttre, a Scottish immigrant who changed his name from Butter, moved his business from Bleecker Street to Chatham Square and from there to Bowery Street, with a shipping address at Crane Wharf. A turner, joiner and painter can be seen at work in his shop in a trade card from Winterthur’s collection.
Warren closes with Jessie Lie and Daniel Farber’s elegiac photographs of gravestone carvings by John Zuricher (d 1784), who had ties to the city’s Dutch and German communities and has Swiss in heritage. Zuricher, whose stones can be found in cemeteries in much of the tri-state area, was the city’s most prolific carver of headstones in the mid- to late-Eighteenth Century.
“You could read, research and write forever and barely scratch the surface of New York City history,” says Warren, who scoured reams of newly digitized data to update earlier scholarship. As panoramic as “Made In New York: The Business Of Folk Art” may be, its true beauty lies in its meticulous reconstruction of a place and its people, a picture Warren builds detail by fascinating detail.
For those curious about New York City’s folk art post-1915, the American Folk Art Museum has mounted the companion exhibit “New York Experienced,” on view through May 30 in its Self-Taught Genius gallery in Long Island City. The display emphasizes self-taught art from the museum’s collection by Ralph Fasanella, Malcah Zeldis, Gregorio MarzÃ¡n, Harry Lieberman and Victor Joseph Gatto, among others.
The American Folk Art Museum is at 2 Lincoln Square, Columbus Avenue between 65th and 66th Streets. For more information, www.folkartmuseum.org or 212-595-9533.