PRINT December 1977

Andy Warhol’s “Folk and Funk”

“FOLK AND FUNK,” ANDY WARHOL’S collection of American objects at the Museum of American Folk Art, was introduced at a benefit preview that itself might have been part of the artistic statement being made. Diana Vreeland, Louise Nevelson, Merce Cunningham, Ethel Scull, Geoffrey Holder et al. jammed into the two rooms on West Fifty-Third Street where the collection is displayed to sip champagne and exchange body contact, then moved along to the Seagram Building lobby for cocktails and to The Four Seasons for veal scallopine and dancing. A nifty party, it sounds like, and what if nobody got a chance to look at the stuff? They could always go back and look at it later, in case they hadn’t already seen it at Andy’s place, which they probably had. In fact, Warhol, with the instinct for paradox that is at the heart of his talent, had with the museum’s help contrived the perfectly appropriate event to introduce the show—an epitome of dernier cri to show off and point up an epitome of vieux jeux.

But I won’t go on about Warhol’s personality or the relationship between Warhol’s artistic sensibility and his folk art collection, except to say that I am sorry if Warhol said at a preview party, as reported in the Times, that “funk means junk”; funk as I understand it means more than that, and Warhol’s collection eloquently emphasizes the point. The esthetic-personality question is well covered in the catalogue essay, in which the guest curators, Sandra Brant and Elissa Cullman, point out sensibly that American commercial imagery is near the heart of both Warhol’s art and his folk art collection, and go on to tell us that as a collector Andy never haggles over prices and always pays promptly, but that, on the other hand, he is “always looking for that five-dollar object that’s really worth a million.” (To embrace a traditional bourgeois vice at the very moment the bourgeoisie is learning to renounce it is of course pure Warhol.)

The truth is that Warhol’s collection, paradoxically, is totally free of pretension. It reveals not a trendy or bourgeois baiting sensibility but rather a sound, nostalgic, deeply conservative one. There is nothing shocking or outré here, although even a casual student knows that much in American folk art is both shocking and outré. This collection would be of artistic interest if it were not Andy Warhol’s, even as an element of social interest is added by the identity of the celebrated collector.

Warhol had previously given public evidence of his feeling for “closets” and their contents in the “Raid the Icebox” exhibition that he selected from the storage vaults of the Museum of Art of the Rhode Island School of Design, in Providence, shown in 1969 and 1970 at the Rice University Institute for the Arts in Houston, the Isaac Delgado Museum in New Orleans, and the Rhode Island School of Design itself. I didn’t see that show, but, judging by its catalogue, the most striking feature was Warhol’s inclusion of secondhand (or even tenth-hand) objects, mostly American, en masse: a row of Windsor chairs, closetsful of umbrellas and parasols, and (apparently to the staff’s bewilderment) all of the hundreds of pairs of worn shoes and slippers that had been palmed off on the museum from time to time by thrifty philanthropists who had just cleaned out their own attics and closets. Indeed, the catalogue suggests that the effect was striking; Warhol knew, and communicated, the ineffable poignancy of cluttered attics, and especially of old shoes—the sickening tenderness, the regret, the guilt, the faint horror they can evoke. And so one should not be surprised to find special qualities in the present exhibition of Warhol’s own attic collection, for which the Providence event now seems to have served as a sort of curtain-raiser.

To begin with, Warhol shows a fine, sure touch in leaving broken, chipped, tarnished, or split objects in the condition in which he found them, so that they remain what they are, secondhand. And a fine, sure touch is also shown by the curators in showing the objects in casual disarray, as if they were in an actual attic: a pile of old linens lying on a handsome bench, a late 19th-century primitive painting of a shipwreck stacked on its side against a wall (where it belongs—it’s terrible), and a carousel horse simply lying on its side on the floor. None of this seems studied; the observer gets the illusion that he is being allowed to make discoveries for himself, a sign of the collector’s engaging and quite unexpected self-effacingness.

Some of the “discoveries” one is thus privileged to make are indeed rewarding. A wooden ship’s figurehead of a woman feeling her right breast with a small, satisfied smile is redolent of sex and descriptive of the volcanic below-the-surface life that sex led in the middle of the last century. A really handsome king heron holding a fish, carved from wood, shows how the vanished American craftsman’s monkish dedication to his work could, in inspired moments, spill over into conscious art.

An 1830 bust of Leonardo da Vinci, cracked straight down the middle of the face and anyway looking more like Jehovah than the genius of the Renaissance, calls attention to the popular respect for learning and the past—tempered by, and even confused with, religious feeling—that was a strong feature of the first 50 years of the Republic, before the anti-intellectualism so much deplored by European visitors later on took hold in earnest. And that anti-intellectualism itself is set forth in an array of commercial signs that avoid the printed word and its cultural connotations by showing rather than telling: a gilded boot to call attention to a cobbler’s shop, a huge iron-and-wood trowel to be hung out over a mason’s door. One of these, a giant set of eyeglasses from the late 19th century, framing eyes that are “flawed” by triangles of reflected light that seem to pierce the pupils, inevitably reminds any viewer with a literary turn of mind of the great eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg brooding over the wasteland of Queens in The Great Gatsby. But the reference, of course, was not in the artisan’s mind, and one feels confident it isn’t in Warhol’s either. The discovery of a portent of continuity from one American century to the next belongs to the observer himself.

There are also references to the American passion for sports and athletes: an amusement-park device to test the citizen’s punch—“You are challenged to ring the bell, 1000 pound punch will do it.” To the wishful American idealization of the Indian: a handsome set of wooden cigar-store sculptures. And to the classic grace of early American architecture: a blue late-Georgian recessed doorway, which Warhol announces to be his favorite item in the collection because “you can go in and out and still go nowhere,” although I found its appeal to be rather in the promise of what might be inside.

Thus, surely without studied intention, Warhol’s attic offers a richly allusive short history of the national styles over our first century and a half. The only object in the show that seems suspect of making a deliberate artistic statement—or rather, of having been chosen and displayed to make such a statement—is a tobacconist’s shop sign, c. 1875, consisting of a big pipe bowl menacingly gripped by a horny four-fingered hand, neither man’s nor beast’s, that serves as pipe-stem. But even here, it is easy to believe that the pedantic cliché that folk art prefigures Surrealism wasn’t in Warhol’s mind any more than it was in the mind of the artisan.

What “Folk and Funk,” the identity of its collector, and the circumstances of its display have to say is that the American apprehension of our past is now in a strong and probably necessarily reactionary trend. One of the great social “discoveries” of the ’60s was that for generations we had been over worshipping our ancestors (or at least someone else’s, since many of the worshippers were recent immigrants or their children, like Andrew Warhola). Suddenly we were struck, almost anew, by the drabness of the American past, its boredom, its chauvinism, its hypocrisy, its ever-near violence, its predictable corruption in office, its settled anti-Semitism, and, above all, its established racism made worse by the fact of being all but universally accepted with complacency by black and white alike.

Ten years ago this show might have, and probably would have, been regarded as an exercise in patronage and contempt. Now it is quite clearly an exercise in love. The pendulum has swung back: in the ’70s Americans are rediscovering the pawky virtues and the piquant sensibilities of our forebears. And Andy Warhol, who in so many ways appears to be the polar opposite of so many of us—and who furiously cultivates that appearance—turns out, not really surprisingly, to be the contemporary artistic sensibility in the vanguard of our renewed soft spot for Great Grandpa and Grandma.