William Edmondson

Janet Fleischer Gallery

“Miracles,” which brought together 36 works by the sculptor William Edmondson (ca. 1882–1951), was the first solo show of this self-taught artist’s work to be mounted in 20 years. A Tennessee native, Edmondson was active from approximately 1931–49; he was not only the first black artist to be honored with a solo show at MoMA, but he was also the first American self-taught artist to make his mark on the mainstream. It remains rather puzzling, then, that apart from a number of recent survey shows, and the support of a few devotees, Edmondson’s work has remained in the shadows despite the current explosion of interest in self-taught artists. “Miracles” made the central reason for this quite clear: Edmondson’s uniquely minimal style of stone carving diverges radically from the painterly, expressionistic, more-is-more sensibility typically associated, for better or for worse, with the work of the artists who inhabit this particular cultural margin—J. B. Murray, Bessie Harvey, Thornton Dial, and Howard Finster, among others.

In 1931, not long after finding himself unemployed, Edmondson experienced what he believed to be a vision from God instructing him to begin carving decorated tombstones. Working with limestone from demolished buildings and with chisels made from old railroad spikes, he began to carve simple tombstones for his local community, often decorating them with doves or other birds. This show incorporated a number of such early works, including several pairs of doves, and a bird with outspread wings (Bird with Top Knot, ca. 1935), most likely symbols for the flight of the spirit after death, a not uncommon motif in African-American grave decoration throughout the South.

Edmondson’s repertoire grew increasingly complex in both form and subject matter, eventually including a range of biblical themes. Forsaking pathos for understatement, Edmondson condensed biblical narratives into solid, iconic forms, such as the weighty Eve, 1940, the ghostly Angel, 1940, and the starkly simple Crucifix, 1940. Also included in Edmondson’s visionary output (every work he ever carved was in fact inspired by what he experienced as very literal, very palpable God-given visions) were a number of secular works. In addition to memorial portraits of individuals from his community, he carved a variety of figures—from uniformed nurses to pop-culture favorites such as Untitled, Little Orphan Annie (Owner’s Title), 1940, to mythological creatures such as the voluptuous Mermaid, 1940. Myriad animals—squirrels, turtles, and other unidentified critters—testify to the artist’s powers of observation, while two giant birdbaths shaped like teacups reveal a keen wit at work.

Much has been made of the Modernist look of Edmondson’s carvings. It was his gift for essential geometric form, after all, and not his skill in interpreting scripture, that won Alfred Barr’s admiration in 1937. But Edmondson’s work belongs as much to the history of spiritually inspired art—from early Christian sarcophagi and Romanesque tympana, to the late unfinished pietàs of Michelangelo—as it does to Modern art. Still, comparing Edmondson with his American contemporaries is instructive. Lurking behind the formal affinities of, say, Edmondson and Elie Nadelman, are completely opposite intentions. While the ego is central to the secular artist, the visionary artist searches outside the self—a search that, combined with the inventiveness of the self-taught, consistently leads to the unpredictable.

Jenifer P. Borum