New York

William Edmondson

FOR MORE THAN SIXTY YEARS, the limestone sculptures of William Edmondson (1874–1951) have stood patiently at the border of art's mainstream and its margins. When his minimal, reductive work came to the attention of Alfred Barr, the self-taught carver became the first African American to be granted a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1937. Yet despite this early crossover, Edmondson's work has been consistently ignored by a museum-market machine that privileges a baroque outsider sensibility. Now “The Art of William Edmondson,” a traveling retrospective organized by the Cheekwood Museum of Art in Nashville, gives Edmondson's oeuvre long-overdue recognition and breaks new ground by offering a full account of the cultural and aesthetic framework within which the artist lived and worked.

As the catalogue eloquently argues, Edmondson was intensely involved in his community: Born and raised in Nashville, he held a variety of jobs (railroad worker, hospital orderly, stonemason's helper) until the Depression, when he obeyed what he experienced as a divine calling to carve tombstones. His work grew out of Afro-Atlantic vernacular traditions like cemetery ornamentation and the yard show, the decoration of one's own property for spiritual protection. The installation of forty-six works, all carved between 1930 and 1947, reflected these crucial contexts: the weighty yet elegant carvings of animals, human figures, eagles, and angels were complemented by forty-five black-and-white photographs of the artist and his yard by Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Edward Weston, and Consuela Kanaga and, more critically, by an understated replica of the artist's workshop and property. This curatorially liminal space allowed for the mingling of public and private, European American and African American, folk and fine; it quietly proposed the coexistence of cultural difference and aesthetic excellence.

The sculptures demonstrate a varied iconographic repertoire. Although Edmondson claimed that each work was divinely inspired, his sources included the natural world, his local community, and African American culture. Drawing on the reductive visual language of tombstones, Edmondson carved innumerable critters, often recognizably animals, sometimes just the hint of an animal form reduced to geometric planes. His celebration of types from his community, such as Schoolteacher and Nurse, was accompanied by commemorative portraits of local individuals, like Bess and Joe. The dynamic, freestanding boxer in Jack Johnson is an homage to a national African American hero. And Edmondson's sensitively rendered nudes, typically the province of academically trained artists, further confound the misguided conflation of self-taught and naive.

Edmondson's presence has always challenged the distinction between margin and mainstream art, and to celebrate his formal accomplishments as either—that is, as the disconnected output of a visionary isolate or as the work of a precocious mascot of modernism—only serves to strengthen that distinction. Exploring the artist's contribution to twentieth-century sculpture by accentuating, not downplaying, the cultural milieu in which it was formed, this exhibition challenges the tiresome myth of the outsider and sets a curatorial precedent for bringing self-taught artists into the mainstream purview without compromising the sense of cultural difference that makes their work so rich.

Jenifer P. Borum