New York

Sister Gertrude Morgan

American Folk Art Museum

This retrospective, which featured the paintings, sculpture, writings, and music of New Orleans–based self-taught visionary artist Sister Gertrude Morgan (1900–1980), reflected a recent shift within the hybrid field of folk/outsider art from market-driven sensationalism toward critical self-awareness and increased curatorial accountability. Morgan, an evangelical African American from Alabama who believed herself to have been called by God to preach the Gospel through a range of expressive practices, is the kind of artist often misrepresented by the discourse of outsider art that is the legacy of Jean Dubuffet’s category art brut, a bundle of primitivist clichés that continues to celebrate social isolation and madness as markers of an ideal pole of unblemished artistic expression. This show brilliantly recovered Morgan’s contribution by exploring the rich social and artistic contexts within which she flourished, and at the same time honored the intense mystical journey she shared through a prolific output of formally inventive paintings.

After devoting seventeen years to running a mission and orphanage in New Orleans, Morgan began to paint in response to what she perceived to be a divine calling to use art as a preaching tool. Although her earliest works, rudimentary compositions in pen, ink, crayon, and sometimes acrylic on cardboard such as Jesus Betrayed by a Kiss, ca. late 1950s, are thought to have been inspired by popular biblical illustrations, she soon developed a unique sensibility that combined quirky figuration and scrawled text within lively painterly compositions. The strongest of these are her interpretations of apocalyptic subjects, such as the cryptic, hallucinatory Rev. 12 and there appeared a Great wonder in heaven, n.d. The book of Revelation would remain the central source of Morgan’s paintings, which were executed on a range of supports including pillows, lampshades, and megaphones for preaching. They also decorated the interior and exterior of her Everlasting Gospel Mission, a shotgun shack in the bohemian Lower Ninth Ward, her headquarters from the late ’50s on.

Through photographs and other documentary materials, “Tools of Her Ministry” painted a portrait of Morgan as anything but an outsider isolate—she showed and performed regularly at a French Quarter gallery, collaborated on books with local poet Rod McKuen, and recorded fourteen gospel and original free-form musical compositions.

Morgan’s greatest achievements were unquestionably her later, more complex works in acrylic and tempera, especially the multi-tiered compositions, or “charters,” through which she honed an ingenious shorthand for expressing Revelation’s apocalyptic message, as well as the sprawling architectural inventions through which she imaged the New Jerusalem as a floating city populated by angels. Here, Morgan invariably included herself as the bride of Christ, dressed in either a white bridal gown or in a nurse’s uniform. Her later so-called alphabets, works dominated by text and punctuated by lively staccato brushstrokes, reflect her subsequent shift to a primarily linguistic mode of expression. Throughout her active years, Morgan consistently renounced authorship acknowledging a divine source for her accomplishments. This exhibition refrains from discrediting Morgan’s claim or laughing it off with patronizing disclaimers but rather honors her as a consummate mystic.

Jenifer P. Borum