Anna Mary Robertson (“Grandma”) Moses, Black Horses (1942) © Grandma Moses Properties Co., New York. Private Collection. Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, New York. 

Grandma Moses deserves more than a Hallmark greeting. The paintings by this self-taught artist should be in any museum that lays claim to the history of American art. An extensive loan exhibition on view at Galerie St. Etienne endeavors to make the case that the elderly woman behind millions of Christmas-card reproductions is a pivotal American artist.[1]

Moses’s personal story is compelling, in turn amplifying and diminishing her artistic reputation. She lived from the age of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency of John Kennedy. She was born Anna Mary Robertson in upstate New York in 1860, the third of ten children. At twelve she left home to work as a maid on a nearby farm. She spent most of the next fifteen years as a farm girl, obtaining scattered schooling alongside the children of her employers. In 1887, at twenty-seven, she married Thomas Salmon Moses, a farmhand. Relocating to Virginia, they farmed in the Shenandoah Valley, where Moses gave birth to ten children, losing five in infancy. Eighteen years later, in 1905, the family returned to upstate New York, this time to Rensselaer County, just south of her birthplace, to a farm they called Mount Nebo, near the hamlet of Eagle Bridge. The landscape of the surrounding countryside formed the underlying topography of her subsequent artistic output.

It was not until the mid-1930s, following the death of her husband in 1927, that Moses began to paint in earnest. “I had always wanted to paint, but I just didn’t have time until I was seventy-six,” she later said. Arthritis led her to give up needlework in favor of oil on board. She submitted her first work to the county fair, but she took home a prize for her preserves rather than her paintings. Then, in 1938, a collector named Louis Caldor spotted Moses’s artwork in the shop window of W. D. Thomas’s pharmacy in the town of Hoosick Falls, New York. He purchased as many works as he could carry and returned to New York City. The next year Caldor landed three of the paintings in a members’-only group show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. A year later Caldor convinced Otto Kallir, a Jewish refugee from Austria with a newly opened commercial gallery in New York, to mount the artist’s first one-woman show. The name of Kallir’s shop was St. Etienne; the gallery, now run by Hildegard Bachert and Jane Kallir, Otto’s granddaughter, has represented Moses ever since.

Otto Kallir may have been the first to call her “Grandma” Moses, a name journalists have delighted in ever since. His gallery has shepherded Moses’s career from obscurity to popular success. A painter beloved in reproduction, she was abandoned by the artistic establishment. By the time of her death in 1961 at the age of 101, Moses had met presidents, appeared on the cover of Life, been visited by Edward R. Murrow, and seen her licensed images appear on 100-million Christmas cards. Yet the initial critical support she received at the time of her first show in 1940 was soon eclipsed, as Regionalism, Primitivism, and the American Scene fell out of favor with sophisticated taste. Moses’s work never entered the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, the site of her first exhibition.

“One of the first artists to be hailed as a media superstar,” notes Jane Kallir, “and possibly the most successful female artist of her era, Moses is nevertheless surprisingly invisible when it comes to histories of postwar American painting.” Moses never found a place in America’s projection of postwar international style. Nor was she taken up by the theorists of the 1970s, despite her success as a woman painter.

The misunderstanding of Moses hinges on her initial status as a primitive, unschooled artist. Rural living in fact provided Moses with its own aesthetic education. The crafts of farm life—needlework and quilting—gave Moses an appreciation of bold colors and a neo-Impressionist sense of paint application. Three of the earliest pieces in the show—Mt. Nebo on the Hill (1940), Untitled (House and Barn in Landscape) (c. 1940), and Shepherd Comes Home from the Hills (c. 1940)—are “worsted pictures” made of embroidered yarn and fabric.

Like other resourceful self-taught artists—Henry Darger and John Kane come to mind—Moses freely appropriated imagery from prints and photographs. She transferred figures from Currier and Ives and popular advertisements to her paintings by tracing them with carbon paper. Several of her more “realistic” paintings from the early 1940s are based entirely on the compositions of colored lithographs. When Leaves Turn (1943) follows a series of paintings she made called Autumn in the Berkshires—one of them painted directly on top of a commercial print. A Fire in the Woods (1940) and The Burning of Troy (c. 1939) are similarly based on documentary material. Moses’s historical knowledge of local events provided its own narrative template, further drawing on documentary illustrations. The Battle of Bennington in 1777, the burning of Troy, New York in 1862, and the Checkered House inn, built in 1765 on the nearby turnpike road, are all recurring motifs.

Moses had taken up mapmaking in childhood. As she combined a technique born from folk traditions with an intimate knowledge of local history and geography, she distinguished her art with a unique sense of pictorial space and an urge to record her world. She put equal weight on foreground activity and on distant topography. Her sensibility to represent all space with even focus resembles cartography more than conventional painting based on visual perception.

In her paintings, Moses did not simply reproduce geographical reality. She crafted diagrams of rural life, often drawing from the pre-industrial past. One can see a mapping instinct in every decision she made, down to the way she reproduced buildings. Like architectural isometric projection, she unfolded shapes so that right-angle planes were equally drawn out. The results are didactic representations rather than illustrations in single-point perspective. Moses loaded her paintings with such information to create visual maps of a shared rural memory. The people in these scenes—traced and transferred figures performing various tasks like sugaring, catching the Thanksgiving turkey, and riding a sleigh to grandma’s house—are not faithfully depicted. Rather they stand as representations of activity: more like street signs than cognizant human beings.

That St. Etienne would mount a museum-quality exhibition of Moses while actual New York museums continue to ignore her ies noteworthy. It is also noteworthy that an extensive show called “Grandma Moses in the 21st Century,” which toured through six national museums in 2001, never found a New York venue. Writing at the time in the New York Observer, Hilton Kramer called the omission a scandal.

Regardless of Moses’s aesthetic achievements, her place as a popular artist commands our attention. Yet as the St. Etienne show makes clear, Moses’s work can be exceptionally good. Certainly, it wasn’t always great. Sometimes her untrained hand got away from her, or her compositions became over-filled with genre figures. While there are elegant exceptions, her late work with its more impressionistic line seems crude. But certain paintings, especially her expansive landscapes, can hold their own in the history of art, beyond her designation as a self-taught outsider.

Black Horses (1942), on display in the current show, is the work that convinced Kallir to appreciate Moses as a serious artist. This painting can do the same for us today. Moses is much more than a footnote to an artistic movement. With her memorialization of a rural past, she transcends even the history of American art. She has become, simply put, a national treasure. The time has come for the art world to understand what the rest of the world realized decades ago.

I predict that the art of the 1970s will find new relevance in the coming years. The expressionist 1950s returned in the 1980s. The pop 1960s struck back in the last decade. Now the legacy of the 1970s has reemerged to hash it out in another recessionary period. What matters is how this decade gets remembered—for its theory or its practice. The Conceptualism of the decade has long been championed by the cultural establishment, while the rigorous studio practice of 1970s painters has been ignored.

This oil-on-canvas generation never disappeared. The artists who came of age in that decade continue to work and, in many respects, get better. What didn’t change was their sense of community and, regrettably for them, often the price of their work. The public has yet to catch on. This past month, a large group show at Sideshow Gallery in Williamsburg brought several artists of this generation together under one roof with many younger painters and even some older ones. By last count, 380 works climbed the walls in a Barnes-style hanging. At times the cement bunker of a gallery, run by Richard Timperio, seemed like the Alamo of 1970s process painting. It was an outstanding group show, with studio painters in conversation across the generations. A work on paper by Jake Berthot was a standout. I was also excited to see Ronnie and Noah Landfield, father and son, in one room. A promising recent graduate of Hunter, Noah is now up for a solo show at Sideshow.

One artist at Sideshow—younger than the 1970s generation but with a shared sensibility—was Carolanna Parlato. She now has a solo show at Elizabeth Harris.[2] Working in bold acrylic, Parlato seeks to collaborate with her paint rather than over-manipulate it. She pours her paint onto her canvas and tips the wet surface back and forth. She allows the drips to run. The happy accidents that result come out of Parlato’s understanding of paint’s chemistry. Through her own experimentation, Parlato now uses extra medium, even soaps, to encourage the controlled movement of her pigments, which she layers over one another. Sometimes the compositions become overpopulated. Coronal Loop (2009) has too much going on—although particular details, like the sweep of brush, are beautiful effects.

In her best work, the fields of paint, often juxtaposed in two different forms, have an energy of their own. Undercurrent (2009) pairs a shape melting down with another dripping up. Orbital (2009), the best painting in the show, has an oozing amoeba foregrounding an explosive burst of green and red, reacting together in a bath of clear medium. Building on each new painting, the work develops through Parlato’s own process. Like all good artists, she is her own best teacher.

Notes
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  1. “Seventy Years Grandma Moses: A Loan Exhibition Celebrating the 70th Anniversary of the Artist’s ‘Discovery’” opened at Galerie St. Etienne on February 3 and remains on view through April 3, 2010. Go back to the text.
  2. “Carolanna Parlato: Vortical” opened at Elizabeth Harris Gallery, New York, on February 11 and remains on view through March 13, 2010. Go back to the text.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 28 Number 7, on page 45
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