There's something for everyone of every age in "Made With Passion: The Hemphill Folk Art Collection," which opened yesterday at the National Museum of American Art: weather vanes and wood airplanes, whirligigs and flying pigs, duck decoys and smoking toys.
There are also tin men and dolls, totems with pols, a boat made from wood scraps, a lion from bottle caps.
This exhibition of 199 unique works -- including paintings as well as sculpture and utilitarian objects -- was organized to celebrate the museum's recent acquisition, by gift and purchase, of 427 folk art objects from the renowned collection of Herbert Waide Hemphill Jr. of New York.
In multifarious ways, it also celebrates the persistence of the quintessential American spirit, something the show almost defines. One can't see this exhibition -- which begins in the 19th century and extends to the present -- without sensing, with some exhilaration, the continued impulse and ingenuity to create something new and unique, even when it must be done with little or nothing.
From the first object in the show we are made aware of creative lives in which work and pleasure intertwine, albeit in various ways. Calvin and Ruby Black's large, carved wooden "Sylvia" doll in tattered clothes, for example, was part of a doll merry-go-round at a Mojave Desert roadside stand where rocks and refreshments were sold. And Gerald McCarthy's larger-than-life "Galvanized Man" stood outside his shop in Ogdensburg, N.M., advertising "Plumbing, Heating, Cooling" in large letters painted across his chest.
It was only after years of creating metal gutters and duct work for heating and air-conditioning systems that Irving Dominick made the spectacular cut, bent, soldered and riveted figure of his granddaughter "Marla," with her bangs and curly lashes. And Jack Savitsky began to paint his highly patterned works after an accident ended 40 years in the Pennsylvania coal mines. His brightly colored "Train in Coal Town" portrays the train he took to work all those years, its decorative border, the rows of identical, company-owned houses, one of which he grew up in.
Each visitor will resonate to different works for different reasons: One of my favorites is the steam-powered Chesapeake Bay fishing boat by Leslie J. Payne, one of several African American artists in the show. Built around 1970 from carved and painted wood and fish net, it has a corrugated metal sea and a cut-paper chug of black steam issuing from the smokestack, a wonderful combination of precise detail and whimsy. Payne was born in Virginia and died there, in Kilmarnock, in 1981, at age 74. Twenty-one of the artists represented here are still alive.
Folk Art Visionary Curator and author Hemphill, now 60, began his collecting career at age 7 with the purchase of a carved wooden duck decoy. His mother, whose uncle helped launch the Coca-Cola Co., collected fancy European objects, and encouraged her son's collecting instincts by taking him along on her frequent shopping sprees. Hemphill studied painting at Bard College, but by 1956 was concentrating on collecting 19th- and 20th-century American folk art. In 1961, he was one of the founders of what is now the Museum of American Folk Art in New York, and then its first curator.
At the time, pioneer collectors such as Abby Aldrich Rockefeller had adopted 1850 as a cutoff date, sensing that the arrival of the machine age and mass production had brought folk art to an end. Hemphill disagreed, and as a result we are startled to find objects like Harold Garrison's amazingly up-to-date little "Water Gate or Government Machine No. 3," an assemblage of carved, raw wood featuring an elephant and donkey on a seesaw. Garrison says his "machine" does everything the government does, but in less time and for less money. There's also a Gerald Ford totem and a touching carved Kennedy funeral cortege.
In his book "Twentieth-Century Folk Art and Artists," which he wrote with Julia Weissman, Hemphill gave something close to a definition of folk art, which he prefers not to define: "If there is any trait most characteristic of folk artists, it is that for them, academic theories are nonexistent and not important, and if encountered at all, meaningless. In effect, the vision of the folk artists is a private one, a personal universe... ."
Scholars have now moved in, introducing all kinds of elaborate theories about the meaning of "folk," but they're easy to ignore in the presence of the works themselves. Meanwhile, Hemphill's great contribution has been that he has tracked the continuation of folk art into the present. Only those in search of the great 18th- and early 19th-century classics of Americana -- now in museums in Shelburne, Vt., and Williamsburg, Va. -- will find disappointment in this show.
It is divided into four sections to help make sense of its highly diverse contents: "Individual Paths," "Functional Environment," "Tokens of Meaning" and "Communal Expressions," and great thought has gone into the layout, which ends at a small reading area, where books and catalogues are available for perusal. There is also, there and elsewhere, a list of the extensive programs being held over the next few months to help amplify the meaning of the collection in its larger cultural context.
Chromatically, however, the installation is a sensory obstacle course, with bright, color-coded labels popping out to hit you in the eye, making reading them uncomfortable; and walls and ceiling painted dove-gray, making this already light-starved gallery feel like a pigeon coop.
"Hemphill embraced the material because he believed it was art and because his personal tastes and budget preferred the different," says NMAA Curator Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, who in the mid-'80s heard that plans to sell the collection elsewhere had bogged down and swiftly went into action to encourage her museum to buy it.
The acquisition was swiftly and enthusiastically endorsed, and negotiations begun with the help -- it should be noted -- of that nasty "D" word, deaccessioning. The Hemphill collection was acquired with funds that accrued from a controversial $1.4 million sale of a 17th-century Italian painting by Guercino to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Though there was a fuss at the time, few would now argue that the museum has not come out way ahead, given its exclusive mission of showing American art.
The exhibition will continue through Jan. 21 at the National Museum of American Art, located at the Gallery Place Metro Station at Eighth and G streets NW. It is open every day except Christmas, from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.