CHADDS FORD, Pa. — Horace Pippin, a self-taught American artist who died in 1946, is most often encountered one work at a time, here and there, usually in shows devoted to an overview of American or African American art in the 20th century. That often leaves the impression that Pippin was a minor artist, good at some things but unskilled at others. When his work is seen piecemeal, his artistry is easily overshadowed by that of more imposing figures, including Jacob Lawrence and Aaron Douglas, or made to seem merely an exemplar of larger trends in the art world (toward folk subjects, “primitivism” or the naivete of the “outsider” artist).
The Brandywine River Museum of Art has now assembled a relatively rare chance to see Pippin’s work in a larger body, in an exhibition of more than 65 paintings billed as the first major Pippin show in two decades. The cumulative effect is exhilarating, leaving visitors with a powerful sense of Pippin’s consistent vision, his boldness and unerring instinct for composition and organization. If you know a handful of Pippin works, you may feel as if his “style” is a mix of accidental virtues and unfortunate deficits; after seeing this exhibition, you will probably believe that he is every bit the author and owner of his personal style as any other formidable artist of the 20th century.
Pippin had strong connections to the Brandywine area. He was born near there, and though he spent most of his early life in Upstate New York and served overseas in World War I, he returned to the region in 1920. Despite a severe war injury to his right arm, he taught himself how to paint, and by 1937 had come to the attention of the cultural mandarins both in Chester County (near Chadds Ford, where the Wyeth family lived) and the larger Philadelphia region, with Albert Barnes (founder of the Barnes Collection) a particular champion.
His supporters among elite white collectors and critics did what collectors and critics have always done: They made Pippin into something they needed. He was a “pure” artist, an authentic individual, a primitive, an unsullied, autochthonous visionary. There was in this a good deal of the condescending benevolence that is so often a way station on society’s long road out of the dark thickets of bigotry. Their enthusiasm for Pippin was no doubt genuine, but Pippin himself, and the distinctive qualities of his art, got lost in the larger project of promoting Pippin as a symbol.
Even today, it’s hard to set aside the categories that were used to frame the meaning of Pippin’s work more than 80 years ago. Was his work primitive or modern? Was he aware of, and imitating, the formal strategies and innovations of “serious” artists or making independent, sui generis images disconnected from larger artistic currents?
The curators have attempted to finesse the old debate by subtitling the show “The Way I See It,” a line taken from a statement Pippin made about his work: “I paint it exactly the way it is and exactly the way I see it.” One detects a bit of impatience in that sentence, as if Pippin may have grown tired of trying to explain his work to people who kept asking him the same questions over and over again.
The sentence, however, has two parts, and the exhibition organizers have emphasized the less important one. “The way I see it” is an assertion of independence, common to most great painters. “I paint it exactly the way it is” is far more radical, a claim that the painter’s private, subjective view of the world is, in fact, the way the world is. And that recalls a fundamental, long-standing philosophical anxiety about perception: Is there any common ground for how we individually see things, or is it possible we all live in our own utterly solipsistic, unknowable private worlds?
Perhaps the best way to set aside old debates about Pippin’s work is to engage with this fundamentally existential aspect of his achievement. Who knows whether Pippin knew Henri Rousseau, or van Gogh, or English sporting art, or Matisse, Picasso and Braque? What seems more interesting is how consistently his art is about things like unconcealing, the revelation of qualities of light, the emergence of a profound and very particular sense of time and place. In Martin Heidegger’s contemporaneous 1935-37 essay “The Origin of the Work of Art,” the existentialist philosopher argued that the artwork “opens up a world and keeps it abidingly in force.”
That idea haunts a series of exceptionally good paintings Pippin made in 1940-41, of the Birmingham Meeting House in West Chester, a stone building with white shutters, seen in Pippin’s paintings under a thick canopy of trees. Technically, Pippin is in his comfort zone — he loved strongly geometric architectural forms and the play of trees against a sky — but it is the light, the sense of enclosure, the equation of a religious space with a momentary revelation of sky through the thickness of trees, that makes these works deeply moving. In the small variations between the three Meeting House works on display in the exhibition, Pippin is grasping at something, productively and intuitively. The world, in these images, does indeed seem “abidingly in force.”
Even though the depiction of the human form was definitely not in his comfort zone, Pippin’s interior scenes and his depictions of African American domestic life have much the same power of revealing precise, concealed worlds. Ordinary life is often presented with the uncanny sense that it is being caught onstage, as if the painting mimics the revelation of intimacy one experiences in theater. A 1944 painting, “Interior,” borrowed from the National Gallery of Art, and a painting called “Christmas Morning, Breakfast,” borrowed from the Cincinnati Art Museum, both have strangely high ceilings for cabins, or small houses, as if these are carefully arranged set pieces seen against a backdrop that extends high up into the backstage fly space.
In a pair of Victorian parlor images, made in 1945, there are no human figures present at all, with the drama limited to a play of delicate fabric patterns against large swaths of color seen in rugs, walls and curtains. Both images are dominated by centrally placed bouquets of flowers, which invert the usual deathly associations of still life: Their exuberance makes life in these empty rooms once again “abidingly in force.”
Pippin had a strange career, learning to paint late, working without recognition for years, then suddenly arriving on the national art scene by acclamation. He could now paint for money, and recognition, and yet the abundance of both didn’t corrupt or vitiate his work. Rather, he gets stronger as he paints more, culminating in a series of works called “The Holy Mountain,” referencing the famous folk-art images of “The Peaceable Kingdom” by the early 19th-century painter Edward Hicks. Made from 1944 to 1946, these works again capture a clearing in a dark wood, with hints of an early evening sky, with a scattering of animals, both feral and domestic, and people in seemingly happy coexistence. But dark things loom in the forest, soldiers, grave markers and a lynched figure hanging from a tree, and one painting is signed with the date “August 9, 1945,” the day the United States dropped an atom bomb on Nagasaki.
These images make the label “outsider” ridiculous in reference to Pippin. He takes on the world, politics, injustice, specific moments of history, and processes them through existing artistic imagery into compelling new works. The paintings reach out to a tradition of painting outside the artist, yet are deeply connected to the visual tropes and ideas he found personally compelling.
If one were to see these works first, rather than near the end of the exhibition, then perhaps the clumsiness of the human figures or the awkwardness of many of the animals would be more troubling. In contrast to some of the earliest images on view, amateurish sketches made in a wartime journal kept during his service overseas, these late paintings demonstrate the breathtaking pace and breadth of Pippin’s mastery of technique. They do everything one wants art to do.
Horace Pippin: The Way I See It On view at the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, Pa. Visit www.brandywinemuseum.org.