‘Grandma Moses: American Modern’ at the Bennington Museum
So you think you know Grandma Moses, the little old lady who began painting at the age of 78? Her name is not readily associated with Modernism, yet the same curators and collectors who embraced this movement in the 1930s and 40s were also collecting folk art. In fact, the first public exhibition of Grandma Moses’ paintings was held at the Museum of Modern Art in 1939, organized by Sidney Janis, who became famous as the gallerist who represented Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art.
Bennington Museum is home to the largest public collection of paintings by Anna Mary Robertson Moses, who catapulted to international fame for her charming, naïvely executed paintings of rural American farm life. The popular view is that she painted scenes remembered from her childhood, but she was, in fact, a highly skilled artist, combining multiple perspectives, collage and popular imagery to unconsciously parallel the techniques of Cubism, Surrealism and Pop Art.
‘Grandma Moses: American Modern,’ on view at the Museum from July 1 through November 5, offers a fresh new look by putting her paintings side-by-side with works by such iconic Modernists as Joseph Cornell, Helen Frankenthaler, Fernand Léger and Andy Warhol, and folk artists such as Edward Hicks and Joseph Pickett, to reveal how they all drew on found images, memory and their innate sensibilities to create their original masterpieces.
Like any trained artist, Moses used thought, planning and intuition to create works of enormous vitality and imagination. She wrote, “I look out the window sometimes to seek the color of the shadows and the different greens in the trees, but when I get ready to paint I just close my eyes and imagine a scene.” Working in a similar fashion, Helen Frankenthaler also held the landscape inside herself and let it pour out, splashing thinned oil paints directly from a coffee can onto a canvas on the floor.
Moses’ technique of compiling multiple unrelated clippings into distinct new images echoes the practice of Joseph Cornell, another self-taught artist now recognized as an important Modernist. Moses had a knack for finding images of figures that conveyed abstract visual information. Once found, they would be used multiple times, traced from clippings she kept in a large painted trunk. Like Moses, Cornell was astoundingly inventive in his use of found sources, often repurposing a favored image again and again, sometimes decades apart. Miriam Schapiro’s fabric painting, ‘Patience’, is a perfect complement to Moses’ ‘The Quilting Bee.’ Schapiro was an exponent of Femmage, a 1970s art movement which revived materials, techniques and processes historically associated with traditional women’s art. Andy Warhol had the same appetite as Moses for adapting his imagery from popular printed sources. An exhibition of his Campbell’s Soup cans in 1962 went on to become icons of Pop Art. They were screen prints, a commercial process often used for mass production, converted into fine art and then back to a commercial product. Moses’ own work, borrowed from popular commercial imagery, created original paintings that became greeting cards and prints.
This unprecedented exhibit was organized by Shelburne Museum and Bennington Museum, combining two great collections supplemented with pieces from public and private collections for the largest group of works by Moses assembled in decades, accompanied by a scholarly, illustrated catalogue, Bennington Museum is located at 75 Main Street/Route 9, Bennington. For details, visit benningtonmuseum.org or call 802-447-1571.