Grandma Moses paired with her contemporaries
"Catchin' the Turkey" by Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses (1860-1961), oil on pressed wood, 12 X 16 inches, will be on view July 1 as part of Bennington Museum’s new exhibition “Grandma Moses: American Modern.”
Abstraction was stretching into color without line or perspective. Helen Frankenthaler, Andy Warhol, and Robert Rauschenberg were experimenting with printmaking and collage in lofts and warehouses in the city. But it was an artist in her 70s, painting in a farmhouse upstate, who rocked the mid-20th-century art world.
Anna Mary Robertson Moses does not fit the vision of a post-modern, post-war artist. But she held a prominent place in that milieu from the late-1930s to the 1960s, giving her first major show at the Museum of Modern Art. As her fame grew, her work was shown every year during that period at the Carnegie International exhibition. No doubt, a young Andy Warhol, who was still in art school and falling in love with folk art, saw her work and admired it.
This summer, Bennington Museum is challenging visitors to see Moses as a woman of her time. “Grandma Moses: American Modern,” opening July 1, compares her to other artists of her time, from Joseph Cornell to Miriam Shapiro, says curator Jamie Franklin. He has set their work side by side in order to draw parallels—to Frankenthaler and her vision of the world, to Cornell and his process, to Warhol and the reception of her work.
“We’re not saying she was influenced by Warhol or Picasso or Cubism,” says the museum’s executive director Robert Wolterstorff, “but they had everything to do with the art world that saw her work.”
New York City in the 1930s had a high interest in self-taught artists, Franklin says. This was the Depression and the era of the art of the common man, of the WPA, and photographers recording life in the streets. Many “mainstream” contemporary artists were taking forms and ideas from traditions they did not see as mainstream: Gaugin went to Tahiti, sculptors embraced Oceanic art, Picasso studied African sculptural traditions.
Moses, an outsider to the mainstream contemporary art community, was also self-taught. She borrowed from folk traditions, as the Cubists did, and from New England decorative arts and 19th-century murals. But her vision related to Modern art and abstraction, Wolterstorff says, not recording the world as it looks to the eye, but to the mind.
Moses is known for painting the world of her childhood as she remembered it. She said she would close her eyes and let landscapes pour out of her, Franklin says.
He sees the same inspiration in Frankenthaler’s abstractions and vivid, formless color. “Mountains and Sea is a memory painting of a landscape,” he says of Frankenthaler’s piece that evokes waves pounding on the Nova Scotia shore. The show also included Silver Coast, an abstract work inspired by Frankenthaler’s honeymoon on the coast of Portugal.
Frankenthaler would have been familiar with Moses’s home landscapes. She graduated from Bennington in 1949, when Moses was a celebrity ten miles away. The museum does not know for certain that they met, but they did have direct connections, Franklin says. One of Frankenthaler’s classmates used to take Moses for drives in her convertible.
And they share more vision than may appear at a glance. Though Moses’s scenes are less abstract than Frankenthaler’s, Wolterstorff sees a flattening of landscapes in her work and abstraction in the shape of the houses, the textures of trees on a ridge, and the colors—greens, oranges, vivid shades—that do not sit comfortably together.
“She was a brilliant colorist,” he says, who painted from more than memory. “People think Moses was transcribing scenes from her childhood in the 19th century, but she drew from many sources.”
The show also compares her with Joseph Cornell, who made collages in his basement and became one of America’s best-known Surrealists. Grandma Moses was essentially a collage artist, too, Franklin says. She traced elements from magazines and cards and, like Cornell, drew from her own life and the country’s history. She painted cohesive scenes, not surreal discords. And she brings together people and buildings from different places, and they can give her work a disjointed feel.
“Thirty years ago, it would sound unoriginal, but now it’s fascinating,” Wolterstorff says. “Now she looks post-modern; she takes in pre-existing images and refigures them. She sounds like Andy Warhol.”
Warhol was beginning his career in the 1950s, as Moses was climbing to international fame. She had works shown annually at the Carnegie International when Warhol was an art student in Pittsburgh, and he may well have seen them; he certainly knew her work. He collected folk art and later served on the board of the American Folk Art Museum and showed his collection there.
In her lifetime, Moses was a sensation and a familiar name at national museums, Franklin says. After she died, at 101, she had a short afterlife in the larger world. Then the larger world looked down on her. “It’s why we wanted to do this show,” he says.