Photography by Gavin Ashworth | August 2009 | “It escapes the form,” Allan Katz will say, to explain why he favors one particular piece of American folk sculpture over others of its genre. What he means is that the artist or craftsman, while satisfying the needs of the client—the nineteenth-century tobacconist who wanted an Indian figure, the barber who needed a pole (see Fig. 5), the shoemaker who wanted a gigantic but dapper two-tone leather boot as the literal foot for a sidewalk-sale rack-—also took the opportunity to do something more. He injected an extra element of imagination, of aesthetic sensibility and daring, of vitality, into his work, transforming what could have been a merely utilitarian object into art— America’s art, Katz insists. And America’s history.Katz has been studying this extra dimension for more than forty years, first as a passionate collector of American folk art, and for the last two decades as one of the field’s leading dealers. He and his wife Penny, his business partner and critical alter ego, are as the Brooklyn-born Katz would say, “go-to guys” in the field. As such, Katz clearly escapes the form himself.
His collecting has been shaped, he will tell you, by a mathematically inclined mind, one that finds great satisfaction in order and balance. He started with stamps and coins as a boy; when in 1949 his family moved to a house in Flushing, then on the outskirts of the city, he pursued insects and butterflies in the nearby woods, eventually opening a natural history museum in his parents’ basement. Admission was a nickel and, he recalls, there was a “line around the block—well, maybe four or five kids”—on the day when he put on display a monkey skull donated by his uncle, a scientist.
After completing a master’s degree in economics, Katz cofounded an electronics business with his college roommate. Not surprisingly, the young businessman’s collecting itch turned to advertising materials, specifically nineteenth-century stone lithographs. By the mid-1970s he had amassed one of the leading collections of such signs and tin containers (see Fig. 15). He says he enjoyed the visual balance and order of the layouts, qualities essential in objects designed to communicate during the interval of a brief glance from a passerby. In retrospect, Katz adds, he was also enjoying something else he found in the advertisements.
“What I was seeing, though I did not know it,” he says, “was folk art pictured in these two-dimensional signs that I would shortly come across three-dimensionally.” The staple imagery of his lithographs were romanticized street scenes with trolleys, tobacco figures, and rural homesteads with weathervanes. These were the objects Katz had begun to notice at the antiques shows he was visiting, and when he took a closer look he was hooked. Here again he found the symmetry, balance, and order that appeals to him, along with another element: a fascinating and seemingly contradictory combination of naiveté and sophistication.
Of the city, he pursued insects and butterflies in the nearby woods, eventually opening a natural history museum in his parents’ basement. Admission was a nickel and, he recalls, there was a “line around the block—well, maybe four or five kids”—on the day when he put on display a monkey skull donated by his uncle, a scientist.
After completing a master’s degree in economics, Katz cofounded an electronics business with his college roommate. Not surprisingly, the young businessman’s collecting itch turned to advertising materials, specifically nineteenth-century lithographs. By the early 1970s he had amassed one of the leading collections of these posters, signs, and product labels. He says he enjoyed the visual balance and order of the layouts, qualities essential in objects designed to communicate during the interval of a brief glance from a passerby. In retrospect, Katz adds, he was also enjoying something else he found in the advertisements.
“What I was seeing, though I did not know it,” he says, “was folk art pictured in these two-dimensional signs that I would shortly come across three-dimensionally.” The staple imagery of his lithographs were romanticized street scenes with trolleys, tobacco figures, and rural homesteads with weather vanes. These were the objects Katz had begun to notice at the antiques shows he was visiting, and when he took a closer look he was hooked. Here again he found the symmetry, balance, and order that appeals to him, along with another element: a fascinating and seemingly contradictory combination of naiveté and sophistication. Katz explains that the initial market for sculptural folk art was, for the most part, made up of middle-class provincial businessmen whose tastes and needs were simple and direct. Yet the craftsmen they hired were often highly skilled. Julius Theodore Melchers (1829–1909), for example, the premier carver of tobacco store figures in Detroit during the second half of the nineteenth century, had apprenticed to a master woodcarver in his native Prussia and studied in Paris before immigrating to the American Midwest. “If you look at Melchers’s figures,” Katz suggests, “they are basically Italian noblemen in Indian garb.”
Katz positions the visitor in front of a tobacco figure in the airy living room cum gallery of his and Penny’s house. It is a cross-legged Indian princess, signed by Samuel Anderson Robb (1851–1928). Robb, who learned his craft as a carver of ship’s figures in lower Manhattan, operated the leading studio for the creation of trade figures in New York through the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Look at the princess’s face, Katz urges. It is indeed a face of a timeless classical beauty. “Any woman would die for that nose.”
Wealthy Americans of that era, Katz notes, were going to Europe to buy old masters, filling their mansions with Italian marbles and French tapestries. They would not have regarded Robb’s or Melchers’s work as fine art. Nor did the folk artists’ clients, who were simply ordering up something for the shop. These are the circumstances that, ironically, created an atmosphere of extraordinary freedom for artists. Consider, for example, the dapper male mannequin with articulated joints that stands on a built cabinet in the living room area (see cover). Made sometime around the turn of the twentieth-century—“could be 1890,” Katz says, “could be 1910”—the little dude sports plaid pants and a well-cut dark jacket.
“But,” says Katz, “it’s all about the face.” And it is: humorous and bold, the mannequin’s features were painted with an assured expressionism worthy of a Matisse or a Picasso. It is hard to imagine the American fine arts establishment of the time accepting such work. Had it not been for clients like the anonymous haberdasher, the artist might never have found an outlet for his vision.
Unlimited freedom, however, can express itself as disorder. That was not far from what Katz found in the sculptural folk art world when he began collecting in the mid- to late 1970s (Penny joined him in 1992). It was a fascinating but turbulent marketplace that ranged from Madison Avenue galleries to flea markets, where the truly extraordinary stood side by side with what could be only described as kitsch. Much of the art came then with no more provenance than a receipt scribbled on the back of a napkin—“Found in a barn in Maine,” perhaps.
It was a great time to learn—so much material was changing hands back in the seventies and eighties, Katz recalls, that “on a daily basis…you could touch and feel a lot of it.” In one sense this explosion of enthusiasm came just in time. Much of our folk art heritage had already been lost through neglect. Katz’s father had told him about the scrap metal drive of World War II, of the store signage and advertising figures being hauled away for reprocessing as munitions. That is why today, Katz says, nineteenth-century mass-produced tobacco figures cast in zinc are actually rarer than hand-carved wooden figures. However, the demand that the boom created also threatened to undercut standards, to “commodify” folk art.
There was, Katz knew, a need to treat folk art as art, not merely as collectibles. A jury needed to sort the existing body of work, to evaluate each artist’s oeuvre and relate the work of one to another, to define the history and development of different genres. This was work for which Katz was mentally predisposed. “I came into folk art and folk art came into me at a time when, for lack of other words, there was a need and a permission.”
Katz is quick to say that he was only one of a generation of dealers who conducted this work, and they were all seeking to address the same situation and bring some discipline into the field. Katz tells of how much it bothered him, when he was just starting his personal collection—“putting on a tie and jacket,” as he puts it, “going to shows and pretending to be a player”—that many of the folk art dealers would tout each piece of their inventory as “the best” of some artist’s work. How could you say that, Katz demands, when no one had studied all of the artist’s known works and actually compared them? Thirty years later, Katz says, after all the sorting, “the nice thing now is that you can look people in the eye and say in a much more authoritative way, this is in the top 5 percent of a guy’s work or one of the best things [in a genre].”
There is still room for debate, of course. Katz might look at a painting of a child by the nineteenth-century itinerant portraitist John Brewster and say it is in the top 10 percent of his work. “Well one guy might think it is in the top 15 percent, another guy might think it is his best piece. Who cares? You are acknowledging to a collector that you have looked at enough of them to know that this is in the top section of his work. The number of Brewster children that come out of barns or attics in Maine, are very few these days, and they will not change good, better, and best now. The body of work is known.”
Too often, Katz says, “collectors do not clean up their mistakes.” They accumulate, but do not review their collections to weed out inferior items purchased when they were less knowledgeable or more enthusiastic than judicious. His sorting instinct, however, has made Katz a remorseless winnower. Soon after discovering his true love—sculptural folk art —he sold the bulk of his lithograph collection. He got into dealing because as he educated himself, he wanted to trade up. The folk art collection he shares today with Penny is compact and choice—masterworks of which they never tire. It is also fixed. After he decided to become a full-time dealer around 1985, Katz decided that he could no longer justify keeping new acquisitions for himself; if he did, clients might well wonder if what he was selling them was second best. He relies on Penny’s eye—she joined him in the business without previous experience in folk art but has proven to have shrewd judgment, and no hesitation in speaking her mind (courteously but firmly).Both Katzes do collect. Penny has assembled an extraordinary display of German and Czech art deco ceramics. Allan collects vintage photographs, in several of which, he notes, he has identified folk art that he has actually bought and sold or seen in other collections. Anyway, because they have chosen to display their inventory (as well as the collection of folk art) in their airy, open-plan contemporary house, the mix with which they live is constantly changing. Right now, for example, they are enjoying (until it finds a buyer) a masterpiece by the twentieth-century African American folk artist William Edmondson (see Fig. 12), a stone carver who supported himself making tombstones and garden figures for the African American community in Nashville. Three weather vanes that float serenely across the room, also awaiting buyers, are among the best, Katz judges, in the field of American folk art. They constantly rearrange their personal pieces, even adjusting the tilt of that mannequin’s head, to suit whatever may be passing through.
What is striking about the display in their house is, in part, how well the vernacular art co-exists with the modern architecture (as well as furniture by Mies van der Rohe and Mira and George Nakashima; see Fig. 8). Not surprising, says Katz. One of the qualities in folk art that most appeals to him is its reductionism, the stripping down of forms to their essentials. The motive for this, he believes, was partly economic—these were for the most part utilitarian objects sold to middle-class shop and business owners, and simplicity kept the cost of production in check. But the reductionism was also, Katz maintains, a style the folk artists adopted to better reach the intended audience. The business owners’ clientele, the working class of the nineteenth-century United States, was largely immigrant, largely illiterate, and often not English speaking. Simplification of form to its essentials allowed the art to speak equally well to people from all sorts of cultural traditions—made it relevant across the melting pot. This ethnic and multicultural ferment, Katz suggests, bears points of similarity to our present-day world.
“We,” he says, in this instance meaning just himself and Penny, “simply feel that the best of American folk art holds up to many other things that are traded in this world. The dollar value, too; we still feel that it is very undervalued.” This despite the fact that they have seen weather vanes change hands for a million dollars. It is fine art, after all, art as fine as any, or more.
Gesturing generally to the objects around their house and beyond, Katz explains: “That is our culture. That is America. That is the journey America has been going through.”
Tom Christopher is a writer living in Middletown, Connecticut.