In his once widely read book The Voices of Silence (1951), the critic, curator, and novelist André Malraux suggested that what made artists was their being more impressed, at a formative age, with a work of art than with actuality. It’s an appealing idea—especially if we allow a very broad definition of “work of art” and include reproductions and mass-media images—but it doesn’t explain the urgent need to make art that drives both schooled and self-taught painters and sculptors who didn’t experience that kind of defining encounter. The sculptor David Smith recalled that “other than some very, very dark picture with sheep in it in the public library,” he had seen virtually nothing growing up in Indiana and Ohio. “I didn’t know anything about art until I came to New York. [But] I wanted to be a painter when I came.” Dorothy Knowles, the doyenne of Canadian landscape painting, was raised on a farm in Saskatchewan at a time when art was not part of the school curriculum. “I had an aunt who painted watercolors of kittens and flowers,” she once told me. “I knew I wanted to paint, but I knew I didn’t want to do that.”

“He hung a tombstone out for me to make. I knowed it was God telling me what to do.”

For self-taught artists, alternative sources of images often have important repercussions. Magazine illustrations, mail-order catalogues, and even real-estate advertisements resonated with James Castle, in rural Idaho, while for others, church materials such as prayer cards are crucial provocations. In Alabama, Thornton Dial, a former welder of railroad cars celebrated for his complex accumulations of sometimes unlikely materials, simply said that he always liked making things. The Nashville-based sculptor William Edmondson (ca. 1874–1951), a deeply religious man, had a very personal explanation for beginning to carve in stone, around 1931. “I was out in the driveway with some old pieces of stone when I heard a voice telling me to pick up my tools . . . . I looked up in the sky, and right there in the noon daylight, He hung a tombstone out for me to make. I knowed it was God telling me what to do.”

William Edmondson, Untitled (Crucifix), ca. 1935–45, Carved limestone, Collection of KAWS. Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio.

Until then, Edmondson had been, at various times, an agricultural laborer, an exerciser of racehorses, an employee of the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway Company, and an orderly at Nashville Women’s Hospital, which had closed not long before he devoted himself to sculpture. His first works were tombstones with elegant, low-relief inscriptions and, sometimes, simplified birds or animals, acquired by members of Nashville’s black community for the graves of segregated cemeteries. Edmondson’s ambition soon increased. He carved freestanding figures, as well as tombstones, along with highly individualized birds and animals, sometimes in multiples, and a wide range of religious subjects, all informed by his profound connection with his Baptist faith: Christ on the cross, lambs, biblical characters, a vast choir of angels. He offered his work for sale, arranged in groups in his yard, gradually attracting attention beyond Nashville. The photographers Edward Weston and Louise Dahl-Wolfe both took pictures of the sculptor and his work, expanding his reputation. At a time when Modernism was embracing the work of self-taught artists as an alternative to the academic tradition, just as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse had embraced African sculpture at the beginning of the twentieth century, Dahl-Wolfe’s photos encouraged the youthful Museum of Modern Art to organize an exhibition of Edmondson’s sculpture in 1937, making him the first African American artist to have a solo show at the museum.

This summer, “William Edmondson: A Monumental Vision” at the Barnes Foundation offers an economical but comprehensive overview of this fascinating artist’s work, assembled from international private and public collections by the museum’s curators James Claiborne and Nancy Ireson.1 The exhibition is essentially a complete retrospective, demonstrating the full range of Edmondson’s themes, tombstones included, and bearing witness to both the consistency and inventiveness of his approach over the more than two decades that he carved stone. Dates tend to be approximate—“ca. 1932–41” is typical—since many works, except for the tombstones, are undated. The majority of the sculptures on view have been assigned to the 1930s and 1940s, based on stylistic evidence or documentation such as their inclusion in dated photographs. Handsomely installed in two main groups that evoke the way Edmondson displayed his work in his yard, with additional works placed on the periphery for emphasis, the well-chosen selection brings together about sixty sculptures that encompass all of the artist’s preferred subjects, as well as the occasional outlier. There’s an abundance of female figures with masses of heavy hair, standing or seated, often holding something close to the front of their bodies, sometimes enveloped in thick capes. Some are schoolteachers or nurses. Two are Eleanor Roosevelt. A bride is buttressed by an arch of veil. Pairs of figures sit side by side on low chairs or sofas. A buxom mermaid, more fish than woman, extends horizontally. In addition, there’s a notably un-nautical two-story Noah’s Ark (ca. 1930) and a couple of birdbaths, along with other objects. A group of Weston’s and Dahl-Wolfe’s images introduce us to the man himself, sometimes shown at work, and remind us of how Edmondson displayed his efforts in his yard.

William Edmondson, 1937, Cheekwood Estate and Gardens. Photo: Louise Dahl-Wolfe © Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents

Edmondson conceived his subjects, whether figures, animals, birds, or inanimate objects, as confrontational, blunt geometric forms that retain the memory of the original block of limestone. His chisel-and-mallet method produced rhythmic marks, ranging from rough pitting, evocative of fur and thick hair, to smoother expanses for things like the shells of aggressively domed turtles. Crisp edges play against softer ones; delicate incisions and projections suggest features and details of clothing. No matter how engaged we are by the subject, we are always aware of the repetitive blows that shaped the stone, of the hand that held the chisel and the insistent hammering. At the same time, we are completely convinced by lively details, such as the bow on the back of Miss Louisa (1933) or the articulated curve of a lion’s ear, that animate forms simplified to near abstraction. Squirrels raise nuts to their faces, framed by flattened, roughly textured tails that rise behind them. A bride’s low-cut dress is grooved with delicate lines that suggest lace or pleats. The tension generated by the coexistence of image, chunky form, and the unignorable evidence of direct carving challenges the apparent straightforwardness and deceptive simplicity of Edmondson’s sculptures and keeps us looking.

No matter how engaged we are by the subject, we are always aware of the repetitive blows that shaped the stone.

Although he repeated motifs, Edmondson seems to have freshly conceived each iteration. No two angels are alike, each having different gestures and garments and sporting wings with different positions and textures. Yet Edmonson is loyal to bilateral symmetry, so much so that even small deviations become astonishingly eloquent, as in Little Orphan Annie (n.d.), a seated girl with toes emerging from under a long skirt, who rests her head, weighted by masses of curly hair, on one hand. A pair of seated, nearly identical women in Po’ch Ladies (ca. 1932–41) hold their arms in different positions, which makes us scrutinize the piece, in vain, for other variations. The only completely asymmetrical work in the exhibition is Seated Girl with Folded Legs (ca. 1934–41), the subject set on the ground, lower legs bent, shins stacked in front of her, placing a hand on her folded leg. Unlike any of the other figures, she twists her torso a little, wrenching her over-scaled shoulders slightly away from parallel to the plane of her legs to alter the insistent frontality of almost every other work.

William Edmondson, Ancient Egyptian Couple (formerly Adam and Eve)ca. 1940, Carved limestone, Museum of Everything, London. Photo: Courtesy of The Museum of Everything, London. 

Even more expressive is Bess and Joe (ca. 1930–40), a couple on a low couch. She sits primly, legs neatly aligned under the arch of her skirt, arms resting on her lap. The ample knees of his long, deeply bent legs press forward. Both figures are sharply characterized. Bess’s deep-set eyes are framed by a symmetrical hairdo. Joe’s round face, with minimally indicated features under a cap, is turned slightly away; his jacket and bow tie attest to the importance of the occasion. Two other seated pairs, versions of the biblical Martha and Mary (ca. 1930–39 and ca. 1931–37), demonstrate Edmondson’s ability to conceive similar motifs freshly. In one, the women are almost indistinguishable from one another. Heads lowered, arms folded, they differ only in the slight variation of their legs, under the arches of their skirts. In the other, they wear puffy, textured skirts that conceal their legs, with their shoulders at different heights, as they hold what might be books at different angles. And then there is the enigmatic Ancient Egyptian Couple (formerly Adam and Eve) (ca. 1940), as hieratic and formal as anything produced in Thebes. As in many Egyptian sculptures of couples and in contrast to any other of Edmondson’s groups in the exhibition, the female figure places her arm around the back of her companion. Just what Edmondson’s connection to Egyptian civilization might have been is unknown.

“A Monumental Vision” is accompanied by a well-designed, copiously illustrated catalogue with essays by the curators and other scholars, as well as an interview with Brendan Fernandes, a Kenyan-born Canadian artist “working at the intersection of dance and visual arts” who was commissioned by the Barnes to choreograph performances in the gallery where the sculptures are displayed, responding to the works on view and, we are told, turning the museum space into “a place for communal homage to the artistic and spiritual legacy of Edmonson.” Much of the text in the catalogue and in the gallery is devoted to criticizing the way the artist was perceived in his lifetime outside of the black community of Nashville—that is, by the larger community that focused attention on his work, considered it to be serious art worth serious attention, exhibited it, photographed it, and acquired it. There is a good deal of consternation about what are termed “the complexities of showing Black artists in spaces that, historically, have been characterized as white.” Edmondson comes in for praise, in this context. In his interview, Fernandes credits the sculptor’s exhibiting his work at moma with rupturing what he calls the Western hegemony of the museum as an institution and, he says, with creating instead “a space that now allows queer people of color, like myself, to feel that we belong.”

William Edmondson, Mermaidca. 1932–41, Carved limestone, Collection of Dr. Robert and Katharine Booth. Photo: Courtesy of the Barnes Foundation.

There and elsewhere, there’s a fair amount of judging the past by the standards of the present. The press release produced by moma for the 1937 exhibition describes “Mr. Edmondson” as “a Negro of Nashville, Tennessee,” with no art training and very little education, who “has probably never seen a piece of sculpture except his own,” and who believes that he makes sculpture “at God’s command.” It’s an unremarkable, respectful document of the period, but the Barnes catalogue’s present-day commentators take great exception to the characterization of Edmondson by moma’s director Alfred H. Barr Jr. in the press release as a “modern primitive,” a common term at the time, applied to every self-taught artist from Henri Rousseau to Grandma Moses. “Primitive” was applied, as well, to the art of non-industrialized, traditional cultures. Before they were given to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the works from Africa, Oceania, and Meso-America that now occupy the Michael Rockefeller Wing were exhibited at the Museum of Primitive Art. The connotation may be different today, but in 1937, the term was neither condescending nor derogatory; instead, it was a standard art-historical reference. That Barr used it, along with another current word of the time, “naive,” in place of some now more accepted term, is no different than his using “Negro” instead of “African American” or the even more current uppercase “Black.” Even today, how artists like Edmondson are referred to is in flux. The work of many such artists can be seen in the Museum of American Folk Art, a name that suggests specialization in weathervanes and pottery, which is hardly accurate. “Outsider” was popular for a while, until people started asking “outside of what?” “Self-taught” seems the most accurate but can be a little cumbersome. When I did a catalogue essay for an exhibition of selections from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, the late William Arnett’s extraordinary collection of work by contemporary descriptive-term-of-your-choice artists like Edmondson—which he considered to be an important, uniquely American art form, like jazz—I spent a good deal of time typing “self-taught African American artist from the rural South.”

Barr goes on to say that

Recognition of the achievement of naive or self-taught artists is one of the discoveries of contemporary taste. Usually the naive artist works in the easier medium of painting. Edmondson, however, has chosen to work in limestone, which he attacks with extraordinary courage and directness to carve out simple, emphatic forms.

“Emphatic” is definitely the right word for Edmondson’s sculptures, but it is not only the articulateness of his forms, but also their extraordinary vitality that makes the carvings so compelling. Both formally and emotionally, the exhibition at the Barnes is exhilarating and impressive. The charm, wit, and occasional whimsy of the works is undeniable—I defy anyone to resist the allure of a large opossum, striding purposely forward—but so is the inventiveness, the intensity, and the palpable emotion of everything on view. Edmondson’s story is interesting and moving, but like any of the best self-taught artists, such as Thornton Dial or James Castle, his work requires no special pleading or hyphenation. It is particularly appropriate that “William Edmondson: A Monumental Vision” is at the Barnes, where Dr. Albert C. Barnes collected paintings by Henri Rousseau, John Kane, and Horace Pippen, among other self-taught artists, and exhibited them with his works by Henri Matisse, Paul Cézanne, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. No special categories needed.

  1.   “William Edmondson: A Monumental Vision” opened at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, on June 25 and remains on view through September 10, 2023. 

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 42 Number 1, on page 46
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