Press release: Self-Taught Genius charts the history of American folk art through more than 100 masterworks

By | May 24, 2016

ST. LOUIS, May 24, 2016—The Saint Louis Art Museum will present Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum, an exhibition charting the development of folk art in America while pondering the motivations for artists who were at times considered to work outside of canonical art history. The ticketed exhibition will be on view from June 19 through Sept. 11.

The exhibition explores the continuum of American folk art and the concept of a “self-taught genius” through more than 100 works of art from the Revolutionary War to contemporary times.

When Self-Taught Genius premiered at the American Folk Art Museum in 2014, The New York Times called it “enthralling” and “an intellectually provocative effort to rethink the nature of artistic creativity.”

Organized by the American Folk Art Museum, the exhibition and its national tour are made possible by generous funding from the Henry Luce Foundation, as part of its 75th anniversary initiative.

“Because folk art has not been a major collecting area for the Saint Louis Art Museum, we sought an exhibition that presents our visitors with works of exceptional quality that tell the story of a uniquely American artistic tradition,” said Brent R. Benjamin, Barbara B. Taylor Director of the Saint Louis Art Museum.

Paintings, works on paper, textiles, decorative arts and sculpture are presented within context of seven perspectives from which artists are compelled to create—achievers, encoders, messengers, improvement, reformers, ingenuity, and guides.

  • Achievers: Working outside the realm of fine arts, achievers often created works of art that were a testament to their own passionate vision or grandiose thought. For example, Marino Auruti intended his 11-foot Encyclopedic Palace to serve as a model for a 136-floor museum that would celebrate every achievement of humankind.
  • Encoders: Winthrop Chandler, whose Scenic Overmantel oil painting on panel is included in the exhibition, can be viewed as an example of an encoder, who might blur the meanings of a creation to keep outsiders away or to maintain complete control over the art.
  • Messengers: Artists like Martín Ramírez, whose Reina is featured in the exhibition, might create works that invite the viewer into their personal world by incorporating symbols that announce their visions or beliefs.
  • Improvement: Represented in the exhibition by self-taught artists depicting their own refinements or achievements, or those attained by their subject, improvement is exemplified in Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog, a portrait by Ammi Phillips that emphasizes the genteelness of the young, 19th-century sitter.
  • Reformers: Some self-taught artists driven to change the people and world around them. Works of art by reformers—including Ralph Fasanella’s 1950 painting Subway Riders—were intended to be transformative.
  • Ingenuity: By elaborating on a practice through mechanical or visual inventiveness, some self-taught artists reveal an exceptional ingenuity in their work. An unknown artist combined creativity and resourcefulness to make Knife Grinder, a 19th-century whirligig figure that captures this spirit of ingenuity.
  • Guides: Self-taught artists who mark a rite of passage or a profound event by creating of a work of art might be considered guides. For example, Carl Klewicke spent approximately 20 years working on his Original Design Quilt a wedding gift for his daughter.

The museum will offer an array of exhibition-related programming, including lectures, gallery talks and family programs that expand on the themes of Self-Taught Genius.

Melissa Wolfe, curator of American art, will discuss Self-Taught Genius in an opening lecture in the museum’s Farrell Auditorium on Saturday, June 18 at 2 pm. The free lecture coincides with the exhibition preview for museum members.

On Friday, June 24, the museum’s popular SLAM Underground party will focus on Self-Taught Genius, with activities, cocktails, and art making inspired by the exhibition and a free performance by the chamber-folk group Mt. Thelonious.

Alvia J. Wardlaw, professor of art history at Texas Southern University and curator of the University Museum, will deliver the free lecture “African American Expressions in Folk Art” in the museum’s Farrell Auditorium on Saturday, June 25 at 10:30 am. Wardlaw curated the groundbreaking exhibition The Quilts of Gee’s Bend and Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial.

Family Sundays in August complement the themes of Self-Taught Genius by celebrating a different artist each week whose work changed the art world. Families are invited to see work by groundbreaking artists in the Museum’s collection before unleashing their own creative genius with hands-on art activities that change each Sunday from 1 pm to 4 pm.

A fully-illustrated catalogue with essays by the organizing curators Stacy C. Hollander and Valérie Rousseau, both with the American Folk Art Museum, is available in the Museum Shops.

Self-Taught Genius is organized by the American Folk Art Museum. The Museum’s presentation is overseen by Melissa Wolfe, curator of American art, with financial assistance provided by the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency.

Admission is free for Members. For the general public, tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for seniors and students, $6 for children ages 6 to 12, and free for children age 5 and under. Tickets are available in person or through MetroTix. Tickets purchased through MetroTix incur a service charge.

CONTACT: Matthew Hathaway, 314.655.5493,