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Some visitors to the Barnes Foundation may be surprised to find, amongst the dozens of lush Renoirs and chunky Cézannes, a handful of folk-art style paintings portraying rural black life. These works are, like everything else in the Barnes, presented without explanation or commentary, rendering their presence all the more mysterious.
They are the work of Horace Pippin (1888-1946) of West Chester, the self-taught artist who, a decade before his death, was “discovered” by N.C. Wyeth in a 1937 Chester County Art Association show. Wyeth introduced his work to critic Christian Brinton, dealer Robert Carlen — and collector Albert Barnes.
Almost half of Pippin’s known output is currently on view at the Brandywine River Museum, directly below the space permanently devoted to that of mentor N.C. Wyeth. The Way I See It shows the entire swath of Pippin’s career, which began after he returned from his World War I service (with the Harlem Hellfighters). “When I was a boy I loved to make pictures,” he wrote, but the war “brought out all the art in me” — despite limited use of his right arm due to the permanent effects of a war injury.
The show is grouped by subject matter: powerful WWI battle scenes, still lifes with flowers from his wife’s garden, portraits of friends and heroes, West Chester street scenes, domestic interiors, historic and biblical scenes. His style is typical of the self-trained artist, with a limited color palette and rudimentary grasp of perspective.
Pippin’s style “was mischaracterized in Pippin’s time as ‘primitive’ or ‘naïve’ for its perceived pureness of expression,” exhibit curator Audrey Lewis wrote in the wall text displayed at the beginning of the exhibit.
Asked in an interview to expand on that point, Lewis says Pippin’s work straddles the line between folk art and Modernism (the latter element of his work, of course, explaining its presence in the Barnes). Where he parted ways with the Modernists, she says, was that he didn’t reject representation, as Modernists like Picasso did.
This is not to say that he painted exactly what he saw, though. For example, in one painting he changed the white stone of the West Chester Courthouse to red brick. “Was he making a political point? Or was it an aesthetic decision? He liked red and used it to lead the viewer through many of his paintings,” Lewis says.
In the end, she’s reluctant to pin him down with any label, arguing that to do so serves to diminish an artist who was so deeply attuned to the world.
That engagement with the world — and with political issues like war, slavery, and segregation — disqualifies him as an outsider artist. “True outsider artists are who they are, unaffiliated and idiosyncratic,” Lyle Rexer wrote in How to Look at Outsider Art. “Their art is what it is, with few references to other art and often little or no sense of an artistic past or heritage. Outsider art tends to be all present tense and to reinvent the wheel in terms of visual forms.”
Lewis would, presumably, agree with Rexer. Pushed to pigeonhole, she says she’s comfortable with “self-taught” or “self-trained” to describe him — but sees him most importantly as “authentic.”
Not a bad thing for an artist — or any human being — to be.
What, When, Where
Horace Pippin: The Way I See It. Through July 19 at the Brandywine River Museum of Art. Route 1, Chadds Ford, PA. 610-388-2700 or brandwinemuseum.org.
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