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Journal, Day Five
“The lust for line trumps everything” says the brochure for “Obsessive Drawing” at the American Folk Art Museum. I’ve never been to the place, and it’s only $9 (a bargain compared to $20 MoMA right next door). The first gratifying thing about the museum is that it is quite sparsely attended for an early Thursday afternoon, raw and gray. There is none of the bustling and jostling of the Met and none of the preening of the MoMA crowd; the only nuisance is one woman’s ringtone, which emits the Brandenburg Concerto. . . .
Each floor is small, and there are five of them, so one gets a sense of steepness married to that contemporary openness of white walls and airy stairwells with perspectives on the other floors. It threatens to turn to vertigo as the art starts to sink in. If placards are mostly redundant in fine art museums where artists are historically grouped, they serve a pointed purpose here, which is to explain how this outsider artist came to light, and what his or her life was like, and what exceptional techniques were developed under circumstances of duress.
There is a “papercut” of such heartbreaking precision it looks like genuine lace; it was created by a prisoner in the Walnut Street Prison in Philadelphia ca. 1830 for one Emily Earp, “the warden’s daughter.” (It sounds like a lost ballad from the Harry Smith Folk Anthology.) There is a drawing by a Confederate prisoner-of-war. There are factory workers who painted at night, MTA lifers who became preachers at now-extinct churches and rendered their Christian visions with a startling exactitude. There is a “Gold Tower” made of turkey and chicken bones from actual fast food meals eaten by the artist and his wife. While I recoiled from it, I saw quickly that working in bone is a feature of folk art: examples of scrimshaw were waiting just around a corner. There was a gorgeous narrative tapestry by a woman who later suffered from Alzheimer’s: when showed her needlework again, she exclaimed its beauty and remembered: “I made that.”
The weight of these stories didn’t uplift me; it drove home how hard life is, has been, and how much is repressed by the social networks and intellectual edifices that distract us with readings, publications, conferences, exhibits. The drawing show suggested paper and ink becomes a “survival mechanism” or “self-medication.” The art wasn’t all about subjectivity though: two of the artists used equations to plot out their highly structured work; another used topographical maps as models for his inventions—tiny, minutely shaded freehand circles amassing like bubbles into forms that from a distance could have been satellite views of lonely galaxies. I reminded myself that I was here to think more about “the line” as a concept overlapping poetry and drawing, but I suddenly felt I was overthinking everything, and wanted to leave with my feel for potentiality intact. In the context of drawings in which “line” is a vehicle for improvisation, continuity, flow and even ecstasy, the technicalities of the poetic line in the age of free verse reduce to a needless source of anxiety: the stich in our ass.