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Acquisitions: Acquisitions Archive

Daniel and Harriet Fusfeld Folk Art Collection

Portrait of a Man

Ammi Phillips
American, 1788-1865
Portrait of a Man
Oil on canvas
Gift of the Daniel and Harriet Fusfeld Folk Art Collection, 2002/1.199

With the recent generous gift of the Daniel and Harriet Fusfeld Folk Art Collection, UMMA has moved into the ranks of the top tier of university art museums in its overall holdings in American folk art. The forty-eight outstanding objects that make up this collection are both geographically and historically wide-ranging, including work by early nineteenth-century itinerant folk portraitists as well as late twentieth-century sculpture and painting by “outsider” artists from the American South, Midwest, and Northeast. In recent years, the Museum has actively collected in the folk art idiom, increasingly understood as a vital form of expression in American visual culture.

The terms “folk art” and “outsider art” are malleable and often debated among scholars and collectors. What tends to define and unite this body of work is that its practitioners are generally self-taught and living and working outside conventional art circles. But such designations are not entirely satisfactory. Early folk artists may generally have been self-taught, but were often aware of academic vocabularies, which they adapted according to their individual technical abilities.

The outsider designation has its roots in the middle of the twentieth century, when Surrealists André Breton and Jean Dubuffet became fascinated with the visually powerful art created by the mentally ill and others on the fringes of society. They conducted their own search for examples of highly individual art created by untrained artists, dubbing it Art Brut, or Raw Art. Defining the boundaries of folk and outsider art has become increasingly problematic in recent years as it has begun to demand prices, scholarly attention, and public interest that rival the mainstream.

Much of the work in the Fusfeld collection draws on the artists’ autobiographies, and was often made for their own use and enjoyment rather than for an art market, so that the people, animals, landscapes, and ideas depicted have deeply personal meanings—meanings that can challenge traditional symbolic interpretations. A number of these artists worked in complete isolation, creating their art after days spent on the farm or at the factory for an audience that did not extend beyond perhaps a few family members or friends. Religion and spirituality are popular themes, again defying the governing trends of artistic production in the twentieth century. There is no typical medium, but simple, inexpensive materials and found objects are common.

Visitors to the Museum can look forward to seeing folk art objects in installations of twentieth-century art from the UMMA collections. “Including these works among other examples of twentieth-century art allows us to view them in a broader context and to build connections between populist and academic art movements from the past century,” Ulmer notes. The Museum is extremely grateful to Professor Emeritus of Economics Daniel Fusfeld and his wife, Harriet, for this generous gift.