From Folk to Funk: Selections from the Robert A. Lewis Collection
Robert A. Lewis is a passionate art collector with a penchant for the funky and the offbeat. The works he has acquired over the course of almost four decades range widely in style and format, including the folk art of Howard Finster, the conceptual sculpture of Donald Lipski, and the graffiti art of Keith Haring. Born in 1926, Lewis lived in Chicago for nearly seventy years until his retirement to southern Florida in 1993. Primarily self-educated in the field of art, Lewis explored Chicago’s venerable art museums, in particular the Art Institute of Chicago, and frequented the city’s commercial galleries to introduce himself to the city's vibrant art community. As a result, his holdings are especially rich in work by certain Chicago-based artists and the artists who influenced them.
Lewis began collecting in the late 1960s, when the artists known as the Chicago Imagists first gained notoriety. The expressive subject matter of these artists combines a 1960s countercultural attitude - as reflected in the comix style of the period, made popular, in part, by illustrator Robert Crumb - with a regard for early- and mid-twentieth-century surrealism. This period is well represented in Chicago’s private and public collections.
Roger Brown (1941-1997), a key figure among the Chicago Imagists, is an important artist in the Lewis collection. His major painting Dzibilchaltun, 1977, depicts the ancient Mayan settlement located on the Yucatán peninsula as a labyrinthine, mountainous region where individuals and couples undertake tasks or engage each other in isolation from the larger social world. Brown treats this landscape, whose ruins date to 500 B.C., just as he does other subject matter. Typically, he creates strange and mesmerizing contexts where social relationships are either strictly regimented or completely disintegrated, where people have little or no individuality.
Whereas the designation, Chicago Imagists, refers to a rather large number of artists who never formally organized, the Hairy Who was an artist-organized subcategory of the Imagists. Including Jim Nutt (born 1943), Suellen Rocca (born 1943), and Karl Wirsum (born 1939), members of this group exhibited together in three shows at the Hyde Park Center, Chicago, between 1966 and 1968, and at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1969. Rocca’s Is There Another One Like Me, 1982, one of six drawings by the artist, provocatively juxtaposes words and images to suggest a fragile ego attempting to represent the vagaries of a particular individual psyche, perhaps that of the artist. The exhibition highlights four works by Wirsum, including Eraser Eyebrows, 1982, all of which reveal a wry sense of humor grounded in clever allusions to the mundane. From the commonplace pencil erasers in Eraser Eyebrows to the breakfast food referenced by Waffle Face I, 1976, Wirsum cobbles together idiosyncratic portraits of memorable personalities from very unlikely sources.
Many Chicago Imagists were inspired by two artists of an older generation, Ray Yoshida (born 1930), whose paintings are also showcased in this exhibition, and Whitney Halstead (1926 - 1979). Yoshida and Halstead were instructors at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago when Roger Brown, Jim Nutt, Christina Ramberg, and some of Lewis’s other Chicago-based artists studied there. Halstead’s teaching philosophy encouraged his colleagues and students to visit the studios of self-taught artists such as Joseph Yoakum (1886/8 -1972) and William Dawson (1901-1990), both of whom lived in the Chicago area. As a result, the work of Chicago Imagists often exhibits the influence of these and other untrained, outsider, visionary, or contemporary folk artists (as they are variously called), creating a direct link between the Chicago and folk components of Lewis’s collection.
Lewis vigorously pursued the work of Dawson and the Reverend Howard Finster (1916 - 2001) to augment his holdings of contemporary folk art. In addition to making art, Finster preached the gospel in Methodist and Baptist churches from the age of sixteen. He often called his work “sermons in paint” because he consciously combined sincere religious expression with subject matter relating to the social and political climate of the day, including current events and icons of popular culture such as Elvis Presley and Coca-Cola. In Coca Cola, 1989, Finster’s avowed devotion to the soft drink, one of the major symbols of American mass consumerism, implies a great love of country. Throughout the painting his commercially inspired patriotism assumes a religious import. “Millions of church folks drink Cokes and drives [sic] home very safely,” reads one of the statements painted on the bottle-shaped picture, contrasting the seemingly benign character of Coke with the implied danger of alcoholic beverages.
Minnie Evans (1892 - 1987), another self-taught artist, was a gatekeeper at Airlie Gardens near Wilmington, North Carolina. Evans was inspired by visions that she believed were direct communications from God. The natural world and stories from the Bible figure prominently in what she saw and thus what she drew with colored pencil, her preferred medium. Evans sometimes described her visions of Heaven as colorful cities in the sky made of rainbows. Untitled, 1971, is a classic example of her work. Busts and statuary (perhaps remnants of some ancient culture), snakes, and the artist’s signature rainbow suggest a heavenly and fantastical place of tranquillity reminiscent of the Garden of Eden.
The Lewis collection also includes significant holdings beyond works by folk and Chicago-based artists. Among the West Coast artists, Roy De Forest (born 1930) is represented by the large painting Triumph of the Round Heads, 1982. De Forest is often associated with the Funk art movement - the circle of artists including Robert Arneson, Robert Hudson, and William T. Wiley that emerged in San Francisco in the 1960s. Charmingly insouciant, his images of dogs, plant life, and a sickly female human figure, among others, have an opulent and expressive sensibility. The virtuoso application of vigorous brushstrokes in some areas and the bright, thick daubs of acrylic paint in others reveal the artist’s elegant painterly touch and belie the innocence of his picture’s endearing subject matter.
Several artists in the collection live and work in New York, including Richard Bosman (born 1944), who emerged in the 1980s as a major exponent of the figurative style known as neo-expressionism. Bosman’s rough application of paint complements his brash, arresting, and often unsettling images. He frequently depicts climactic moments, sometimes violent or fearful, that seem culled from larger narratives. Stranglehold, 1981?82, is one example. It displays an emotional intensity that works as a stark reminder of man’s potential for brutality and other abhorrent behavior.
This exhibition represents only a small selection of Robert Lewis’s collection, which in its entirety is a promised gift to the Corcoran Gallery of Art. This presentation introduces the depth and range of Robert Lewis’s remarkable commitment to contemporary art. Native Washingtonians and the city’s museum-going public may look forward to studying and enjoying the contentsof the collection for decades to come.