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Grandma's Gumption

Reagan Library exhibit showcases enduring charm of Moses' Americana.


To cite the stereotype, the beloved folk artist Grandma Moses represents a kind of all-ages, all-American artist for the people, in stark contrast to the more intellectual modalities of the art world. She's spoken of in the same breath with populist painter Norman Rockwell, and was literally a Hallmark card image-maker. She's the sort of artist you might expect to have a show in a conservative, non-art-oriented venue like the Reagan Library, now hosting a modest but potent exhibition of her work.

But that reputation doesn't really wash. For one thing, a cynical appraisal of her place in history reads suspiciously like the line taken up against someone such as Andy Warhol. Detractors see both as artists with little conspicuous technical skill, who rode to glory on the strength of marketing (Warhol's marketing savvy was his own; the Moses market was maneuvered from the outside).

For another thing, Moses' art, in all its clumsy splendor, seems to have gained wisdom with age. In the '90s, after folk art and naive painting have had their field days in the art scene, we might be more inclined to admire the rough-hewn beauty of her work. These paintings now look both like timeless chunks of Americana and accidentally modern.

This exhibition of Moses' work is thin, considering that she cranked out about 1,500 paintings over the 20 years of her active artistic career. Nonetheless, it's a small revelation.

Her life's saga, remarkable for its unpretentious simplicity, is part and parcel of her artistic charm. Born Anna Mary Robertson in 1860, she grew up to have 10 children, five of whom survived. The family settled on a dairy farm in Eagle Bridge, N.Y., in 1905, and it wasn't until the nest was good and empty that she resumed making art, as she had as a child.

She was 78 when she began doing "yarn paintings," and she then moved to oil paintings, with no thought of marketing her work. But a collector of amateur art liked what he saw, and her career skyrocketed.

In the middle of the gallery, a monitor screens a '50s television interview of Moses by a kindly Edward R. Murrow, in which she acquits herself with salt-of-the-earth wisdom.

Moses had no interest in art of the day, as Abstract Expressionism was coming into prominence. Instead, she focused her fierce creative instincts on bucolic scenes of Northeastern landscapes and townships. She distorted reality at will, shifting and flattening perspectives and altering proportions to suit her visions, sometimes suggesting a country cousin to Marc Chagall.

Memory and invention blur in the best of her works. In "School," one of her last paintings before her death in 1961 at 101, subjects run together in a fluid collision. Children, buildings and land, adrift as in a dream, are liberated from their real-world logic.

Her work now preserves an ideal of antique Americana, and a sense of a simpler, more rooted time. But the art also works on its own terms, with a unique visual character. She favored scenes of winter, when patches of white snow serve to accent her freedom of form, softening the edges and geometry of the landscape. With "One Horse Sleigh," she dared to sprinkle glitter in with the paint, to get at the shimmering surface of snow.

In "Autumn," various elements in the picture establish a pleasing, though raw, harmony between the waddling ducks, a water wheel and utilitarian white structures abutted by trees in fall hues. The composition in "Checkered House in the Year 1841" revolves around a garish red-and-white checkered house, amid typically skewed angles. "Wagon Repair Shop" fixes its eye on the bustle of activity in the foreground, with a kind of lazy expanse of empty land in the distance, like a soothing visual drone.

"Bennington," painted in 1945, was rendered from a photograph (she often used two-dimensional images as sources), but the rational geometry of the city has been gleefully subverted. The buildings are woozy and seemingly made of rubber or clay, as if seen through a child's eye.

So many years later, the art of Grandma Moses impresses us with its stout creative instincts. She has prevailed as an icon of folk art gumption, fueled by a get-up-in-the-morning-and-do-it-yourself ethic. More important, her art has weathered time very nicely.


"Grandma Moses: An American Original," through March 15 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, 40 Presidential Drive, near Simi Valley. Gallery hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily; $4 general and $2 students and seniors; (800) 410-8354.

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