- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 30, 2002

A Works Progress Administration (WPA) government program for down-and-out artists during the Depression created the most exciting, complete pictorial record of American folk and decorative arts ever produced. Despite their project's uninspiring name, the artists of the Index of American Design created inspired renderings of Americana icons that are works of art in their own right. They're the usual images of historic weather vanes, quilts, carousel animals, toys, tavern signs and cigar-store figures but interpreted in new ways.
Some 80 exquisite watercolors, many juxtaposed with their original models at the National Gallery of Art's "Drawing on America's Past: Folk Art, Modernism, and the Index of American Design," demonstrate the skill of Index artists and, somewhat unexpectedly, the modernism of the art they were rendering. The show celebrates the 60th anniversary of the gallery's acquisition of the 8,000-object collection.
The gallery acquired the Index when work on the eight-year effort ceased in 1943 due to the more pressing concerns of World War II. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City had also put in for the cache, but several members of Congress considered it to be a precious aesthetic and historic record compiled at taxpayer expense. They wanted it deposited in a nearby federal institution, namely the gallery.
The famed "Angel Gabriel Weather Vane" sculpture (1840), with watercolors by Index artist Lucille Chabot, opens the exhibit and demonstrates that the project was not just an antiquarian catalog. The Index's creators were all dedicated modernists: Ruth Reeves (a New York textile designer), Romana Javitz (New York Public Library Picture Collection head) and Holger Cahill (the WPA Federal Art Project's director and an authority on both American modernism and folk art). The trio wanted Americans to recognize their country's own unique, national designs founded in visual expressions of the American communal, creative spirit and to eventually create a unique school of American modern art.
The 1840 "Angel" is an extraordinary tour de force of iron, copper and gilt leaf. It shows the singing outlines and clear, flat patterning that later American metal sculptor David Smith used. He would have been interested in the weather vane's simple, modernist outlines and the unusual combination of metals: iron and copper for the flat, main piece; gold leaf for the covering; and the gray lead solder later used for repairs.
Angel weather vanes were much less common than horses and roosters when Gould and Hazlett of Boston made it in 1840. Now in a private collection, it once graced the steeple of the People's Methodist Church of Newburyport, Mass. When a hurricane blew off Gabriel's trumpet in 1959, it was stored in the minister's house.
Ms. Chabot's Index rendering of the angel gained fame when it was used in the design of a U.S. postage stamp in 1965. The artist's "Angel Gabriel Weather Vane: Demonstration Drawing" of watercolor and graphite is even more interesting. It shows how particularly skilled Index artists such as Ms. Chabot instructed others.
The piece illustrates the process in which an artist could begin a work with a penciled outline, then apply thin washes of watercolor until the desired effect is achieved. Ms. Chabot recalls that only high-quality Windsor and Newton colors and brushes were used and that renderings were usually made on Whatman (English-made) board what she calls of "the best, beautiful texture."
Straight ahead in the next gallery, a personable "Carousel Rooster" (Edmund Brown, painted wood, circa 1890) from a private collection greets visitors. Striding purposefully ahead as if looking for a girlfriend, the more than 3-feet-tall, red-and-white rooster epitomizes sexual energy. The talons of his left foot stretch to grip the "ground," with the right one pushing from behind. He pushes his cock's comb up, spreads his feathers out and back, and stretches his beak-tipped neck as far as it will go.
Index artist Howard Weld's rendering of the hearty bird led to the carving's identification. Reproduced in Erwin O. Christensen's 1950 book on the Index, readers sought to pursue its St. Johnsbury, Vt., identification. They found that Edmund Brown often brought his carousel of carved animals to the town. One of a pair, the rooster was carved by Brown around 1890 and used to entice children onto his rides.
Exhibit curator Virginia Clayton, who also is the gallery's associate curator of Old Master prints, turned into Sherlock Holmes for the five-year project. She was able to reunite some 40 of the original objects for the first time through intensive searches of auction catalogs and travel throughout the country. "I wasn't out every day," she says with a laugh, "but I'm pretty compulsive. I set myself up in the stacks and went through all the folk art catalogs I could find."
One such find from a Sotheby's auction catalog was Wilhelm Schimmel's "Poodle" (painted wood, 1860-1890). Ms. Clayton had Selma Sandler's 1940 watercolor of the sculpture but no carved poodle. The curator happened to notice that Richard Kanter, a New York and Philadelphia collector, was about to sell the bizarrely carved, funny-looking dog through Sotheby's.
In town for the show's opening, Mr. Kanter says proudly, "I stopped the sale. I kept the poodle specifically for the exhibit."
Edward Loper, a Delaware painter who came to Washington for the opening, says he happened onto the Index project by accident during the Depression. He and his wife were looking for jobs at the local welfare office when someone mentioned the WPA was looking for people to participate.
"Even though I had no art training, I learned," the now 86-year-old artist says. "All human beings have the capacity to learn and it led to my life in art." Mr. Loper still teaches and shows regularly, with works in the collections of Howard University, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Delaware Art Museum.
Visitors should not be put off by the exhibit's unappealing and puzzling title. This is an extraordinary exhibition that documents our history. It will remain on view at the gallery until March 2.

WHAT: "Drawing on America's Past: Folk Art, Modernism, and the Index of American Design"
WHERE: West Building, National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays, closed Dec. 24 and Jan. 1, through March 2
PHONE: 202/735-4215

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