By: John Dorfman
By art-world tradition, the last week in January is Americana week in New York, when the auction houses hold dedicated sales of antique furniture, silver and various forms of vernacular art. The American Antiques Show, benefiting the American Folk Art Museum, takes place at the same time, as does the Winter Antiques Show, not limited to American material but rich in it nonetheless.
Read our Market section (starting on page 32) for in-depth previews of all these events, but before you do, we ought to reflect for a moment on what the word “Americana” really means. That suffix “-ana” is a bit suspect—does it suggest a motley assortment of quaint old stuff, just bric-a-brac from the attic? If it ever did, it doesn’t anymore. What it implies today is appreciation of our national art-and-design culture as a distinctive and vital tradition worth studying and preserving.
As a young country, the U.S. had to grow out of a tendency not to take its own culture seriously and to look to Europe for inspiration and validation. That took a long time. It wasn’t until 50 or so years after independence that American artists began to accept that the everyday lives of their fellow citizens could be subjects for pictures. In her feature story on 19th-century American narrative painting (page 64), Sheila Gibson Stoodley relates how story-telling pictures like the one on this magazine’s cover became possible only after artists looked around them and saw that what ordinary people were doing—and what was being done to them—was worth painting. What’s more, there was a market for it, because those people wanted their own stories told.
Telling the American story through art began to go out of fashion with the rise of modernism, but one artist who continued to do so was Thomas Hart Benton, known for his vigorous and controversial portrayals of the rural and industrial struggles of the 1930s. What is not well known is Benton’s deep influence on Jackson Pollock, the artist who, more than any other, is identified with the abstractionist movement that finally made the rest of the world take American art seriously. But was Pollock’s art really deracinated? Did he break completely with his Regionalist roots? Art historian Henry Adams thinks not. In “Talking Pictures” this month (page 48), Jonathan Lopez gets into a conversation with Adams about his thought-provoking new book on the Pollock-Benton relationship.
Another new book, Briann Greenfield’s Out of the Attic, reflects on our attitudes toward American antiques (See “Books,” page 92). A look at the presale estimates for this month’s auctions makes it clear that we value these things very highly, but that was not always the case. The concept of “antiques” dates back only to around the 1920s, as Greenfield shows. And before they were antiques, these pieces of furniture were heirlooms, valued for sentimental or maybe historical reasons, but not as works of art in themselves. The story of how our current aesthetic appreciation—and market valuation—was created is a truly fascinating one.