Earl Cunningham's Americaby Craig Olson
American Folk Art Museum, Lincoln Square Branch March 4 - August 31, 2008
Earl Cunningham (1893-1977) was an odd, solitary artist who expressed an inexpressible yearning out of time and place, a sense of the wild, the unseen, the unknowable. He articulated a vision of the landscape that exists somewhere between memory and experience, twisted into a seaman’s knot of American vernacular imagination. His is a colloquial dream of man’s harmony with nature, where myth, reality, past and present merges. It’s one that rolls with wanderlust over the eastern seaboard from Main to Florida, spanning that great divide outside of logical perspective and prescriptive time like sunlight rippling over murky waters.
Virginia Mecklenburg, senior curator of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, organized this exhibition of fifty paintings. This is a small sliver of Cunningham’s production, which numbered 450 works at the time of his death. A roving rambler, he left his birthplace of Edgecomb, Maine, at thirteen, peddled trinkets and junk from a suitcase strapped to his back, earned a degree in automotive engineering, operated an electrical plant, gathered coral, excavated Indian burial grounds, raised chickens for the Army, and sailed the east coast working on cargo schooners. All the while he made paintings in which he recorded the memories and experiences that would form his life’s work.
In the beginning these were small works, depictions of boats on pieces of board that had washed in from the sea, which he sold for fifty cents apiece. Later they would develop into the bizarrely serene visions of alcoves and inlets populated by all manner of colorful waterfowl–ibises, roseate spoonbills, blackbirds, owls and mallards, pink flamingoes in chilly Maine waters, giant pelicans that lord over little human fisherman and roustabouts. A Viking ship rests ominously in pink Carolina waters as Indians glide by in birch bark canoes, and sea and sky bleed into one radiant entity.
In 1949, Cunningham set up shop in St. Augustine, Florida where he sold antiques and curios and put his paintings on display, hung floor-to-ceiling, in a locked room with grimy windows looking out onto the street (he called his shop the Over-Fork Gallery). He seemed more concerned that his work be seen rather than sold, a radical idea in today’s art market. He posted a sign amid his paintings reading “Nothing for Sale,” and in 1961 he sent one of his pictures, unannounced, to Jackie Kennedy at the White House, which she accepted. His champion and collector Marilyn Monnello recalls him saying, “If you had watched President Kennedy on television, you could have seen my painting right back of the President’s head in his office.” A strange thought indeed.
The painting in question is Cunningham’s “The Everglades” (1960), a panoramic vision of the eponymous forest. A smoldering sky of yellows and oranges exude lumpy formations of burnt umber clouds as the setting sun melts into the flattened horizon. All this hangs over the brown waters of an inlet in which the sense of space expands horizontally rather than receding away from the picture plane. Seminole Indians float by in a large magnificent boat with green patchwork sails, while their counterparts on land go about their daily lives in thatched huts and lodges. Alternating patterns of flamingoes and blackbirds spill across the scene, counterbalanced by dense, hallucinatory swells of flowers and strange vegetation. It’s a quiet yet unsettling reverie, one that concerned events that were all too real in the artist’s lifetime. Throughout the 1930’s the Florida Everglades were threatened by extensive logging and plans to build a canal between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, which would have proven disastrous to the natural ecosystem of the area. Also, the Seminole Indians were still residing in this forest and by the 1930’s their continuing war with the United States government was well into its 100th year. In this light, Cunningham’s concern for the preservation of this area takes on a 21st-century perspective.
In “Tranquil Forest” (1933), a work completed 27 years prior to “The Everglades,” a flattened sheet of blazing yellow sky burns holes through a canopy of trees, as its low horizon meets the radiantly yellow forest floor. The only idea of separation between them is the slow, vibrating trajectory of a multicolored, arching line. Long black shadows from the giant trees stretch across the forest. Patterns and patches of colorfully kaleidoscopic grasses play across the ground while a lone twisting rainbow-colored tree trunk, devoid of vegetation, holds company with its glowing, translucent neighbors. Once again, all manner of birds, imaginary and witnessed, cluster and strut in their familiar patterns, yet many greatly outsize Cunningham’s human figures. A lone Indian in a birch bark canoe glides in from the lower left in a sliver of green-brown water. All sense of time and space melts away; the entire environment seems poised to vanish into the fiery atmosphere.
By the mid-1970’s Cunningham received some public recognition with exhibitions at the Loch Haven Art Center in Orlando and the Daytona Beach Museum of Arts and Sciences. He was well aware of his contemporaries working in a similar vein, like Grandma Moses and Horace Pippin, and was known to have clipped newspaper articles about the former. Yet, to my eye, Cunningham’s material is spookier, more deeply rooted in the trenches of memory, myth and lived experience. The truth in these pictures lies at the juncture where Cunningham’s uncompromising and truly unusual sense of rhythm, color, and social concerns collide and, rather than cancel each other out, bring one another to life. When he took his own life in 1977, at age 84, he recorded in his diary, “1977-450 paintings finished.” It’s in this work that the grain of his life runs, the American Grain in all it’s rough-hewn glory and grace and nostalgic desolation. It’s majestic and singular in its mixed-up power and a rare joy to witness.