Holger Cahill


was an art critic, curator, and arts administrator whose landmark exhibitions brought American folk art to the attention of the art world and whose seminal writingsdefined folk art as the unconventional expressions of makers with little formal training in art. He asserted that American folk art, often an overflow from the work of craftsmen, expressed the spirit of a people. Cahill viewed folk art in aesthetic terms and his first two exhibitions, “American Primitives: An Exhibit of the Paintings of Nineteenth Century Folk Artists” (1930) and “AmericanFolk Sculpture: The Works of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Craftsmen” (1931), divided folk production into the traditional categories of painting and sculpture.In these first catalogs, Cahill emphasized formal elements and noted the affinities between folk art and modernist works: simplification of form, lack of shading, unmixedcolor, and emotional directness. In his writings, including the important catalog essay that accompanied the first comprehensive exhibition of American folk art, “The Artof the Common Man in America, 1750–1900,” organized for the Museum of Modern Art, Cahill supported the idea that folk art had flourished before the age of industrialization but insisted that folk art was a living art created in cities as well as in rural areas.The facts of Cahill’s early life are disputed; it is also unclear when he changed his name from Sveinn Kristjan Bjarnarson, but by 1907 he was signing letters asHolger Cahill. According to published sources, Cahill was born in Skogarstrond, Iceland, and shortly thereafter immigrated first to Canada and then to North Dakotawith his parents, Bjorn Jonsson and Vigdis Bjamdottir. Correspondence between Cahill’s wife and sister state that Cahill was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, after his parents had immigrated. In 1904, Cahill’s father abandoned the family. Cahill, separated from his mother and sister, was sent to work on a nearby farm. Two yearslater, he ran away and wandered from job to job before finding a home at an orphanage in Winnipeg, where he attended school. After leaving the orphanage, Cahillworked at various jobs and attended night school. His experiences working as a coal passer on a freighter that took him to Hong Kong and Shanghai provided background for later writings.In 1914, Cahill moved to New York, where he worked as a short order cook and attended night classes at New York University, the New School for SocialResearch, and Columbia University. He became a newspaper reporter and freelance writer, using the name Edgar Holger Cahill. In 1920, he met the painter JohnSloan and began to write publicity for Sloan’s Society of Independent Artists. An exhibition review brought Cahill to the attention of the Swedish-American NewsExchange, which in 1921 sent him to Sweden, Norway, and Germany to study peasant arts. With the expertise gained through his travels and friendships with artists,Cahill joined the staff of the Newark Museum, where he served under the innovative director John Cotton Dana. With his friend, Edith Gregor Halpert, an early folk artcollector and dealer, Cahill visited the artists’ colony in Ogunquit, Maine, where he saw the folk art collected by American modernist painters. Cahill and Halpert became advisers to such important collectors of folk art as Abby Aldrich Rockefeller.After the successes of “American Primitives” and “American Folk Sculpture,” Cahill moved in 1932 to the Museum of Modern Art, where he served as director of exhibitions and acting director and organized “The Art of the Common Man.” The works shown in this exhibition were drawn almost entirely from Mrs. Rockefeller’scollection. Another exhibition, “American Sources of Modern Art,” explored the relationships between pre-Columbian art on artists and modern artists includingGaugin, Fauvists, Cubists, and Latin American muralists.Between 1935 and the beginning of World War II, Cahill was director of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Arts Project, which surveyed regional arts,established community art centers, and produced
The Index of American Design.
Employing thousands of artists who produced watercolors of decorative artsincluding fraktur, painted chests, and southwestern
documented regional contributions to American folk art. In 1938, Cahill organized “American ArtToday” for the New York World’s Fair and “Masters of Popular painting,” which presented the work of twentieth century self-taught painters. During that year, healso married Dorothy Canning Miller, a curator and former colleague at the Museum of Modern Art, who had organized the exhibition of William Edmondson’s work in 1937.In 1943, when the Federal Arts Project was discontinued, Cahill returned to New York, where he devoted himself to writing. In 1950, he participated in the famous
symposium, “What Is American Folk Art?” True to his belief that folk art continually reinvents itself, Cahill argued that definitions of American folk art must broaden to include new forms of expression created by living artists.
See also
Edith Gregor Halpert; Abby Aldrich Rockefeller
Cahill, Holger.
American Folk Art: The Art of the Common Man in America, 1750–1900.
New York, 1932. ——.
American Folk Sculpture: The Work of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Craftsmen.
Newark, N.J., 1931. ——.
American Primitives: An Exhibit of Paintings of Nineteenth Century Folk Artists.
Newark, N.J., 1931.
Perspectives on American Folk Art,
eds. Ian M.G.Quimby and Scott T.Swank. New York, 1980.