Sidney Janis


was an influential collector, dealer, and writer, whose seminal
They Taught Themselves: American Primitive Painters of the Twentieth Century,
published in1942, was the first book to describe and analyze the works of twentieth-century American self-taught artists. In his book, Janis described the works of self-taughtartists in terms that continue to guide scholars. He noted also, however, that these artists create their art without reference to art traditions, producing work that isidiosyncratic in theme and artistic technique. He also noted that the works of twentieth-century self-taught artists bear the stamp of their times through their resonancewith modernist aesthetics. Janis used the term “self-taught,” rejecting “folk,” “primitive,” and “naive” because of their associations with the work of peasants or with persons lacking in intelligence or sophistication. He believed that as a purely descriptive term, “self-taught” was broad enough to encompass many artistic styles.Although a number of the thirty individuals discussed in
They Taught Themselves
have faded from view, Janis nevertheless identified many significant artists at the time,including Henry Church Jr. (1836–1908), Morris Hirshfield (1872–1946), John Kane (1860–1934), Laurence Lebduska (1894–1966), Anna Mary Robertson“Grandma” Moses (1860–1961), Joseph Pickett (1848–1918), Horace Pippin (1888–1946), and Patrick J.Sullivan (1894–1967).Janis, like many early folk art critics and collectors, did not come to his appreciation of art through formal education. Born in Buffalo, New York, in 1896, Janisattended Buffalo Technical High School, but dropped out during his senior year to become a professional dancer. He worked at a local dance hall before touring as avaudevillian and teaching new dance steps in nightclubs. After a World War I stint in the United States Navy, he joined his brother’s shoe business in Buffalo. Duringthese years, from 1919 to 1924, Janis developed an interest in art, traveling often to New York, where he visited galleries. In 1925 Janis and his wife, Harriet, movedto New York, where they established a shirt manufacturing business. In 1926 Janis bought his first work of art, an etching by James McNeil Whistler (1834–1903),which he traded the following year for the first of his modem art purchases, a small painting by Henri Matisse (1869–1854). Soon his collection included works byPablo Picasso (1881–1973), Paul Klee (1879–1940), Salvador Dalí (1904–1986), Giorgio de Chirico (1888–1978), and Piet Mondrian (1872–1944). His purchasein 1934 of Henri Rousseau’s (1844–1900) masterful painting,
The Dream,
drew his interest to artists who created excellent work despite their lack of academictraining.In recognition of his connoisseurship, Janis was invited in 1934 to join the Advisory Committee of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). In 1939 he sold his shirtcompany to devote himself to writing and lecturing. During the late 1930s Janis became aware of the work of a number of self-taught artists. Alfred H. Barr Jr., director of MoMA, had included works by Lebduska and Pippin alongside European artists in his 1938 exhibition “Masters of Popular Painting,” and Janis had discovered the works of other artists in galleries as well as such venues as the Washington SquareOutdoor Art Mart. In 1939 Janis organized for MoMA the exhibition “Contemporary Unknown American Painters.” While modest, this exhibition nevertheless madehistory by introducing both Hirshfield and Moses to a wider public.With his parallel interests in European and American modernists, including self-taught artists, Janis had become an influential member of the art world. He was amember of the committee that brought Picasso’s
(1937) to MoMA, and in 1942 he published
They Taught Themselves.
Janis also became an advocate of the European artists who had taken up residence in New York during World War II, including Mondrian, Fernand Léger (1881–1955), and Max Ernst (1891–1976);he acquired works by these artists for his growing collection. He took an interest as well in the younger generation of artists who came to be known as “abstractexpressionists,” and in 1944 published
Abstract and Surrealist Art in America. Pic-asso: The Recent Years, 1939–1946
followed in 1946. In 1948 he took thenext step in his career, opening the Sidney Janis Gallery, where, in addition to Hirshfield, whose work he continued to champion, Janis exhibited prominent Europeanand American artists. Janis was open to every new movement; he represented numerous abstract expressionists and pop artists, and even took a chance on graffitiartists.In 1967 Janis and his wife donated 103 works from their collection to MoMA. In 1986 Janis turned his gallery over to his sons, Conrad and Carroll, but continuedto play a supervisory role until his death in 1989. Conflicts between Janis’s sons precipitated the closing of the gallery in 1999.
See also

Henry Church Jr.; Morris Hirshfield;

John Kane; Laurence Lebduska; Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses; Joseph Pickett;

HoracePippin; Patrick J.Sullivan
Goldstein, Malcolm.
Landscape with Figures: A History of Art Dealing in the United States.
New York, 2000.Janis, Sidney.
They Taught Themselves: American Primitives of the Twentieth Century.
New York, 1942 (reprinted 1999).Robson, A.Deirdre.
Prestige, Profit, and Pleasure: The Market for Modern Art in New York in the 1940s and 1950s.
New York, 1995