Exhibition Review: Great and Mighty Things at the Philadelphia Museum

Posted on March 26, 2013


William Edmondson. “Three Birds.” 7 1/2 x 10 x 6 inches. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Some of the most striking works in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s “Great and Mighty Things”: Outsider Art from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection, are the sculptures of William Edmondson, who was born in 1874 to former slaves and held various manual labor jobs until his mid-50s, when a series of divine visitations—and the commandment to take up stone carving—prompted two decades of remarkably accomplished sculpting. Immediately recognizable as the subjects they depict, each of Edmondson’s carved limestone sculptures (“Woman,” “Angel,” “Horse with Short Tail,” “Horse with Long Tail,” “Three Birds,” and “Sheep”) takes form by a subtle interplay of simple planes. They are solid and believable without being overly descriptive (rough chisel marks denote the sheep’s fleece, the horses’ coats, the woman’s hair and the angel’s wings), deriving their power from a restrained economy of means.

Not all of the twenty-seven Outsider artists in the exhibition are of Edmondson’s quality, but enough stand out to suggest that, as a promised gift, the more than two-hundred works in the Bonovitz collection will make the Philadelphia Museum one of the top destinations for Outsider art in the country. Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz began collecting such work after viewing a watershed exhibition of African American folk art at the Corcoran Gallery in 1982, and the informative wall-texts, smart-phone tour and exhibition catalogue that accompany this show suggest that scholarship and institutional acknowledgement are beginning to catch up to this hitherto underexposed genre of American art.


read the full review, as originally published in Art New England