KAWS and the incredible donation to the American Folk Art Museum


There is a museum in Lincoln Square, New York where collections, exhibitions and publications of people of all backgrounds are displayed with the aim of shaping the understanding of folk art, it’s the American Folk Art Museum which is celebrating its 60thanniversary this year.
The AFAM is where the contemporary street artist KAWS and the self-taught artist William Edmondson (1875 – 1951) met.
It was 2019 when the art collector John Foster stumbled upon the 10-inch-tall Martha and Mary sculpture by Edmondson that was thought to be lost. He saw it on the porch of a private house in St. Louis and the doubts were many at the beginning because there weren’t bonds between Nashville, where the artist lived, and St. Louis.
At a later time and after a deepen analysis, everything became clear: the statue was owned by Sally Bliss and Jim Connett, Bliss inherited it after his former husband Anthony Bliss passed away and took it to St. Louis. Anthony’s parents were collectors, and his aunt was one of the founders of MoMA in New York.

Martha and Mary, courtesy of AFAM

It’s precisely the MoMA where one out of two exhibitions dedicated to Edmondson took place, it was in 1937 and made the artist known to history as the first African American artist to have a solo show at the MoMA. The following year, the museum included the Martha and Mary statue in the “Three Centuries of American Art” exhibition in Paris and that was the last time the statue had been seen. Zaidee Bliss bought Martha and Mary during the MoMA exhibition and the artwork stayed within the Bliss family all those year but nobody knew it because the art historian Fuller, who wrote the monograph on the artist in 1973, failed to provide provenance information of the statue and it remained listed as “owner unknown” since nowadays.
Foster turned to Valérie Rousseau, the curator of self-taught art at AFAM, who instantly recognized the artwork, despite the green moss. The biblical subject chosen by Edmondson is one of the main topics of his art, since he represented Martha and Mary at least eight times.
“In Edmondson’s representation, the sisters’ differences seem to have temporarily vanished: the women are tenderly sitting shoulder to shoulder, like identical twins. In their quiet posture, the pair’s passivity is transcendent. Their eyes are lost in thought and hands joined in front as they attentively listen to Jesus’ teaching”, said Rousseau.

William Edmondson, courtesy of the Archives of American Art

Here is when KAWS comes into play: he, as a member of the museum’s board of trustees and also an admirer of Edmondson, decided to purchase the artwork as a promised gift for the AFAM so that a wider audience could discover the great artist.
KAWS together with other artists, such as Cindy Sherman and Amy Hill, is now taking part to a very interesting initiative brought about by the AFAM: the museum in partnership with Artsy has just launched an online benefit auction where the artists contributed with their artworks and the proceeds from the auction will be used to improve learning and engagement programs and ensure the free access.

Written by