Oliver Clark: Behind Closed Doors in NYC

When visiting New York City, according to many travel guides, those interested in our country’s history will not want to miss the iconic American Folk Art Museum. That’s good advice. Less well known is on that same Manhattan island, a private folk art collection may be just as rare and important, just as jaw-dropping, and worthy of a visit. However, unless you’re a friend or client of the proprietor, that’s not possible. Luckily, Throomers.com is just that.

Recently, we were invited to visit the duplex of Oliver Clark, the fascinating man whose passion and dedication is responsible for the existence of this extraordinary collection. Here’s what we discovered.

Discovering a Passion

In his youth, Oliver Clark was busy with a wholly different artistic craft. He appeared regularly as an accomplished character actor on popular television shows such as Barney Miller, Golden Girls, M.A.S.H., Bob Newhart, and St. Elsewhere, in addition to several film credits, including the original ‘A Star is Born’, starring Barbara Streisand.

While living in Los Angeles, he experienced his exhilarating”wow” moment and discovered his purpose. Pioneering folk art dealer and friend, Larry Whiteley, took him to the desert one day to view hand-carved wooden figures called ‘Possom Trot’. They were early stage animatronics that talked, thanks to the latest technological advance known as ‘tape recorders.’

Clark was immediately hooked and embarked on what has since become a lifelong passion for this native or peasant form of American art. Today, as Whiteley was before him, Clark is widely known in artistic circles as one of its preeminent collectors and dealers.

Preserving Traditions

But first, just what is “folk art?” As described on the American Folk Art Museum’s website:

The field of American folk art was first defined at the turn of the twentieth century by collectors, professional artists, critics, dealers, and curators whose search for an authentic American art seemed to be finally answered in works that presented a nuanced picture of national identity, faith, progress, ingenuity, community, and individuality. Under the umbrella of “folk art” the field expanded to also include artists working in the present. For the last twenty years, the term self-taught has more regularly come to address these artists, whose inspiration emerges from unsuspected paths and unconventional places, giving voice to individuals who may be situated outside the social mainstream. Those individuals have been active participants in the shaping of American visual culture, influencing generations of artists and establishing lively artistic traditions.

American Heritage on Display

Soon after arriving, our gracious host took us on a slow, measured walk through his multi-room duplex, as a proud docent would at any exquisite museum. Such a pace is necessary because nearly every inch of space at all levels is devoted to displaying some of the rarest and most sought-after pieces of the genre. It is like stepping into a time machine and revisiting the long-ago pioneering days of America, housed with precision in a tasteful and modern setting.

On display were items from the 19th and early 20th centuries, including such iconic Americana as Coney Island advertising posters, carnival memorabilia, trade signs for all type of businesses, wood carvings, advertising memorabilia, barber shop poles, original mechanical banks, antique blinking clocks, amazing automatons, and period furnishings of all shapes, sizes, and uses.

In a 2005 Architectural Digest article featuring both his art collection and beautifully remodeled duplex, Clark described what appealed to him so fervently about this specific variety of art. He said, in essence, that both the specific piece itself and the story behind the piece are equally important. He referred to it as “Method Collecting,” explaining that “Every piece has color, texture, its own personality. But each piece also tells a larger, more interesting story about America’s history. Each art piece represents a place and a moment in time. It informs us of the specific person who created it, and the people who owned and enjoyed it.” He concluded with, “To truly enjoy the artwork, you must seek to know this entire story, thereby deepening the viewing experience.”

The Unique and Unusual

Among the incredible array of folk art throughout his apartment, there were three items that Oliver identified as especially important. The first, his favorite “sculpturally and historically,” is a well-known statue called “Suffragette Lady,” a circa 1915 life-size statue of a woman that appeared at a polling station and was intended to attract women voters.  The statue was brilliantly carved by hand using a technique called “pyrography,” which Clark explained was a carving using burning irons.

Another favorite and “his most important piece,” is a simple wind toy of an airplane with Uncle Sam sitting in the front seat and an exotic-looking man with moving arms sitting behind him. I was surprised to hear of its significance and didn’t understand until Oliver told the story. If you were to “remove the propeller, wings and figures from the wind toy,” Oliver explained, “you would be left with the body of the airplane which had the appearance of a bomb.”  In fact, the wind toy represented the bombing of Hiroshima by the Americans and is said to have been carved by the 14-year-old son of the pilot of the Enola Gay.

The third piece he pointed out was a fabulous 19thcentury carved walnut figure of Lady Liberty formerly on display for many years at a Princeton museum, previously owned by a member of the Johnson & Johnson family, and recently acquired at auction.

There was so much more to see. In between the “oohs”and “ahh,” a three-foot statue of an Uncle Sam that looked like Harpo Marx caught my eye, and I learned that it had been commissioned by Groucho Marx back in the day as a present for his brother.

Still on a Mission

Now approaching age 80, Clark stays ever active, attending shows, communicating with dealers, collectors and friends, adding to his collection, selling off a few pieces, and representing sophisticated buyers and sellers the world over in the same pursuit. In addition, he frequently hosts visitors from historical societies, antique organizations, and auction houses who wish to see his amazing collection.

The time went too quickly and regrettably, it was time to step out of the portal and back into the 21st century. We at Throomers cannot thank Oliver Clark enough for being such a terrific host. We wish him well and hope to be invited back soon. Click here to read his responses to our 7 Questions

Continue scrolling down this page to view displays from his magnificent collection.

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