PRINT January 2018

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“Outliers and American Vanguard Art”

Drossos Skyllas, Wisconsin Ice Cave, 1950, oil on canvas, 24 × 30". From “Outliers and American Vanguard Art.”

“OUTLIERS AND AMERICAN VANGUARD ART” has long been in preparation by Lynne Cooke, former deputy director and chief curator of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, who assumed the post of senior curator for special projects in modern art at the NGA during the run-up to the show. Her research has been far-reaching, and the exhibition aims to resolve some of the ambiguities that have bedeviled a category that still bears no agreed-upon name.

Cooke’s title settles for “outliers,” but the exhibition’s advance publicity runs the lexical gamut from “folk” to “self-taught” to “outsider” to “primitive” to “naive” to “visionary,” all terms that were current at various times and places during the twentieth century.One of Cooke’s main organizing principles is to concentrate on landmark exhibitions, beginning with “Early American Art,” held in downtown New York at the Whitney Studio Club (the eponymous museum’s precursor) in 1924, and progressing through the several shows devoted to “modern primitives” organized by Holger Cahill and Alfred H. Barr Jr. in the Museum of Modern Art’s early years, to the pathbreaking “Black Folk Art in America, 1930–1980” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, which subsequently went on a two-year tour of the nation.

The high profile gained by the works in “Black Folk Art” stands in contrast to the eclipse that such objects and their makers suffered after the 1940s, when MoMA, for example, divested itself of the strong collections in the folk, primitive, and self-taught categories that had once been its pride. Cooke emphasizes the enthusiastic involvement of the many recognized fine artists who collected and loaned objects to these museum enterprises. A number of them, such as Charles Sheeler and Elie Nadelman, are thus included in the exhibition, accompanied by a roster of more recent luminaries—Betye Saar, Jim Nutt, Senga Nengudi, Cindy Sherman, Mary Heilmann, Jessica Stockholder—judged to be in active dialogue with the perceived outliers, perhaps outliers no more. The ethos of the exhibition is to recast the issues of cultural hierarchy and category under the present-day rubric of inclusion.

Travels to the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, June 24–September 30; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, November 18, 2018–March 18, 2019.