“Self-Taught Artists of the 20th Century”

By any measure, outsider art is now an established category. It boasts curators, scholars, and collectors; books and magazines (Raw Art); exhibitions (e.g., 1992’s “Parallel Visions: Modern Artists and Outsider Art” at the LA County Museum of Art), expositions (the Outsider Art Fair in New York City and others in Atlanta and Baltimore); and even a museum, the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. The separate-but-sort-of-equal distinction begs the question of what makes outsider art “outsider”? Level of skill or education doesn’t really seem at issue: not all “insider” artists are schooled, nor do outsider artists, because self-taught, necessarily lack skills. Carvers such as Leroy Person carve with originality; painters such as Purvis Young paint brilliantly. Many other outsiders, like their art-world counterparts, have developed their own media and formats, whether it’s chicken bones fashioned into tiny thrones (Eugene von Bruenchenhein), prayer-meeting fans constructed from painted planks of cardboard (Sister Gertrude Morgan), or healing machines made of wire, aluminum foil, and Christmas tree lights (Emery Blagdon). If it seems all but impossible to define outsider art, perhaps the simplest distinction is that it advertises what is generally hidden or denied elsewhere: vision and conviction.

Coming to us by way of Jean Dubuffet’s art brut formulation, appropriated by Chicago Hairy Who artists as grassroots art, rechristened, repositioned, repossessed—certainly by the 1972 publication of Roger Cardinal’s Outsider Art (with a bow to Colin Wilson’s 1956 novel The Outsider?)—outsider art seems to privilege alienation and isolation. But though some of the artists may be misfits, its connoisseurs have been insiders for some time now. If the term is still misleading, at least “outsider” gets rid of brut and its suggestions of the subhuman. If nothing else, outsider art is definitely human.

“Self-Taught Artists of the 20th Century: An American Anthology,” a show of thirty-two artists curated by Elsa Longhauser and Harald Szeemann, was organized by the Museum of American Folk Art in New York but made its debut at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where it was supplemented by another exhibition of works from local collections. The exhibition travels until 1999, when it will wind up at the museum in New York. Despite a deeply compromised thesis—that folk art and outsider art can unproblematically be exhibited together—“Self-Taught” is an instructive exhibition.

First, the show offers an opportunity to see some splendid work by a number of outsider masters. Martin Ramirez’s intense, large-scale collaged drawings on scraps of paper contain vertiginous patterning that creates hallucinatory perspectives as settings for horsemen, trains, and various isolated figures. Henry Darger, the subject of a celebrated retrospective last year at the Museum of American Folk Art, got away with murder, at least in his imagination. His bloody, byzantine adventures of the Vivian Girls still manage to shock, possibly because of the incongruously sweet collage/watercolor technique used to depict the sadistic mayhem performed against little girls sporting tiny penises. Joseph Yoakum was a Chicago favorite who produced landscapes that look like the convoluted surfaces of a cerebral cortex. Purvis Young simply can’t stop painting and drawing. First he defaced discarded books, then he began making his own notebooks, and now he creates wildly expressive paintings on found surfaces—sainted jazz musicians, workers, and cityscapes. Everything Young touches seems to become covered with gyrating figures reaching for glory; his talent for paint-handling and surface inscription is breathtaking.

New discoveries or artists not previously seen in such depth energize the exhibition. In addition to his chicken-bone masterpieces, von Bruenchenhein (1910–83) produced mesmerizing paintings, initially inspired by H-bomb explosions; ceramic crowns made from the clay that he scavenged out of the troughed earth left in the wake of bulldozers; and naive erotic photographs that turned his beloved wife into a larger-than-life sex goddess. (Particularly persuasive were the artist’s numerous works in “Perspectives on Patterning,” a keenly selected satellite exhibition organized by Longhauser in New York. The show compared patterning in the works of von Bruenchenhein, Person, Yoakum, Ramirez—represented by drawings recently discovered in the Guggenheim Museum’s warehouse—and retired slipper manufacturer Morris Hirshfield.) Perhaps the most impressive item in the Philadelphia show is the re-creation of Emery Blagdon’s healing machines environment. Blagdon constructed this alternative universe in Garfield Table, Nebraska, where some of the neighbors were convinced it worked.

For all the wonderful work on view, “Self-Taught” is unruly and bears the earmarks of group-think: catalogue entries by thirty-six writers (ranging from MoMA’s Robert Storr to critic Carter Ratcliff), two curators, and, on the spine, the Museum of American Folk Art imprimatur. And while there is magnificent art in “Self-Taught,” what’s at stake here is not the quality of the selections. The Museum of American Folk Art has made a grand move to appropriate outsider art as part of its purview. Ironically, the implied thesis that outsider and folk are essentially the same because both involve self-taught artists is one that this major museum exhibition may end up disproving.

Asserting that outsider art and contemporary folk art can be grouped together because both are made by self-taught artists is spectacularly misleading. To imply that Grandma Moses and Hirshfield are in the same category as Darger and Young is absurd. Folk art seems tailormade to please the neighbors. If anything, outsider art is made in spite of (or even to spite) the neighbors. Where most contemporary folk artists attempt to confirm the concreteness and the pleasantries of the everyday, they actually demean the quotidian through nostalgia. Outsider questions the everyday and traffics in apocalypse. Outsider is not after cultural essence but revelation. Amazingly, in Philadelphia, folk and outsider examples are often placed in the same room, side by side.

Outsider art may share visual similarities with folk as well as any other nonoutsider art, but it is important in its own right, just as Amish quilts are important in spite of any resemblance they might bear to abstract painting. It may have taken “insider art” to allow us to see outsider, but the latter is not dependent on art—world devices or attitudes. Outsiders do not preach to the converted; they are either talking to themselves, creating or confirming their own reality, or are in an adversarial relationship to the world. Given its popularity outsider art certainly does not need folk to prop it up; “Self-Taught” broadcasts the possibility, in fact, that it may be the other way around.

What is it about the work that has led to the soaring interest in outsider art over the last few years? Outsider art is made from the inside out, so it appeals to the romantic impulse. It is direct, intense, content-laden, eschatological, expressive, and formally inventive, and it offers glimpses of other modes of perception. For instance, William Blaynery’s evangelical signs and Ken Grimes’ investigations of coincidences are beyond the bounds of reason. (Don’t be fooled by whatever Christian or biblical references pop up; they are only the language at hand for an art that is gnostic.) Outsider art consists of heresies. Think William Blake, not Grandma Moses—the visionary content of Blake’s poems informs his visionary visual forms and vice versa. He was out to change the world, not affirm the status quo. This also seems to be the ambition of most outsider artists. Each one has a message. Each one has a mission. It isn’t the child inside who is causing this ruckus on canvas, wood, or junk. It is the saint. Neither isolation, nor poverty, nor insanity will still these witnesses.

The facts are not in dispute. Outsider art comprises a viable art world with a healthy market, with support structures and critical underpinnings that would be the envy of, say, glass art, cowboy art, or even folk art. There is a sense today of finding something fresh and overwhelming—so overwhelming that outsider art can be subdivided in rapidly developing genres: flying-saucer paintings; apocalyptical landscapes; end-of-day shrines; mutant-teenager works; etc. (although these do not yet have separate bourses). It is powerful, disturbing art that has captured the public’s imagination, so isn’t it about time it be allowed to stand on its own? The first major museum exhibition, “Parallel Visions,” included work by the likes of Richard Lindner, A.R. Penck, Claes Oldenburg, and Julian Schnabel alongside outsider art; the Museum of American Folk Art blends outsider and folk. Is outsider art too difficult to understand on its own, or is it merely too dangerous?

Although outsider art is not academic, it is certainly not amateur, at least not in the negative sense. Outsider art never falls victim to technical or subject-matter cliches. For all the horror vacui and obsessiveness, the best work on view in “Self-Taught” always represents personal expression of an unexpected sort. (One irony of outsider art’s recent success is that most people in the art world see outsiders as truly authentic artists because of their pronounced individualism, while most outsiders do not think of themselves at all as artists per se.) We are offered authority and authorship, two qualities that many find sorely lacking in contemporary art. Though outsider art is being marketed rather fiercely now, it seems the artists themselves have something other than their career in mind as they work. This might account for the overwhelming public interest in outsider art: for viewers, originality has meaning when it is rooted in psychic necessity rather than in eye-on-the-bottom-line strategies.

John Perreault is a poet, artist, critic, and curator based in New York.