New York

“The Direct Eye”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

With this exhibition, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has joined the very short list of major institutions willing to take on the challenge of contextualizing their holdings of work by self-taught artists within an expansive art-historical narrative. A selection of paintings and wall-mounted assemblages compared the work of four self-taught greats—Grandma Moses, Earl Cunningham, Horace Pippin, and Bill Traylor—with fourteen academically trained artists, ranging from Paul Sample to Alison Saar. In revealing the formal and thematic similarities between the two groups, the show staked out a decidedly naive representational sensibility as their aesthetic common ground. It was this foundation that allowed one to compare a Weber portrait with one by the African-American autodidact Pippin, landscapes by Paul Sample with those of self-trained fantasist Cunningham, and a mixed-media relief by Alison Saar, a contemporary African-American artist who appropriates folk-art vocabularies in her work. with figure studies by Traylor (the survivor of slavery who began making precocious drawings in Birmingham, Alabama, when he was well into his eighties). These comparisons provocatively opened a Pandora’s box of critical issues surrounding the insider-outsider opposition. Is Weber’s attempt at forging a self-consciously folksy style any less authentic than the representational simplicity that came naturally to Pippin? Can the forced, all-American naïveté of Sample’s Janitor’s Holiday, 1936, be compared to the dreamlike, narrative figuration of Cunningham’s Seminole Everglades, 1945? Can the art-savvy Saar legitimately lay claim to the grassroots language of Traylor and other African-American self-taughts, whose work she is intimately familiar with? These pairings raised pressing questions, which the exhibition, with its frustrating brevity and lack of any supporting materials, ultimately left unanswered.

While “The Direct Eye” conservatively refrained from recognizing self-taught artists as viable players in the proper history of American art, the result of this show’s experimental if temporary leveling of value was refreshing. It offered visitors to the American wing a brief respite from the march of the modernist avant-garde, as well as a chance to reflect upon a diverse group of artists, from Ralph Mayer to Carroll Cloar, who share a similar figure-based, narrative-driven sensibility that is quintessentially American.

In the end, the show represented a curatorial impasse: Although the intent to champion the achievements of autodidacts whose engagement with art history is limited or nonexistent may be earnest, an institution like the Met simply cannot afford to question the canon that forms its backbone. By treating the complex issue of self-taught artists’ influence on modern artists as little more than an interesting footnote, the Met has preserved the hierarchy that privileges trained artists whose work answers to the history of Western art. The range of self-taught talent was misrepresented here by the favoring of a palatable, folk aesthetic over the more challenging and raw accomplishments of so-called outsider artists (isolates, mediums, visionaries, and schizophrenics) whose work has consistently influenced mainstream artists. The wall text for this show read: “This selection . . . demonstrates the influence of self-taught artists on modern art and seeks to question the distinctions drawn by critical practice between these two communities of artists.” Yet it is institutional practice that will draw arbitrary and value-laden distinctions between these communities until critical practice renders such oppositions obsolete.

Jenifer P. Borum