New York

Joe Massey, Telling me where to bend, 1946, ink on paper, 11 × 8 1⁄2".

Joe Massey, Telling me where to bend, 1946, ink on paper, 11 × 8 1⁄2".

Joe Massey

Ricco / Maresca Gallery

In his essay for the catalogue accompanying Lynne Cooke’s recent exhibition “Outliers and American Vanguard Art” at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, the scholar Darby English unpacks the complicated relationship between the avant-garde and the work of self-taught makers. “Outsider art,” he writes, “has served modernist culture as a bastion of artlike activity symbolic of urges still more anarchic than the vanguard’s best revolutionary impulses.” Whatever their material conditions, style, or content, these expressions vibrate with difference, and this otherness clearly rhymed in the modernist imagination with the “primitive”—that form of elemental personhood, theoretically operating beyond the strictures of conventional society, that had so often been the focus of modern artists’ excursions into the anthropological.

The story of the artist and poet Joe Massey, whose work was

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