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

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 presented at Ricco/Maresca Gallery, offers a particularly compelling case study in these dynamics. Though little is known about the very beginning or end of his life, the great middle of it seems to have been marred by extreme violence and repeated incarceration. An African American born in Texas in 1895, Massey was convicted of killing a woman in 1918 and ordered to spend a decade in jail, but he escaped less than a year later. In 1938, he was arrested once more, this time for murdering his then-wife and injuring her male partner. Sentenced to life for these crimes, Massey spent about sixteen years in prison. During this time, he came to the attention of the avant-garde as the result of an unlikely correspondence he struck up with the poet, novelist, and impresario Charles Henri Ford. In 1940, Ford had cofounded View, which over its seven-year run would become one of the most crucial little magazines pioneering midcentury art and literature. Ford published several poems and drawings by Massey and apparently felt a rapport with him, sending the artist copies of View, along with art supplies and money.

Forty-two of Massey’s single-page works were featured in the show, each of which included hand-drawn images and text. Though more than half of them are undated, the artist’s “signature”—which always features his inmate number at the Ohio State Penitentiary—suggests that they all were made between the mid-1940s and the mid-’50s. Almost always executed in blue-black ink on letter-size paper (the show includes a few exceptions in color, done in tempera on slightly larger sheets), Massey’s compositions typically portray multiple human figures simply rendered and given rudimentary, often vaguely quizzical faces. His cast of characters “speak” to one another or to the viewer via bits of expository dialogue that take over the empty spaces of the compositions. They are frequently accompanied by creatures from a fantastical bestiary that creep along the margins. A dime-store reading of this vicious fauna might suggest an analogue to the deprivations and transgressions of Massey’s own life. Yet even with the needlelike fangs that line their gaping maws, they read as much as shy and even gentle companions as they do menacing antagonists.

Many of the ensembles suggest social groups, often familial in nature: In That my kid (date unknown), for example, three children stand on one another’s shoulders while nearby a maternal figure looks to the sky with an expression that’s poised between admiration and exasperation. But even when the number of dramatis personae is pared back, the solitary figures quite literally manage to contain multitudes, as in the dancing conjoined bodies in Telling me where to bend, 1946, or the eight-headed teratogenic jumble of A mixtre, 1946. Massey was never a formal innovator, in the manner of fellow outsiders Martín Ramírez or Adolf Wölfli, or a conjurer of epic narrative structures, à la Henry Darger. The poignant heart of his work lies more in the naked rhythms of his language. a picture within / is how things begin / before they come out / without a doubt, wrote Massey in an undated poem that evokes the potency of an automatism as familiar to the passionate anomic as it is to the self-conscious insider seeking contact with ever-elusive creative authenticity. Massey knew all the resources he needed were already at hand, marshaled inside his own imagination.