Folk, Outsider & Self-Taught Art
Auction on August 12
by Aron Packer,
On Thursday, August 12, 2021, Toomey & Co. Auctioneers will hold its inaugural Folk, Outsider & Self-Taught Art auction with an array of fascinating works on offer by artists with non-traditional backgrounds exhibiting a diverse range of styles from Chicago, the Midwest, and beyond. We already have some exciting consignments slated for the sale, including material by: David Butler, William Dawson, Howard Finster, Lee Godie, Chris Hipkiss, Mr. Imagination, Eddy Mumma, Judy Onofrio, Elijah Pierce, Jack Savitsky, Pauline Simon, Jimmy Lee Sudduth, Myrtice West, Willie White, Wesley Willis, and others.
If you would like to consign artwork for potential inclusion in the Folk, Outsider & Self-Taught Art auction on August 12, please email photos with any relevant background details to email@example.com or complete our Request an Estimate form. The consignment deadline for the sale is Friday, July 9, but early submissions will be given priority consideration.
“What is Outsider Art?”
That is the question I get asked most often once I tell people what kind of art I work with or what is my favorite kind of art. It is also the question that whole conferences are based on, as well as important art fairs in New York, Paris, and elsewhere. Recent books and magazine articles have claimed that Outsider Art has finally arrived in the mainstream, but that process has been underway for decades now.
Growing up in Chicago, my mother owned an antique quilt and folk art gallery and my father was an obsessive collector and dealer. Later, I would operate my own art gallery, Aron Packer Projects, and show work by various Outsider artists for over 30 years. Yet even with my virtually lifelong experience in the field, it can still be somewhat difficult to describe Outsider Art and articulate how it overlaps with Folk Art and Self-Taught Art.
Even the semantics of the label Outsider generate heated debate, and there does not seem to be a final answer where everyone is satisfied with the definition of what Outsider Art is. Ultimately, what is important and worth paying attention to is the art. This is a genre that has generated and continues to generate compelling art based on its own merit and its creators’ inspired visions.
Generally speaking, Outsider Art does not fit into what would be considered mainstream art. This often encompasses work made by people who do not have any formal training, including art of the mentally ill, art done in prison, or any number of other situations that produce unusually distinctive art.
Because some people are innately driven to create, art serves as a cathartic outlet. However, in cases where individuals are not trained within academic institutions and/or they lack the means to engage with common artistic mediums, they must be resourceful. This might mean using leftover house paint to adorn a piece of plywood or tin (e.g., Mary Smith), taking socks apart and using the thread to make beautiful miniature embroideries (e.g., Raymond Materson), or heavily wrapping a found bicycle wheel with colorful yarn, twine, and fabric. (e.g., Judith Scott). Repurposing common household materials or found objects tends to be classified as Folk Art.
Folk Art in the Popular Imagination: Handcrafted and Handed Down
Folk Art is an umbrella term within which Outsider Art is often grouped. Although Folk Art as a concept is flexible, it specifically includes artwork that comes from a tradition that can be taught and handed down. In American Folk Art, this would include quilts, wood carving, basket weaving, samplers, memory painting, tattoo art, banner painting, metalwork, and pottery.
A lot of these genres or categories might be considered utilitarian, that is, intended for day-to-day usefulness hopefully combined with an aesthetic from years of nuancing a tradition of craft. One subset of Folk Art is Memoryware, wherein small everyday objects such as keys, screws, nails, glass vials, shells, nuts, and jewelry are placed onto the surface of various objects with wood putty or another adhesive to represent the life of a person.
For over a century, there has been considerable interest in American Folk Art and the artists who make it, with national exposure granted to certain individuals via profiles in LIFE magazine and other publications prior to and during the 1950s. William Edmonson, Grandma Moses, and Mattie Lou O’Kelley are examples of Folk artists who gained a following thanks to such features.
In East Coast cultural circles, Folk Art has been in demand since the mid-20th century. In particular, collector Herb “Bert” Hemphill Jr. really helped popularize this genre. Moreover, the American Folk Art Museum in New York City, which opened in 1961, has exhibited and promoted Folk artists to the general public for 60 years now, critically examining the past and connecting Folk art practice to the present.
Self-Taught Art as a Broad Historical Category
Self-Taught Art is a broad category that sometimes accurately denotes work by those who practice Folk or Outsider Art. However, Folk artists are not necessarily self-taught because many have trained with family members or in their communities to hone their skills.
Outsider artists are in some cases completely self-taught, but they more often have received at least partial instruction or have some limited access to traditional materials and work in conversation, albeit at a remove, with canonical artwork or styles.
Historically speaking, Paul Cezanne, Vincent Van Gogh, Francis Bacon, Henri Rousseau, Frida Kahlo, and Jean-Michel Basquiat might be considered primarily self-taught artists. These individuals either were not trained formally or they received only brief instruction before blazing their own artistic trails.
In today’s world, Self-Taught Art in its purest form is a rare phenomenon because it is difficult to remain unaware of trends and techniques in the art world given the interconnected, global nature of digital mass communication.
How Art Brut Paved the Way for Outsider Art
While Folk Art is easier to define than Outsider Art, and Self-Taught Art is an inevitably open concept, there is still much that can be stated about the rise of so-called Outsider Art within the past 100 years. In one form or another, Outsider Art has always existed. Untrained artists have been making art from life’s materials for millennia exterior to centers of cultural influence, but only in the early part of the 20th century was Outsider Art officially recognized, some might say fetishized or appropriated, for its unconventional aesthetic value.
During the early 1920s at Heidelberg University in Germany, Karl Willmanns, Head of the Psychiatric University Hospital, and his assistant Hans Prinzhorn sent queries to psychiatric institutions requesting artwork produced by asylum residents for the purposes of establishing a museum of psychopathological art. Prinzhorn published the collected works in Artistry of the Mentally Ill in 1922 and the book garnered significant attention. In the aftermath, German Expressionists became enamored with schizophrenic artists such as August Naterrer and Adolf Wölfli and French Surrealists modeled their automatic drawing practice in part on that of mystic mediums like Helene Smith and Augustin Lesage. Over the last century, the Prinzhorn Collection has grown considerably and now comprises roughly 20,000 works of art, which are held at the University Hospital in Heidelberg.
Yet it was not until 1947 when French curator and artist Jean Dubuffet issued a manifesto on art brut (“raw art”) that non-traditional artwork and artists began to become more visible and appreciated. In contrast to art culturel (“cultural art”) created within and for established academies, salons, and institutions, Dubuffet identified art brut as works produced by street or graffiti artists, those with mental health conditions, prisoners, and individuals with primitive educational backgrounds.
Dubuffet contended that artists with such life circumstances were better able to access their raw emotions and express pure visions. In subsequent years, Dubuffet himself sought to bring these qualities to bear in his own art practice, freely mixing high and low cultural signifiers with a childlike, rough-around-the-edges style. He also helped to legitimize art brut by establishing the Compagnie de l’Art Brut in 1948 and donating his personal artistic inventory to La Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Roger Cardinal’s Outsider Art
In a contemporary sense, the key development in bringing Outsider Art to a wider audience was the 1972 publication of British academic and art critic Roger Cardinal’s book, Outsider Art. Even though Cardinal much preferred to call the book Art Brut, in an effort to expand upon Dubuffet’s groundbreaking work, Cardinal’s publisher disagreed and settled on Outsider Art.
This important volume presented an overview of the field as well as biographies and artistic discussion of nearly 30 artists, including Adolf Wölfli, Sabato “Simon” Rodia, Guillaume, Joseph Crépin, Madge Gill, and The Abbé Fouéré.
In essence, Cardinal asserted that Outsider artists “should be possessed of an expressive impulse and should then externalize that impulse in an unmonitored way which defies conventional art-historical contextualization.”
While Cardinal had hoped Outsider Art would make an immediate impact in Britain and Europe — since he covered mostly artists based there — the book was actually received with greater enthusiasm in the United States. In the case of Simon Rodia, Cardinal elucidated the notion of Outsider Art environments, or visionary environments, by profiling Watts Towers in Los Angeles.
After immigrating from Italy, Rodia spent decades fashioning elaborate towers from concrete and rebar with overall surface elements of found objects and colorful pottery shards. (The technique of adhering broken ceramics to a jug or vessel had been popular during the Victorian Era in Britain and throughout Europe.) Despite Rodia’s Outsider status and unconventional approach, the Watts Towers (or “Nuestro Pueblo,” as he called them) have survived multiple earthquakes and become an iconic part of Southern California’s landscape.
Outsider Art and Folk Art Gain International Visibility
Outsider Art took to the world stage when Roger Cardinal and poet/filmmaker Victor Musgrave curated a highly influential exhibition, Outsiders: An Art Without Precedent or Tradition (February 8 – April 8, 1979), at London’s Hayward Gallery. Not only did Cardinal and Musgrave make a point to feature American artists such as Henry Darger, Joseph Yoakum, and others, but they also broadened the definition of Outsider Art to include vernacular and indigenous works, which Dubuffet did not accept within his conception of art brut.
In the 1980s, inspired by the example of Outsider Art, American Folk Art curators and devotees likewise sought to gain a larger audience and be taken more seriously. The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC held Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980 (January 15 – March 28, 1982), which traveled extensively and spawned additional exhibitions, often focusing on African-American artists of the South. As much as this led to increased visibility, Folk Art and Outsider Art began to become synonymous as the 1980s progressed, leading some critics to complain that this association was itself a kind of marginalization.
Outsider Art Exhibitions and Art Fairs
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art staged an important hybrid exhibition in the early 1990s, Parallel Visions: Modern Artists and Outsider Art (October 18, 1992 – January 3, 1993), which juxtaposed the work of so-called Insider artists with that of Outsider artists. This helped put Outsider Art more firmly on the map, and the roster of artists shown was relatively diverse from a cultural standpoint, but only eight of 74 were women. In the almost 30 years since Parallel Visions, many other shows have attempted to highlight the perspectives and contributions of Outsider and Folk artists, including the Museum of Modern Art’s Glossolalia: Languages of Drawing (March 26 – July 7, 2008) and the National Gallery of Art’s Outliers and American Vanguard Art (January 28 – May 13, 2018), which went on to travel widely.
Within the last decade, Outsider artists have become even more prominent given the development of art fairs dedicated to their works in New York, Paris, and elsewhere. In addition, Outsider Art has now been shown in important recurring exhibitions in Europe like the Venice Biennale and documenta in Kassel, Germany. Within the United States, Outsider Art has been prominently displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, and many other institutions.
Still, disagreement over what to call Outsider Art persists. Raw Vision magazine in Britain leans toward Intuitive Art or Visionary Art, which may apply to both the artists and their art, without negative connotations. Similarly, two facilities in the United States dedicated solely to the field, Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago and the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, suggest their genre classification preferences with their names.
“As far as I’m concerned, there ain’t no outsiders of anything. If you’re an artist, you’re an artist. If you’re a mechanic, you’re a mechanic. If you’re a farmer, you’re a farmer. Ain’t no outsider farmers, ain’t no outsider mechanics. That’s just something that someone’s got up to class things. I ignore it.” — Howard Finster, quoted in “THE OUTSIDERS: With Its Exhibit ‘Parallel Visions,’ the County Museum Validates a Controversial Genre — the Art of the Insane” by Tessa DeCarlo and Susan Subtle Dintenfass, Los Angeles Times, October 11, 1992