Self-Taught & Outsider Art

Collecting "Outsider Art"

Lecture by Jane Kallir [Wexner Center, May 1999]

I'd like to begin today's discussion of collecting outsider art in 1976, because 1976 was the year our nation celebrated its bicentennial, and in this connection, there was a tendency to look back on our artistic history, which included not only academic but also self-taught or folk art. Upon further reflection, I suppose I could just as easily have chosen 1975 or 1974 as my starting point, since what I'm basically trying to do here is to review the history of collecting self-taught art over the last 25 years--or, to put it another way, during the last quarter of the 20th century.


1974, as a matter of fact, was the year that the Whitney Museum of American Art selected to celebrate the imminent bicentennial by mounting a major traveling survey of self-taught art, titled "The Flowering of American Folk Art." And it is, I think, significant that the cut-off date for this survey was 1876. The curator, Alice Winchester, stated her case succinctly in the catalogue introduction: "American folk art," she wrote, "came into flower during the early years of our nationhood, and by the last quarter of the 1800s it had begun to fade."


Now I don't want to launch into a long diatribe about terminology and definitions, which remain among the great bugaboos of the self-taught art field, but the fact is that if you define folk art in terms of pre industrial, communal, utilitarian traditions, Alice Winchester's statement is more or less accurate. And in the 1970s, I think most people who were involved with the field of folk art believed that the genre had pretty much died out by the dawn of the 20th century. The problem, however, is that if you define folk art in such a restrictive way, you are basically defining out of existence a huge trove of very interesting 20th century material. Because, as the exhibition here at the Wexner Center makes amply clear, regardless of what you call it, self-taught art did not cease to exist in 1900. One of the more interesting things to happen in the last 25 years is that we have become enthralled with a genre of art--today popularly known as outsider art--that most people literally could not see a quarter century ago.


Of course, not everyone was blind to contemporary self-taught art in the 1970s. 1974 also happens to be the year that Herbert Waide Hemphill, Jr., and Julia Weissman published their own compendium, titled Twentieth Century Folk Art and Artists. Unlike the Whitney exhibition, this book covered a vast array of 20th century material, including work by many of the artists here in the Wexner show. If Bert Hemphill and Julia Weissman were way ahead of the majority in their ability to recognize these artists, it was Bert, in particular, whose sensibilities may be considered emblematic of this field as it has developed in the 25 years since the publication of Twentieth Century Folk Art and Artists. Bert, who sadly passed away last year, contributed enormously to the recognition of 20th century self-taught art, both through the compilation of this book and through his erstwhile activities as a curator and museum supporter, but he was, first and foremost, a collector.


Now, I want to talk in some detail about Bert Hemphill, but before doing so, I think it bears pointing out that the field of contemporary self-taught art is peculiar in the extent to which it has been shaped by collectors. Collectors don’t exert a comparable influence in the field of mainstream contemporary art, or historical academic art; nor have collectors had all that much impact on self-taught art at other times or in other places. In Europe, for example, it was artists such as Picasso, Kandinsky and Dubuffet who first lionized the work of untrained artists, and the field to this day remains largely the domain of artists and allied intellectuals. The European collecting public for Art Brut--as the genre is generally known over there--is minuscule compared to the contemporary American public for outsider art.


Similarly, if we go back to the early years of this century, the fervor for contemporary folk art was first brought to the United States by modern artists and their sympathizers. The first significant people to collect American self-taught art--and I'm thinking here of figures like Abbey Aldrich Rockefeller, or Albert Barnes or Duncan Phillips--did so in tandem with their support of avant-garde European art. Particularly in the 1930s, this stance had strong backing, not only from artists, but also from forward-thinking museum people, such as Alfred Barr, the legendary founding director of the MOMA. American collectors during the 1920s and ‘30s didn’t spearhead the movement in favor of self-taught art, they simply went along with it. And that is very different from the role that American collectors have played in the more recent history of the genre.


As we have already seen, twenty or twenty-five years ago, the field of contemporary self-taught art had almost no institutional or academic backing. Far from it: leading scholars were actually arguing that the genre didn't exist. So the collectors and the dealers (many of whom were also collectors) who helped establish contemporary folk art as a legitimate area of endeavor were mavericks in every sense of the word. They didn't collect to garner social prestige--there was no prestige to be gotten from filling one's home with what most people tended to regard as wacky trash. Nor could there have been much hope of financial gain. This was (and to a degree still is) a low-budget collecting area, and in the early days the average work, even with a dealer's mark-up, seldom got out of the low three figures. The collectors who made this field what it is today collected because they were obsessed; smitten with a transformative passion that in many cases came to rule their entire lives.


Which brings me back to Bert Hemphill. Those of us who had the privilege of visiting Bert in his home will probably never forget the experience. He lived in Manhattan in a cramped duplex apartment : essentially two rooms, one upstairs (where you entered) and another downstairs. And it’s no exaggeration to say that just about every square inch of wall and floor space in that apartment was filled with art. Paintings were hung in multiple tiers on all the walls; whirligigs, pottery and miscellaneous assemblages were stacked four, five and six deep on the floor. Downstairs, there was barely space for a tiny kitchen, and tucked against one wall, surrounded on all sides by art, was a narrow sofa which doubled as a bed. Nestled along another wall full of art, there was an ancient TV, which could be viewed from the sofa. And that was pretty much it so far as furniture went. It was impossible to imagine dusting this apartment, much less properly cleaning it, and I don't think the job was attempted on a regular basis. The apartment was also quite dark: the collection had to be viewed under the light of bare bulbs that, due to faulty wiring, were switched on and off one at a time.


Bert's collection had its origins in the antiques stores that lined Second and Third Avenues in the 1950s and '60s, and in country auctions, junk shops and antiques fairs. Traveling was part and parcel of a glorious treasure hunt, and as works by living artists began to augment the weather vanes and cigar-store Indians in Bert's collection, seeking out and meeting the artists became an important part of his collecting process. Eventually, other collector friends (including Michael Hall, whom you will hear speak in about 15 minutes) came to join Bert on these road trips.


Now, there are, I think, several significant points to be made regarding Bert's collecting process, which was in a way typical of his generation of folk art collector. First of all, many of the important collectors of contemporary self-taught art share a kind of flea market mentality: they enjoy pouring through gobs of trash in search of treasure. I suppose that for some collectors, this can have economic undertones: they hunt for the ultimate bargain, hoping to strike it rich. But I don't think that was true for Bert, or indeed for many of his collector colleagues. It is rather the validation of their eye that motivates these collectors. And if their eye is later ratified in economic terms (as in fact was the case with Bert and also Michael Hall), so much the better. But money isn’t the goal; it is at best society's external (though not intrinsically necessary) means of affirming the general validity of the goal.


The other key to Bert's collection was his need to collect "in depth." This desire to own a lot of stuff--and, indeed, a lot of the same kind of stuff--is, I must admit, a bit hard for me to fathom. It can certainly be argued that Bert (or other collectors of his ilk) would have gotten more visceral aesthetic pleasure out of owning less stuff and therefore being able to display it in a manner where it could have been properly seen and enjoyed. It was the bric-a-brac aspect of Bert's hoardings that once prompted a dealer friend to say, rather disparagingly, that Bert wasn’t a collector but an "accumulator."


Another dealer colleague of mine was fond of saying that collectors are like drug addicts. And I think that this observation--which was not specific in the least to folk art collectors--is considerably more perceptive. There is an addictive quality to collecting, and the need for a constant "fix" is what drives true collectors to keep buying, long after their wall space is exhausted, and often beyond the limits of their financial resources, no matter how small or large those resources may be. Although Bert Hemphill's financial means were not enormous, he could have owned many more great works if he had pooled his money, buying let's say one masterpiece for each of the ten lesser works he instead chose to purchase. But his need for a constant stream of new acquisitions wouldn’t allow him to do this, and as a result, his collection, though breathtaking in the aggregate, contained surprisingly few real master works. His loyalty wasn’t so much to the individual object as to the collection as a whole.


This brings me to the thorny question of quality. Bert Hemphill's collection definitely favored quantity over quality, and such is the case with a great many primary collections of modern self-taught art. As a test, when I am confronted by a collection like Bert's, I will often ask the collector which are his or her favorite pieces. Almost inevitably, the collector picks the same things I would pick. These collectors aren’t oblivious to issues of quality; they know that some things in their collections are vastly superior to others, and for that matter that some things that they don't or can't own are better than anything they do. They know; they just don't particularly care. And the question--"why then do you buy stuff that you know to be inferior?"--seems almost irrelevant. It’s as though there is something intrinsic to the folk field that eschews issues of quality. Connoisseurship just doesn't seem to figure here. Or if it does, it does so in a far, far smaller way than in more traditional areas of collecting. Bert, by his own admission, was moved less by quality than by creative authenticity. And this, I think, makes a certain sense, when you realize that folk art is not only a branch of art, but also an expression of material culture.


As a dealer who specializes primarily in Austrian and German Expressionism, I can attest to the fact that there are crucial differences between the prototypical folk art collector and collectors of more conventional art. In its original form, the field of contemporary self-taught art lacked the financial and cultural veneer that validates other collecting categories. In what was--at least until recently--an extremely low-budget collecting area, acquisitions were seldom validated by high cost. And whereas mainstream art collectors can aesthetically validate their acquisitions by comparing them to museum masterpieces, in the flea-market world of folk art collecting, it was commonly the contrast to the surrounding junk that caused great works to stand out. Objects were chosen on the basis of the collector’s immediate visceral response and his or her cumulative collecting experience, rather than with reference to an externally constructed hierarchy of value. The notion of rarity or uniqueness--which is so important to many mainstream collectors--seems laughable in collections that could contain dozens of nearly identical objects. And while a collector like Bert Hemphill might have occasionally sold a work to finance a new acquisition, I don’t think he or the other pioneering collectors of self-taught art as a rule sought to consciously refine or upgrade their holdings, at least not in the manner that mainstream collectors often do.


One way, of course, that mainstream collectors hone their collections is by consulting experts. But in the field of self-taught art, there were no real experts 25 years ago, no outside authorities to appeal to regarding quality. Ultimately, it was up to each collector to define the standard for inclusion in his or her collection. And since each collector's standard was bound to be different, this set of circumstances further mitigated against the emergence of an overriding consensus regarding quality. In the folk art boomlet of the last 25 years, academicians did not lead the way or set standards, but rather tended to follow the path blazed by collectors and dealers.


However, all that has begun to change in the last decade or so. Self-taught art, once the domain of a few dedicated obsessives, has become a growth industry, attracting hoards of new collectors, dealers, artists and museum personnel. As a result, the world that allowed Bert Hemphill and his generation of collectors to flourish no longer exists. It is much harder today to find truly great self-taught art and artifacts in roadside junk shops. And one may question the authenticity of self-taught artists who market themselves on the Internet or hand out business cards proclaiming themselves as "outsiders." Not only have exhibitions like the present one brought self-taught art to mainstream museums, but for the past seven years, the field has been large enough to support an annual Outsider Art Fair, which draws people from across the country to New York City each January. Yet the pre-processed selection of dealers' wares at the Outsider Fair allows for few genuine discoveries, and many fear that the plethora of low-end materials only debases the field as a whole.


In the last years, some collectors and dealers have endeavored to pull away from the flea market mentality that originally characterized the field of self-taught art. Museum lighting and slick shadow-box frames are used to create displays that are the direct antithesis of Bert Hemphill's cluttered apartment. Prices for certain artists have risen dramatically, although it is sometimes hard to tell whether the dealers have hiked the prices in an attempt to legitimize the art, or whether the prices have risen organically, as a result of a genuine consensus regarding quality and importance. However, even if the definition of “greatness” remains elusive, something like a canon of masters and masterpieces is beginning to emerge. In the last decades, scores of publications on self-taught art have joined the Hemphill/Weissman book, which in 1974 was the only volume of its kind. Monographic studies allow collectors to compare prospective acquisitions with a range of works by the same artist, and surveys--including the present exhibition--provide a selective overview of the field. The newer collections of self-taught art are all to some degree shaped by publications, exhibitions and marketing endeavors like the Outsider Fair.


I have to admit I am ambivalent about these changes in the self-taught art market. In some respects, I think they are necessary if self-taught art is to "grow up" and be accorded the seriousness it deserves. If this is to happen, the work must of course be displayed respectfully. Self-taught art must become a legitimate academic discipline, and it will no longer do to lump together masterpieces and ordinary bric-a-brac. Some standard of quality must prevail. And when that happens, it is to be expected that prices will rise accordingly. Self-taught art is still cheap by comparison with mainstream art of comparable quality.


Yet a part of me protests the ongoing changes. Although I have always believed that self-taught art should be held to the same standards of judgment and study as academic art, I worry that imposing an elitist qualitative hierarchy on the field violates its intrinsic egalitarian nature. In some ways, Bert Hemphill's all-encompassing generosity is more in keeping with the true spirit of this material. It may turn out that clutter and multiplicity, low cost and a flea market mentality are essential to the field of self-taught art, and that something fundamental will be lost when these things go. And in fact we are already feeling the pain of this loss. Many collectors who came to this field ten years ago or more are now being priced out of the market. Even if these collectors have the financial wherewithal to pay more, they often lack the inclination to do so, because the current market is at odds with the sensibility that drove them to collect self-taught art in the first place. Perhaps a new breed of collector--well-healed, and more in tune with mainstream collecting patterns--will take the place of the traditional folk art collector. Whatever may happen, however, I think that, on the eve of the 21st century, a chapter in the history of folk art collecting is drawing to a close.