Self-Taught & Outsider Art

Self-Taught Artists and “Outsider” Art: A Timeline


The self-taught painter Henri Rousseau is included in the debut exhibition of the “Fauves” (Matisse, Derain, Braque, Rouault, Vlaminck and others) at the Salon d’Automne in Paris. Subsequently taken up by Picasso and his circle, Rousseau becomes “an object lesson for modern art,” providing the French avant-garde with an alternative to the academic model.



Paintings by Rousseau are reproduced in the Blauer Reiter Almanac, along with European folk art and works by children and non-Western artists. Kandinsky, a leader of the German Blauer Reiter group, writes, “The academy is the surest means of ruining the force of the child. An academically educated person of average talent distinguishes himself by having learned the practical-purposeful and by having lost the ability to hear the inner resonance.”



The psychiatrist Walter Morgenthaler publishes A Mentally Ill Person as an Artist, a monographic study of Adolf Wölfli. The following year, Hans Prinzhorn, a doctor at the Heidelberg Psychiatric Clinic who has been collecting art by mental patients, publishes Artistry of the Mentally Ill. Familiar with the modernist rebellion against the academy, Prinzhorn writes, “The configurative process, instinctive and free of purpose, breaks through in these people without any external stimulus or direction.” The mentally ill artist, at his or her best, taps into “the original process of all configuration, pure inspiration, for which alone, after all, every artist thirsts.”



A Pittsburgh housepainter, John Kane, is identified as the “American Rousseau” and admitted to the prestigious Carnegie International Exhibition. Emulating the European avant-garde, American modernists are now on the lookout for unschooled domestic talent.



The dealer and collector Wilhelm Uhde anoints the contemporary French self-taught artists André Bauchant, Camille Bombois, Séraphine Louis and Louis Vivin as Rousseau’s peers and successors. Uhde dubs this group the “Painters of the Sacred Heart” and exhibits their work in Paris to great acclaim. “Primitive” and “naïve” are other terms commonly used at the time to describe these artists.



Founding of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Director Alfred Barr identifies self-taught art as one of the three “major movements of modern art,” along with Surrealism and Abstraction.



Holger Cahill, who has previously curated major folk art exhibitions at the Newark Museum, organizes “American Folk Art: The Art of The Common Man in America, 1750-1900” at MoMA. The double use of the word “art” in the title affirms and elevates the aesthetic significance of the folk object, which was for the most part utilitarian in purpose and traditional in form.



MoMA mounts “Masters of Popular Painting,” a sequel to “Art of the Common Man” that focuses more specifically on fine art by contemporary self-taught painters, including André Bauchant, Camille Bombois, John Kane, Lawrence Lebduska, René Rimbert and Louis Vivin. As indicated by the adjectives “popular” and “common,” the emerging field of self-taught art in the U.S. is distinguished from its European counterpart by an emphasis on core American values like egalitarianism and grass-roots individualism. “The work,” declares Holger Cahill, is the “honest and straightforward expression of the spirit of a people.”



MoMA trustee and future art dealer Sidney Janis publishes They Taught Themselves, documenting the work of 30 recently discovered American self-taught painters. Of these, Morris Hirshfield, John Kane, Lawrence Lebduska, Horrace Pippin and Anna Mary Robertson (“Grandma”) Moses will subsequently achieve canonical status. Echoing Cahill’s and Barr’s populism, Janis notes that, “The self-taught artist expresses himself with a humility and an easily comprehended human quality that may be shared by everyone.” These artists “retain an untouched quality, a spiritual innocence. They rarely learn from a developed painting culture because it is far removed from their perceptions and, being removed, cannot touch them. Each creates his own world.”



Inspired by Hans Prinzhorn’s 1922 book, Artistry of the Mentally Ill, the French artist Jean Dubuffet tours psychiatric hospitals in Switzerland and begins collecting what he calls “Art Brut” (raw art). Rebelling against “civilization” (which he holds responsible for the horrors of World War II), Dubuffet hails Art Brut as an art created outside the confines of received culture, without artistic intent.

Though initially interested in work by a broad range of self-taught creators, Dubuffet gradually narrows his definition, distinguishing Art Brut from the “naïve” art of painters like Rousseau, who “desire to form part of cultural art and borrow from it their methods.” Art Brut artists, on the other hand, “invent everything out of themselves, their subjects and their methods, out of their own depths.”



Dubuffet establishes the Compagnie de l’Art Brut, which functions as a center for the collecting, exhibition and study of Art Brut. Dubuffet’s collection will eventually comprise tens of thousands of works by hundreds of artists, including Aloïse Corbaz, Joseph Crépin, Madge Gill, Augustin Lesage, Michel Nedjar, Friedrich Schröder-Sonnenstern, Scottie Wilson, Adolf Wölfli, Anna Zemankova, Carlo Zinelli and the artists of Gugging.

However Dubuffet has trouble calibrating each artist’s distance from “received culture.” Artists not deemed sufficiently “brut” are relegated to a separate category, dubbed “Neuve Invention” (new invention).



Due to financial and ideological difficulties, the Compagnie de l’Art Brut is dissolved and the collection shipped to the U.S., where it is housed at the Long Island estate of the artist Alfonso Ossorio. That same year Dubuffet gives a seminal lecture, “Anticultural Positions,” at the Chicago Art Club.


Founding of the Museum of Early American Folk Art in New York. The adjective “early” will be dropped in 1966.


Dubuffet’s collection is returned to France, and the Compagnie de l’Art Brut is reconstituted. Dubuffet resumes his advocacy and collecting of the genre with renewed vigor.


Dubuffet’s Art Brut collection is accorded a major exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.



The British art historian Roger Cardinal publishes the first English-language book on Art Brut, Outsider Art. Largely European in its orientation, Cardinal’s study profiles many of the same artists championed by Dubuffet, among them Aloïse Corbaz, Joseph Crépin, Madge Gill, Augustin Lesage, Scottie Wilson and Adolf Wölfli. After several unsuccessful attempts to establish a permanent home for his collection in France, Dubuffet donates it to the city of Lausanne, Switzerland. The Collection de l’Art Brut will open to the public in 1976.



Publication of Twentieth-Century Folk Art and Artists by Julia Weissmann and Herbert Waide Hemphill, Jr. Based on a 1970 exhibition curated by Hemphill at New York’s Museum of American Folk Art, the book defines “folk art” very broadly, as “the works of truly American folk: everyday people out of ordinary life, who are generally unaware of and most certainly unaffected by the mainstream of professional art.” Traditional utilitarian folk objects like duck decoys and weathervanes are reproduced alongside the highly individualistic pictorial expressions of such artists as Minnie Evans, Morris Hirshfield, Grandma Moses and Martín Ramírez.



The Arts Council of Great Britain sponsors the exhibition “Outsiders: Artists without Precedent or Tradition” at the Hayward Gallery in London. Organized by Roger Cardinal and the British collector Victor Musgrave, the exhibition establishes loose parameters for the evolving field of Outsider Art, adding Americans like Henry Darger and Martín Ramírez to Dubuffet’s original mix.



The exhibition “Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., sets forth a slightly different paradigm, showcasing a group that includes William Edmondson, Sister Gertrude Morgan and Bill Traylor. Though these and other African American artists, like Minnie Evans and William Hawkins, are readily subsumed within the “outsider” category, the use of the term in this context has implicitly racist connotations. As Corcoran curator Jane Livingston notes, the artists may be separated from the white mainstream by bigotry and physical distance, but within their own communities they are “insiders” whose work often reflects a shared cultural context.



“Parallel Visions: Modern Artists and Outsider Art,” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is the first exhibition to attempt an encyclopedic presentation of the influence of “compulsive visionaries” on mainstream artists, from the early 20th century to the present. It includes a sweeping selection of European and American Art Brut, by Aloïse Corbaz, Joseph Crépin, Henry Darger, Madge Gill, Augustin Lesage, Martín Ramírez, Friedrich Schröder-Sonnenstern, Scottie Wilson, Adolf Wölfli, Carlo Zinelli and a great many others.

“Parallel Visions” proves hugely influential. Nevertheless, the exhibition is criticized for its Eurocentric bias and for postulating a false dichotomy between the center and the periphery. “Today, the idea that drawings and paintings by outsiders are distinctive because they have arisen from natural, unadulterated, unmediated impulses—as many modern artists believed—cannot be taken seriously,” writes reviewer Christopher Knight. “Outsider art is not an embodiment of natural expression. Instead, ‘outsiders’ simply work from a different set of impulses and cultural imperatives than ‘insiders’ do.”



The Museum of American Folk Art organizes a broad survey exhibition, “Self-Taught Artists of the 20th Century: An American Anthology,” which travels to six major museums nationwide. The curators choose the comparatively neutral adjective “self-taught” to sidestep the ideological debates that increasingly surround terms such as “folk” and “outsider,” and to shape a more broadly inclusive amalgam. As Gerard Wertkin notes in the catalogue, all the exhibited works “were created outside the structures of the artworld—but not necessarily outside the broader cultural mainstream.” Yet the lumping together of works in various mediums, by makers of disparate cultural backgrounds and different degrees of “normalcy,” creates its own problems. An artist such as John Kane or Grandma Moses was clearly the product of a completely different environment than, for example, Martín Ramírez or Bill Traylor.



The Museum of American Folk Art changes its name to American Folk Art Museum, signaling an incipient internationalization of its mission, and opens an architecturally significant new building next door to the Museum of Modern Art. The museum’s expansion into the field of Outsider Art is manifested in a series of seminal monographic exhibitions on such artists as Henry Darger

(2001), Adolf Wölfli (2003), Sister Gertrude Morgan (2004) and Martín Ramírez (2007 & 2008). Nevertheless, there is an inherent tension between this trend and the museum’s involvement with older, traditional folk art.



Under severe financial pressure, the American Folk Art Museum transfers its building to MoMA and reverts to a much smaller space near Lincoln Center. At the same time, however, the work of self taught artists is entering more mainstream museums at an unprecedented rate. Didi and David Barrett give their collection to the Harvard University Art Museums; Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz promise theirs to the Philadelphia Art Museum.



MoMA accessions thirteen major works by Henry Darger. Adding the Anthony Petullo collection to holdings that already include the Hall Collection of American Folk Art and the Flagg Collection of Haitian Art, the Milwaukee Art Museum becomes one of the largest institutional repositories of self-taught art in the U.S. The American Folk Art Museum appoints a new director, Anne-Imelda Radice, and consolidates its financial position.