The Galerie St. Etienne, presently celebrating its 65th anniversary, may well be the oldest gallery in the world specializing in the work of self-taught artists. Like many early proponents of modernism, Otto Kallir, the gallery’s founder, was interested in art produced outside the confines of academia. He emigrated to the United States from his native Austria in 1939 predisposed to appreciate America’s endemic traditions of non-academic art. In fact, he found this work more vital and original than much of the relatively derivative contemporary art that then dominated the Manhattan gallery scene. Kallir is best known for discovering Anna Mary Robertson (“Grandma”) Moses, who had her first one-woman show at the Galerie St. Etienne in 1940. However, he actively promoted a broad range of non-academic material, including Native American work from the Southwest and nineteenth-century folk paintings. Since Kallir’s death in 1978, the Galerie St. Etienne has both continued and expanded upon its involvement with self-taught art. To the estate of Grandma Moses, the gallery added representation of the estate of John Kane in 1984, and of Henry Darger in 1999. Within the evolving realm of Outsider Art, the gallery has focused on Europeans such as Ilija Bosilj, Michel Nedjar, Josef Karl Rädler and the artists of Gugging. Given the scope of its endeavors, St. Etienne’s current anniversary presents an ideal opportunity to examine the history of self-taught art over the last 65 years.
From the outset, it must be noted that the history of self-taught art differs markedly from the history of the field of self-taught art. The urge to create is universal; humans have always made art, and will continue to do so, regardless of whether they receive formal training. However, in both Europe and the U.S., unschooled creative efforts were considered of little interest or merit prior to the twentieth century. Modernism changed all this by privileging the “other” as a repository of values allegedly untainted by the stultifying influence of bourgeois civilization. Into this catchall category of the “other,” pioneer modernists such as Pablo Picasso and Wassily Kandinsky threw a host of non-academic and/or non-Western creations, including African tribal sculptures, children’s drawings, folk icons and Japanese woodcuts. However, the art of untrained adult contemporaries came to occupy a special, lasting place as an adjunct to the modernist enterprise. Unlike the products of other “schools” of modernism--say Cubism or Abstract Expressionism--self-taught artworks are not bound by a single identifiable style. Self-taught art is a category defined in the negative: not by what the artists are, but by what they lack. Modernists created the field of self-taught art by grouping together a hodgepodge of works that had little in common.
The course of art history is directed by the interactions of numerous figures, including artists, dealers, collectors, critics, curators, teachers and art historians. In the mainstream art world, artists play a key role in shaping the dialogue that occurs among these disparate players: artists consciously follow the dialogue, respond to it and, through their responses, move the conversation forward. Self-taught artists, by way of contrast, are by definition barred from participating actively in the art-world dialogue. Notwithstanding the current prevalence of the term “self-taught,” such artists are in practice distinguished less by whether or not they went to art school than by an inability to follow the mainstream conversation. Thus an essentially self-taught artist like Vincent van Gogh is admitted without question to the modernist canon, while Achilles Rizzoli, despite his architectural training, is considered an “outsider” master. The field of self-taught or “outsider” art (as distinct from the art itself) has been shaped largely by players other than the makers of the art (though the active participants have often included trained artists). It is therefore no surprise that the field of self-taught art is more geared to meeting the needs of the art-world insiders who serve as its gatekeepers, than it is to the imperatives of the actual artists and their art.
Four significant signposts mark the entrance of the self-taught sensibility into modernist consciousness: the inclusion of Henri Rousseau, together with the “Fauves” Matisse, Derain, Braque, Rouault and Dufy, in the 1905 Salon d’Automne; Rousseau’s inclusion again, this time accompanied by illustrations of Bavarian folk paintings, “primitive” carvings and Egyptian shadow puppets, in the 1912 Blaue Reiter Almanac; Walter Morgenthaler’s 1921 monograph on the schizophrenic genius Adolf Wölfli; and the publication in 1922 of Hans Prinzhorn’s Artistry of the Mentally Ill. Kandinsky, leader of the Blaue Reiter group and one of the most eloquent theorists of early modernism, clearly articulated the lessons he and his colleagues hoped to learn from Rousseau and other non-academic creators. Academically schooled artists, Kandinsky declared, produce work that is technically proficient but spiritually dead; they have lost the ability to hear and thereby capture the ”inner resonance” of their subjects. This attack on the Academy contained an embedded political subtext. Elevating the creations of the uneducated classes and supposedly inferior non-European cultures was an implicit challenge to the prevailing social order. The modernists believed that this order was dying, and therefore they looked outside its boundaries in their attempts to fashion a meaningful formal language. Morgenthaler’s and Prinzhorn’s work with mental patients enabled the modernists to extend their search for new forms further, into the realm of the unconscious.
By the 1920s, modernism was beginning to gain broader acceptance among dealers, critics, collectors and curators, and this phenomenon brought with it a growing appreciation of self-taught art. Wilhelm Uhde, a German art historian and dealer working in Paris, hunted about for artists similar to Rousseau and came up with a group he dubbed the “Painters of the Sacred Heart” (André Bauchant, Camille Bombois, Séraphine Louis and Louis Vivin). Uhde’s writings and indeed the very name of his group reflect the romanticizing spin that came to attend self-taught art as it entered the marketplace. These creators were assumed to be somehow purer and more innocent than ordinary people. Apparent accolades such as “naïve” and “primitive” (then the terms of choice for the genre) were actually patronizing and demeaning. The emphasis had shifted subtly from the work itself to the artists’ personalities. Hereafter, judgments about self-taught art would often be tainted by an untenable element of subjectivity: for how, after all, does one tell if an artist truly possesses a “sacred heart”?
The advent of modernism in America likewise sparked interest in self-taught art. However, from the outset American self-taught art and its partisans were slightly different from their European counterparts. For one thing, America never had art academies until the late nineteenth century, so prior to that time direct contact with elite European aesthetic traditions was maintained chiefly by the tiny minority of connoisseurs and artists who could afford to travel back and forth. Consequently, many professional American painters were self-taught or, at best, semi-taught. Itinerant portrait painters such as the Prior-Hamblen family traveled the roads of New England painting stylized likenesses that combined speed of execution with formal ingenuity. Some of these so-called limners, such as Ammi Phillips, developed remarkably complex pictorial skills. Rarely, one finds an artist like the Quaker minister Edward Hicks, whose highly sophisticated religious iconography was matched by extensive technical ability. Before the twentieth century, American self-taught painters served the needs of a largely rural population for imagery reflecting their world. Yet to the extent that these artists aped, yet could not master, academic representationalism, theirs were considered botched efforts by those who knew better. Self-taught art carried the burden of America’s subliminal inferiority complex, confirming fears that we were less cultured than our European forebears and contemporaries.
In the late nineteenth century, industrialization led to an increase in leisure time and the broader dissemination of imagery through photography and lithography. These developments simultaneously killed off the market for professional limner portraits and encouraged the proliferation of amateur painters. Early surveys of American self-taught art, such as Holger Cahill’s pioneering 1930 exhibition at the Newark Museum, concentrated on paintings from the pre-industrial period, which were seen to form a continuum with more traditional folk objects, such as quilts, pottery, samplers and duck decoys. However, contemporary artists and curators familiar with recent developments in Europe were looking for “an American Rousseau,” and they found their man in the person of Pittsburgh house painter John Kane. Kane, admitted to the prestigious Carnegie International Exhibition in 1927, became the first living American self-taught painter to be recognized by the art establishment. No less a personage than Alfred Barr, founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, declared self-taught art to be one of the three principal strands of modernism, together with abstraction and Surrealism. During its first decade, MoMA held two seminal presentations on the subject: The Art of the Common Man, in 1932, focused on pre-modern work, while Masters of Popular Painting, in 1938, covered contemporary material. By 1942, when MoMA board-member Sidney Janis published his book They Taught Themselves, he was able to count thirty recent “discoveries,” including not just Kane, but Morris Hirshfield, Lawrence Lebduska, Israel Litwak, Grandma Moses, Joseph Pickett and Horace Pippin.
The nascent field of self-taught art in America reflected a number of disparate and to some extent conflicting ideals. As suggested by the title Art of the Common Man, the field was seen as the quintessential expression of “the people,” embodying such American values as individualism and native ingenuity. Whereas European self-taught art was in part a challenge to dominant social hierarchies, self-taught art in America inspired patriotic pride. Evolving during the Depression and concurrently with the mainstream movement known as Regionalism, interest in self-taught art also had an anti-elitist component, favoring the rural and homespun over the urbane and polished. Yet herein lies a paradox that haunts the field of self-taught art to this day: it was and is an anti-elitist genre promoted by an elite. Since modernism in the 1930s was both elitist and basically European, trained American artists felt doubly excluded. Not only did it seem that they were constantly being passed over in favor of foreign contemporaries, but they were incensed that when an institution such as the Carnegie or MoMA did finally choose to showcase an American, the honor went to some “bumbler” like Kane or the retired garment-worker Morris Hirshfield. Indigenous animus against self-taught art also drew upon Americans’ deep-seated feelings of cultural inferiority: France had Picasso, and we had . . . Grandma Moses? The advent of Abstract Expressionism after World War II seemed to solve this problem, giving the United States a modernist movement that could hold its own against European art. Grandma Moses, one of the most famous artists of the period, was dismissed in serious art circles as merely a popular phenomenon.
So the American art-world elite went back to supporting their own kind. MoMA and other mainstream museums that had acquired works by self-taught artists relegated much or all of it to the basement and excised the subject from their active exhibition programs. Gradually, specialist institutions such as the Museum of American Folk Art in New York (established in 1961; today the American Folk Art Museum) and the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe (established in 1953) stepped into the breach, but widespread reliance on the term “folk” reflected an approach that effectively defined post-industrial material out of existence. It was once again left to a European artist, Jean Dubuffet, to put contemporary self-taught art back on the art-world’s radar screen. Where Picasso and Kandinsky had only flirted with various types of non-academic art, Dubuffet from the 1940s onward generated a large body of literature on the subject and accumulated an immense collection of psychiatric art, which became the core of the first museum of its kind, the Musée de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland. Dubuffet echoed and elaborated upon the views of earlier modernists: the art produced within the confines of what he called “received culture” was not only spiritually dead but, given the cultural legacy of Nazism and fascism, morally reprehensible. Dubuffet saw a redemptive alternative in Art Brut (raw art), art created without overt artistic intention or influence.
In attempting to define Art Brut in his extensive writings, Dubuffet inadvertently shone a spotlight on the various ideological inconsistencies that had always afflicted the field of self-taught art. Can one really create “art” without on some level intending to? And don’t all artists naturally absorb visual influences from their environments, even—or especially—if they do not attend art school? In attempting to calibrate artists’ distance from “received culture,” Dubuffet was forced to designate a second category, Neuve Invention (new invention), for works that fell somewhere between the “raw” and the fully “cooked” and to admit that both cultural extremes exist only in theory. Like Uhde before him, Dubuffet got mired in a viewpoint that placed too much emphasis on the artists’ personalities and personal circumstances. Often biography was used to qualify artists for inclusion in the category of Art Brut or its English-language mate, Outsider Art. Membership in the ranks of pre-World-War-II self-taught artists, from Rousseau through Grandma Moses, had been determined largely by socio-economic limitations, which kept these creatively inclined individuals out of art school. In the post-war period, the mass media made “received culture” harder to evade, and the new categories of Art Brut and Outsider Art cultivated creators who, because of extreme mental or emotional impairment, were remote not just from mainstream culture but from mainstream society.
Whereas the pre-war “naïves” usually crafted recognizable depictions of their surroundings, mimicking the conventional academic genres of portraiture, landscape and still life, “outsiders” are comparatively more inward looking, focusing on visions and fantasies that are often comprehensible only to themselves. These aesthetic differences are in part an outgrowth of the typologically distinct personal histories of the two groups of artists, but the art world’s preference for one group over the other also reflects shifting patterns in taste. A broader understanding of abstraction in the post-war period has made it possible to appreciate the work of obsessive visionaries like Madge Gill and psychiatric patients like Martin Ramirez, elevating a model of creativity that goes back to Wölfli and the Prinzhorn artists. Marked variations in style and substance notwithstanding, however, it can sometimes be hard to know where to draw the line between naïve art and Art Brut. In Europe, the two camps tend to be strictly divided, while in America, the prevalent use of the term “self-taught” suggests a melding together of all the pertinent artists.
American self-taught art is more inclusive than any one of its European antecedents in part because of the multi-faceted way the field has evolved in this country since World War II. A 1951 lecture by Dubuffet at the Chicago Art Club helped, both directly and indirectly, to spark local interest in Art Brut. By the 1960s, a number of Chicago artists had become interested in the genre, beginning with European examples such as Joseph Crépin, Aloïse Corbaz, Augustin Lesage, Friedrich Schröder-Sonnenstern and Scottie Wilson, and then proceeding to unearth American equivalents that included Joseph Yoakum, Ramirez and, slightly later, Henry Darger. At around the same time, Herbert Waide Hemphill, Jr., a cofounder and early curator at the Museum of American Folk Art, and the collectors Michael and Julie Hall began combing the country in search of offbeat handcrafted treasures. Not quite folk art, not quite Art Brut, these treasures might include carved walking sticks, face jugs, homemade shrines, thrift-shop portraits and mementos from imagined alien abductions. Yet a third strand of self-taught artistic activity was highlighted in the Corcoran Gallery’s landmark 1982 Black Folk Art in America exhibition, which focused on African-Americans working mainly in the rural South. Despite the Corcoran show and a few pioneering exhibitions mounted by Hemphill at the Folk Art Museum in the early 1970s, the field of self-taught art in America developed largely without institutional backing or direction. Collectors and dealers took to the road and bought what they liked, and each was free to define the field as he or she chose.
This freewheeling phase in the history of modern self-taught art is now coming to an end. The American Folk Art Museum solidified its growing commitment to the field with the establishment of the Contemporary Center in 1997 and the Henry Darger Study Center in 2000. Smaller institutions like the Intuit Center in Chicago and the Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore have entered the arena, which also abounds with magazines, books, symposia, college classes and all the other paraphernalia of academia. Mainstream museums have been slower to fully embrace self-taught art, but there are indications—such as the massive 1998 survey Self-Taught Artists of the Twentieth Century at the Philadelphia Museum—that this, too, will come, at least for the most widely recognized “stars,” like Traylor and Darger. Far more significant is the sweeping manner in which mainstream contemporary art has absorbed—one might almost say co-opted—the “outsider” aesthetic. Phantasmagorical visions, compulsive nested skeins of lines and letters, perverse sexual musings, imagery poached from the trash bin of popular culture and materials scavenged literally from the garbage abound in the work exhibited today at museums, art fairs and galleries. But for the biographies of the artists, this work is indistinguishable from much Outsider Art.
Interest in Outsider Art was sparked in part by the multiculturalism of the past two decades, and it is not surprising that these same impulses should also emerge in the greater post-modern art world. The cohesive narratives that figures like Alfred Barr and the critic Clement Greenberg once imposed upon modernism have been replaced by a cacophony of voices that are no longer strictly Euro-centric in their origin or viewpoint. In an increasingly diffuse global artistic environment, the concept of one mainstream voice and an “other” makes no sense. The blurring of the boundaries between “inside” and “outside” presents potential identity problems for institutions, dealers and other individuals that define the field and by extension themselves strictly in opposition to the mainstream. At the same time, the current situation offers an opportunity to return to self-taught artists the dignity that they lost when their work was subsumed under the rubric of the “other.” Just as African and Japanese art was long ago removed from this demeaning category and restored to its own intrinsic cultural surround, the painters now labeled “naïve,” “folk,” “brut” or “outsider” would more productively be studied in their particular social and historical contexts. Because Dubuffet and others castigated the presence of external influences and overt artistic intention, it was until recently all but taboo to examine the factors that make self-taught art art: the ways in which the self-taught integrate various source materials to fashion unique expressive idioms and, through practice, develop and perfect those idioms over time. Only when these factors are fully understood and appreciated is it possible to form reasoned judgments of quality, instead of obsessing about extrinsic issues like biography: to treat this work just like any other kind of art.
We would like to thank all the lenders whose generous cooperation has made this exhibition possible, including Sam and Betsey Farber, Jennifer Pinto Safian and several anonymous collectors. Checklist entries include catalogue raisonné numbers, where applicable. A selection of the exhibited works can be viewed online at www.gseart.com
Ilija Bosilj Basicevic