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The Ins and Outs of Self-Taught Art
Reflections on a Shifting Field

January 10, 2012 to April 07, 2012

The Galerie St. Etienne traditionally celebrates the New Year by exhibiting the work of self-taught artists. Recently, this field has undergone a number of significant changes—some positive, some negative. While a canon of generally acknowledged twentieth-century masters—ranging from Morris Hirshfield, John Kane and Grandma Moses to Henry Darger, Martin Ramirez and Bill Traylor—has begun to solidify, lesser artists stand on increasingly shaky ground. In 2011, our January exhibition focused on American self-taught art between 1800 and 1950, tracing the evolution of both the field and the work itself. In 2012, we have chosen to feature a smaller group of twentieth-century creators, and to include European as well as American work. The artists in the current exhibition—Ilija Bosilj-Basicevic, Henry Darger, Kane, Moses, Michel Nedjar and Josef Karl Rädler—do not purport to represent the field in its entirety. Rather, these are artists to whom the Galerie St. Etienne is deeply committed and, even more important, they are artists who produced complex and substantial bodies of work. By showing this work in depth, we hope to encourage a more serious appraisal of the genre as a whole.

The Galerie St. Etienne, founded in 1939, is the oldest extant gallery specializing in the work of self-taught artists. We have noticed, over the years, that interest in this material has tended to be cyclical. Inasmuch as self-taught artists are prized for working beyond the purview of the conventional art world, each cycle begins with a period of excited discovery, as major talents are found lurking in the shadows. Popularization follows, shining a harsh light in those shadows and paradoxically destroying the very conditions that gave birth to the art in the first place. Artists working in a self-consciously “naïve” or “outsider” idiom dilute the aura of originality that distinguished earlier discoveries. Debates about authenticity only exacerbate the problem by diverting attention from issues of quality. At a certain point, it can come to seem that quality is beside the point, or that all the work is equally bad.

The first wave of American interest in self-taught art began in the period between the World Wars and gradually petered out in the 1950s. Billed as the “art of the common man,” folk art and its contemporary offshoots helped foster national unity during the Great Depression, encapsulating quintessentially American ideals such as freedom, native ingenuity and democratic egalitarianism. In the immediate postwar era, however, America needed a more sophisticated art befitting its role as a global superpower. Not only did some find Grandma Moses’s immense popularity embarrassing, but Moses also spawned a host of imitators who served to debase the genre as a whole. By 1976, the Whitney Museum (an early supporter of folk art) could confidently declare the genre dead in the modern age.

Nonetheless even as folk-art doyenne Alice Winchester issued this statement in the Whitney’s bicentennial catalogue, The Flowering of American Folk Art, self-taught art was rising from the grave. The pioneering collectors Michael and Julie Hall and Herbert Waide Hemphill, Jr., were scouring the countryside picking up finds that ranged from North Carolina face jugs to work in a more conventionally “fine-art” mode by people like Darger and Ramirez. The civil rights movement stimulated interest in African-American creators, yielding the Corcoran Gallery’s revelatory 1982 exhibition Black Folk Art in America. These two strains of interest—the one rooted in the flea market, the other in the culture of a persecuted minority—were uneasily joined under the rubric of “Outsider Art,” the title of Roger Cardinal’s seminal 1972 study of Art Brut. The French artist Jean Dubuffet had coined the term Art Brut (raw art) to describe the work of mental patients, mystics and others living and working beyond the reach of received culture. But in the United States, “Outsider Art” was often broadly interpreted to include more or less any work by a modern self-taught artist.

If the first wave of American interest in self-taught artists was an outgrowth of the Great Depression, the second wave was in many respects an extension of the 1960s counterculture. Praising the work of “outsiders” was a way to challenge the authority of the “establishment.” Not only were these artists ostensibly uninfluenced by received culture, they were untouched by the taint of the capitalistic marketplace. Their art as well as their motives were deemed pure. The “outsiders” discovered in the 1970s and ‘80s encapsulated that aspect of the American spirit that is contrarian and individualistic. These were the same impulses that would subsequently be summed up in Apple Computer’s slogan, “think different.” Inevitably, the coopting of the counterculture went hand-in-hand with the commercialization of “Outsider Art.”

The field of self-taught art has, in recent years, been afflicted by many of the same problems that arose during its first wave of popularity: a plethora of inauthentic imitators and mediocre art, a dearth of generally accepted standards. But this second wave has also built on the first one in an important and, it is to be hoped, lasting fashion. When the mainstream washed its hands of self-taught art in the 1950s, the work was relegated to separatist institutions such as the Abbey Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Williamsburg, Virginia, and the American Folk Art Museum in New York. These institutions incubated new discoveries, fostered scholarly research and began to create a serious academic infrastructure. In raising the profile and credibility of self-taught art, they also helped push it back into the mainstream.

It seems we have now come to a dividing of the ways. The American Folk At Museum was recently forced to turn its flagship building over to the Museum of Modern Art and is struggling to survive. At the same time, self-taught art is being embraced by mainstream institutions to an extent not seen since the 1930s. In the last months, Didi and David Barrett gave their collection of “Outsider Art” to the Harvard Art Museums, and Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz promised theirs to the Philadelphia Art Museum. From February 10 to May 6, the Milwaukee Art Museum will showcase the newly accessioned collection of Anthony Petullo. Kiyoko Lerner is giving thirteen major Dargers to MoMA. Many of these donors formerly supported the Folk Art Museum, which at one time would have been the logical repository for their collections.

There are numerous reasons for the foregoing developments, including the cyclical evolution of the self-taught field and the aging of key collectors who originally promoted it. The evisceration of the middle class has proved financially devastating not just to the Folk Art Museum, but to many small museums. The grassroots appeal of self-taught art is likewise undermined by a society that no longer seems to honor the core American values of egalitarianism and individual opportunity. As a disproportionate share of our country’s wealth has flowed to the so-called 1%, art, too, has become a winner-take-all game. In the self-taught field, Kane, Moses, Darger, Ramirez and other members of the “canon” are the winners. Among the rest are many artists who deserve to be forgotten, and a few who will be unjustly returned to the shadows, to await the next cycle of discovery.

Just as there will always be a mainstream in art, there will always be talented artists who, for whatever reasons, are ignored by that mainstream. The lenses of culture require constant recalibration, because our vision is always to some extent impaired by prejudices and preconceptions. The criteria that determine what is “in” and what is “out” shift constantly. The dominant culture creates the context for mainstream art, but at any given moment there are many other contexts, each creating its own parallel culture. The “outsiders” produced by these parallel cultures do not necessary have anything in common with one another, and there is little to be gained by trying to shoehorn them into a single category. Doing so only obscures the artists’ idiosyncratic original contexts and makes false issues of subjective judgments like “purity” and “authenticity.”

The bottom line is, and must be, quality. Being an “outsider” is not in and of itself a virtue. The current culling of the realm of self-taught art may be harsh on some lesser talents, but it has an upside. Incorporating the best self-taught artists in mainstream collections places their work within the broader context of art history and encourages a higher standard of scholarship. Ideally, self-taught artists should be studied using the same methodology applied to mainstream art. The starting point should be context, not in terms of quaint biographical detail, but as a source of cultural inputs and influences. Self-taught style usually entails the assimilation of those inputs in service to an underlying original vision. The struggle for mastery of craft, the lessons learned from experience and the resultant developmental trajectory all have bearing on whether or not the artist is ultimately able to fulfill his or her intentions. Form and content, the means and the ends, must be in sync if the work is to succeed.

Of the artists in the current exhibition, the oldest—John Kane and Grandma Moses—have been the most extensively studied. Both had complex relationships with contemporary culture. Kane spent hours in Pittsburgh museums and libraries, trying to understand the mechanics of drawing and composition. Moses, in remote upstate New York, learned from calendars, greeting cards and magazines. Both were inspired by their immediate physical surroundings—Kane to paint cityscapes; Moses to capture the changing seasons and rural farm life. Discovery encouraged these artists to take their work more seriously, to paint more, and larger and better works. Kane unfortunately died seven years after his 1927 debut at the Carnegie International Exhibition, but Moses went on to enjoy a twenty-year career that accommodated a number of distinct stylistic phases.

Henry Darger, one of the most important self-taught artists of the mid-twentieth century, likewise generated an extremely sophisticated developmental progression. Working alone in his rented room, Darger seems to personify the isolate artist. Yet his pronounced narrative impulses—expressed not only in his art, but also in a 15,000-page novel, In the Realms of the Unreal—suggest a deep need to communicate. He had an extensive involvement with contemporary children’s literature, popular illustration, comics and probably also film. Darger’s specific influences have not yet been fully excavated, and his stylistic development can at this point only be roughly summarized. However, the depth and breadth of his achievement—in terms of content as well as form—make him ripe for further study.

Josef Karl Rädler is another artist who merits deeper investigation. As with Darger, the material is at hand: not only was most of Rädler’s oeuvre (created in Austrian mental hospitals between 1893 and 1917) preserved, but the inscriptions on the sheets provide extensive insights into the artist’s thought processes. Referring to himself as the “Laughing Philosopher,” Rädler penned lengthy discourses on such issues as world peace, racial harmony and gender equality. He saw the hospital as a microcosm of the larger world, and his luminous watercolors record the daily routine, the disparate inhabitants and the surrounding landscape in loving detail.

Ilija Bosilj (the pseudonym of Ilija Basicevic) was the father of the well-known Serbian conceptual artist Mangelos (Dimitrije Basicevic). Because the father was a farmer (albeit well-read) and the son a trained art historian, the two occupy completely separate realms within the art world. Yet both were formed by the same political and economic upheavals: the domination of Serbia first by the distant Austro-Hungarian Empire, then by Croatian fascists and the Nazis (who wanted to kill them), and finally by the Soviets. Mangelos’s work, comprising paintings and globes covered with elegantly scripted words in many languages, is a metaphorical Tower of Babel that alludes to the ultimate impotence of language. Ilija, too, attempted to grapple with the unfathomable in his work, employing a symbolic pictorial language to tell tales that defy explication in words. These two artists’ shared context in Serbian history, myth and folklore creates a bond that belies the differences in their educational backgrounds and highlights the artificiality of the barriers that have been erected between “outsiders” and the mainstream.

Michel Nedjar, “discovered” by the father of Art Brut, Jean Dubuffet, in 1980, has spent an entire career navigating the fraught territory between “Outsider Art” and the mainstream. His work is in Dubuffet’s Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, as well as in the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Though self-taught as an artist, Nedjar is not uneducated. His work is born of a personal quest to transcend the horrors of the Holocaust (which claimed many of his relatives) and the fragility of life through the creation of ritual objects constructed from discarded materials. Nedjar, who has traveled widely in Africa, Asia and Central America, draws upon ancient spiritual traditions that include shamanistic masks and Mexican Day-of-the-Dead carvings. While his work has found acceptance as “Outsider Art,” it might better be termed “World Art,” in that it eschews the European-American mainstream in favor of a concatenation of international influences.

Globalization and post-modernism have irrevocably changed the dialogue between “us” and “them” that was once used to cordon off “outsiders” and “naïfs.” Today everything is grist for the artistic mill; there is no longer a clear-cut divide between Western and Non-Western traditions, “high” and “low” art, Caravaggio and comics, painting and video. Debased, non-art materials—pipe cleaners, feathers, beads, mailing tubes and the like—proliferate in the work of amateurs and professionals alike. Yes, there will always be a mainstream, but with the rise of formerly third-world powers like India and China, the “other” may one day be us.

We would like to extend our warmest thanks to all the lenders who assisted us with this show. Checklist entries are accompanied by their catalogue raisonné numbers where applicable; height precedes width.