When the Outsider Art Fair opened on Thursday, January 26, for a three-day run, the first-floor gallery of the Puck Building pulsated with raw emotion unleashed by the narratives, fantasies and the spiritual enigmas of dozens of untaught masters.
Represented by 33 international dealers, it was immediately clear that the genre is no longer for the edgy, speculative collector. It has become the darling of the Wall Streeters and Beltway Insiders, as evidenced by the presence of Mrs Dick Cheney at the Opening Night Gala, which benefited the American Folk Art Museum.
Show promoter Sandy Smith, of Sanford L. Smith & Associates, put the rise in popularity in perspective. “It has replaced American folk art as an accessible collecting area.”
While some of the prices for big name artists bordered perilously close to the six-figure range, there was enough product priced well under $1,000 to make the fair a draw for more than 7,000 viewers, each of whom anted up $35 for the opportunity to ogle one of the broadest collections of styles presented in one place. Well before the show ended, entire walls had been stripped bare, leaving some first-time vendors astonished. Veterans of the fair, however, brought enough art to keep their walls filled. Quite a few dealers continued to sell even after their inventory had been decimated, making promises and taking deposits for works still in progress.
Jean Pierre Ritsch-Fisch, of J.P. Ritsch-Fisch Galerie,Strasbourg, France, pulled off an early sales coup with a metalsculpture by A.C.M. entitled “Architecture.” Constructed oftypewriter parts, an unfathomable number of semiconductors andother minute mechanical items, washed, soldered into place and thenpainted, it is one of just two that the artist completes annually.Ritsch-Fisch conceded that the forthcoming A.C.M. is now spokenfor.
Among the other credentialed European artists Ritsch-Fish showed were works by Philippe Dereux, who worked vegetable peelings into collages. A close friend of Jean Dubuffet, the two were said to have raided vegetable gardens together under moonless skies.
Dubuffet’s name was bandied about throughout the fair, particularly by European dealers who reference his collection of the “art brut” (raw art) of mentally ill patients as the origin of the species.
Meanwhile, Carl Hammer Gallery, Chicago, drew attention with art in all sizes – from a suite of 18 finely carved figurines just inches high, au natural and in provocative postures, by an unknown carver to a XXL black suit, by Hilda Anderson, decorated with a zillion buttons. But it was the 21-inch-tall wooden “Rabbi’s Head, 1977” carved by Albert Hoffman that took the money early on that first evening. Hammer later scored with several Henry Darger pencil drawings on pieced-together paper painted over with watercolor, all of which went to seasoned collectors.
Outsider Fair regulars, Frank Maresca and Roger Ricco, of Ricco/Maresca Gallery, New York City, used a long wall to showcase a suite of vintage African American quilts gathered from all over the United States. As contretemps, the opposite wall held a wryly humorous suite that contrasted spiritual motifs – Elliott Kimball’s painting, “Eve with Apple and Snake,” a cast iron shooting gallery target called “Devil Shooting Mask,” and Joseph Garlock’s 1952 “Madonna and Child” – with Morton Bartlett’s half-life-size scale sculpture of a barefoot, pony-tailed adolescent outfitted in crop-top and pleated skirt.
Speaking from a desk in front of a stunning William L.Hawkins painting, Frank Maresca said, “We sold quite a few quilts.””In fact,” he added, “we sold a lot of things, right across theboard.” Among them were “older classics, like [Henry] Darger and[David] Butler.
Marion Harris of Marion Harris, New York City, introduced the work of Pennsylvania artist David Borghi. Variously itinerant and institutionalized, Borghi and the paintings have been hidden away for the past 30 years. The large, dark, oil and pigment paintings on panel had an eerie, transcendent quality to them. Often peopled with animals and obscure biblical references, a doctor seeking profundity once asked, “Why monkeys?” “Because they’re easier to paint than people,” the artist charged.
In contrast, Clementine Hunter’s gaily colored works, shown by Gilley’s Gallery, Baton Rouge, La, were quick to excite, fast to move. “Maw Maw,” oil on artist board, brought $16,500. “The Melrose Plantation Quilt,” circa 1960, made of silk, in African stripes and bands, was tagged $35,000.
In addition, Gilley’s featured a wall of David Butler’s metal whirligigs. Near the display was a photo of Butler’s “environment” in Louisiana. So taken was one New York Times reporter with the cutouts – created with mallet and meat cleaver and painted on both sides – that the January 27 edition featured Butler’s “Flying Elephant Whirligig” in full color. Commenting on the unexpected press, Shelby Gilley remarked, “Let’s just say it was a phenomenal show.”
Clocking in with another upbeat sales story was Germannewcomer Wasserwerk.Galerie Lange of Seigburg. Introducing the boldchromatic images of Joseph Wittlich, a pumice factory laborer wholiked to paint people – such as Queen Elizabeth and the Swiss Guard- in fancy dress, a spokesman for the gallery said on Sundayafternoon, “We sold six in the last three hours.”
Another first-time exhibitor at the fair, Yukiko Koide Presents, of Tokyo, saw the bright two-dimensional designs of Junko Yamamoto fly off the wall. Said Koide, “Outsider art is not so popular in Japan. We sold almost everything we bought.” Pointing to a collection of four works by Seiji Yamasawa, she summed up the Outsider experience from the dealer’s point of view. “I cannot find him anymore. I am afraid he has become institutionalized.”
Proving that Outsiders have been among us through the ages, Dean Jenson Gallery, Milwaukee, Wis., displayed works by Native American Plains artists who interpreted what they saw on ledger books furnished by European colonists and military personnel. In their pictographic art lies a sophistication of line. One graphite colored pencil, paper and cotton creation entitled “Ledger Book Ends, circa 1890” was tagged $15,000 as was another entitled “Counting Coup from his Pinto,” circa 1890.
Offsetting these was “Angel” a touching primitive sculptureby Dr Charles Smith made of wood, tar, paint and mop fibers in theearly 1980s.
No Outsider show is complete without Rev Howard Finster offerings. Barbara Archer Gallery, Atlanta, seemingly cornered the market on his early works and was able to feature not only the sign from Finster’s office in Paradise Garden, pre-1976, but also a large painting of the Presidents. Also in Archer’s booth was Nellie May Rowe’s “Black Dog,” 1982, which graced on the cover of the fair’s brochure. Crapas, crayon and graphite on paper, it brought $14,000.
Ames Gallery, Berkley, Calif., ran the gamut from capricious to architectural. Jim Bauer’s whimsical illuminated sculptures, made from kitchen items and hardware, depicted everything from dogs and cats to the claw-handed robot, “Braniac.” Several A.G. Rizzoli architectural portraits commanded viewers to peer closely for clues about the personality represented. And, Ted Gordon’s obsessively lined works were about as high energy as one could wish.
Grey Carter-Objects of Art, McLean, Va., featured the primitive renditions of J.M. Savitsky. Once a miner who traded art for booze, Savitsky’s paintings zero in on aspects of a miner’s life. “Blue Breaker,” 1978, oil on Masonite, captures a worker in overalls and light deep in the mine. A more complex rendering, “Glen Oak Falls,” 1976, took the viewer to an airier place.
Cavin-Morris Gallery, New York City, featured the detailed “weather maps” of Czech artist Zdenek Kosek. In addition to wind, storm and the physical factors, these works also convey emotional states.
Worthy of mention were the works of Emery Blagdon shown by Manhattan dealer Phyllis Kind Gallery. Fashioned of wire, copper and plastic, even popsicle sticks, tin foil and paper tape, the constructions were delightfully appealing.
Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York City, featured 1920 mandela-like paintings by Adolf Wölfli, painted on two sides.
American Primitive Gallery, New York City, brought the secretdrawings of Eugene Anolsek to the public. Elaborate pictures withlayered patterns that can be kaleidoscopic, the Rhode IslandRailroad stenographer ferreted them away as useless.
Whether smitten by the works themselves, or captivated by the life experiences of the visionaries who lost – or found – themselves in the mixing and laying on of pigment, the repetition of stitching, the wiring together of bottle caps, the labeling and framing of daguerreotypes, or any of the myriad, obsessive techniques used, collectors made this the most significant Outsider Art Fair to date.
That fact was quantified by Smith, who produced a seven or eight-inch-high stack of the neon green receipts that have to be presented when exiting the show with an piece of art. “It has been one of the most successful shows in history, in terms of sales,” he said. “The quality of the material goes up every year.”