Published: February 10, 2004
– Coming on the heels of their highly successful Americana Week show in lower Manhattan, the folks from The Museum of American Folk Art were able to quickly refocus their efforts for yet another show benefiting the museum the following weekend. The devoted group packed out the Americana dealers from 26th Street late Sunday night and almost immediately headed to SoHo to begin packing in the art dealers as they prepared to present yet another blockbuster event – The Outsider Art Fair.
Teaming up with Outsider manager Sanford Smith, the fair, now in its 12th year, shows amazing maturity, considering that it represents artists and an art form that in themselves have never truly matured. The naïve nature of the art and its self-taught aspect bring forth a great deal of excrdf_Descriptionent among collectors and art aficionados alike.
The show opened to a large and enthusiastic crowd on Thursday evening, January 23, with a gala preview that featured a three-tier entry price of $750 at 5, $350 for 5:30 admission and $150 from 6 on. A small but determined few were among the first wave of people to make their way onto the floor; as they did, sales began to be recorded. A larger flow was noticed as the second tier of buyers hit the floor, and by 6, when the doors opened to the regular preview crowd, the show swelled with buyers.
“Sales were pretty good,” noted manager Smith, who commented that a security check is performed on all packages leaving the building, and slips retained by management revealed several hundred transactions. Smith, reflecting on the history of the Outsider Fair, commented that “in the early years there was a fair amount of craft materials on the floor. Now, everybody pretty much agrees it is a fine art show, which is what we always meant it to be.”
Red tags appeared immediately in the booth of Ricco/ Maresca Gallery, with three Sam Doyle enamel on sheet metal paintings among the first rdf_Descriptions to go, including “Firs Black Cleaner” that depicted a man of color at an ironing board. Also sold was a portrait of Elvis by Doyle. “It was a solid show for us,” commented Roger Ricco in the days after the fair. “We felt there was kind of an electricity. People were interested in acquiring pieces.”
Ricco and his partner Frank Maresca have been doing the show since its inception, and they echoed Smith’s sentiments regarding the Outsider show and the term “outsider.” “It can be hard to put something into a singular context,” stated the dealer. “There is always a politic of who is and who isn’t.” The dealers admired the evolution of the show, stating that there is a far better selection on the floor of the current fair than there was ten years ago. “The dealers have become very conscious of who and what they are bringing,” which has resulted in quality seen around the floor, said Ricco.
“Collectors come into town specifically for the show and desire to see something fresh and interesting,” stated Ricco. Among the other rdf_Descriptions that sold to clients as the show opened for business was a William Hawkins oil on Masonite portrait of a yellow building with blue trim. The dealers also reported several sales from the selection of Dilmus Hall sculpture and numerous pieces of flat art by recently discovered Woodstock artist Joseph Garlock. They also reported a major sale of a William Edmondson from their gallery that was made as a result of contact from the show.
The quilt depicted life as Hunter – who died in 1988 at the age of 102 – remembered it, with a central image of the plantation house along with scenes of black women cooking, other black women who were on the plantation and what must surely have been her favorite mule.
The dealer also commented that several pieces of sculpture by Tennessee woodcarver Shane Campbell were sold along with numerous religious paintings by Myrtis West. Another piece of artwork that was capturing attention from Gilley’s booth was a Sister Gertrude Morgan painting titled “Symbols of Medopersia Grecia.” Morgan was a New Orleans street preacher who created paintings to correspond with her sermons. Morgan is also the subject of an exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum titled “Tools of Her Ministry: The Art of Sister Gertrude Morgan,” opening later this month.
Long Island dealer Norman Brosterman has a reputation for presenting unusual and unique booths, and for this year’s Outsider Fair he was equipped with art of the insane. Insanity is a catch-phrase that not only seems to lustily grab at collectors interested in this genre, but it also has special meaning for many of those dealers representing artists. The “mental institution-alism” seemingly draws the art into a new realm, presenting a new acceptance.
Take, for instance, the art of Richard Sharp Shaver, presented by Brosterman, who claimed to have virtually “all” of his writings (rantings), personal handwritten books, much of his published material and the vast majority of his artwork. Shaver, according to Brosterman, spent several years institutionalized, apparently for his belief that there was evidence of aliens everywhere and that they existed deep inside caves throughout the entire world. Shaver apparently attempted to prove his theories by photographing rocks and enlarging the images of the crystals until forms of dead aliens actually appeared in his photographic prints of the rocks. He then painted these aliens in a series of mixed media on Masonite, but somehow on their way out of Shaver’s head and onto the board, many were transformed into what, for the most part, resembled naked blonde women. Brosterman reported healthy sales, including a couple of Shaver’s artist books that were purchased by a collector and reportedly donated to MOMA.
While Shaver was featured in the majority of Brosterman’s booth space, one wall featured the works of Melvin “Milky” Way, which the dealer described as “elaborate and indecipherable mathematical equations.” About 15 of the pieces were offered by the dealer, ranging in price from $1,500 to $7,500, with several moving into collections. Brosterman commented that both Shaver and Way are to be featured in upcoming books and publications on Outsider Art.
Manhattan dealer Gary Snyder offered a selection of paintings by Janet Sobel, who, according to the dealer, was a “self-taught visionary artist” who “remains one of the enigmas of modern art.” Sobel painted in the 1930s and was identified in 1944 as “a housewife from Brooklyn with a flair for pattern and color.” Snyder stated that the artist caught the attention of Peggy Guggenheim in 1945 and had her first solo show in 1946. The dealer reported that Jackson Pollock became influenced by her drip paintings after he noticed them at one of Guggenheim’s shows. Four of Sobel’s works dominated the entrance to Snyder’s booth, including a 1947 gouache and crayon on paper in which black-lined figures were layered over and under a series of “warm and translucent” colors.
The painted bas relief carvings of Elija Pierce attracted quite a bit of attention in the booth of Keny Galleries, Columbus, Ohio. Several were offered, with one selling during preview. Prices for the smaller works ranged from $15,000 to $21,000, while the most important piece was a circa 1949 carving titled “Jonah and The Whale” that carried a “price on request” tag.
Russell Bowman, the former director of the Milwaukee Art Museum and now an art advisor/dealer specializing in self-taught and secondary market rdf_Descriptions, was participating in the fair for the first time. The dealer displayed an interesting mix of merchandise, including a nice untitled stone sculpture of an Indian chief by Popeye Reed and a painting on tin by Sam Doyle. One rdf_Description to sell quickly was an early Howard Finster figural painting with sermon on metal. The highpoint of the booth, however, was a selection of quilts from Gees Bend that created quite a stir around the floor.
Six quilts were offered by the dealer, with two selling early on in the fair’s run, one having a hold placed on it and serious interest in two others expressed after the show. A crazy quilt, circa 1980, in blues and grays was priced at $20,000. The Gees Bend quilts were the subject of an exhibit at the Whitney last year, and are currently on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, scheduled to travel to Cleveland, Ohio, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The Gees Bend exhibit originated at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and reportedly a second exhibition will be mounted there in 2006.
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