Celebrating Ten Years of Visionary Works:
By Steve Sundlof
NEW YORK CITY – The tenth anniversary of the Outsider Fair was celebrated in the assured manner of collective experience. Like a well-planned party, the guests never got bored and there was always another surprise awaiting the attendees. Larger-than-life names became the new social register – registering visions of otherworldly visions. These painters and sculptors transcend what is normally accepted as “The Way” and as self-taught artists or “outsiders” hold, perhaps, the purest vision of lives unfolding unmarred by the complications of “commercial” influence. Outside the mainstream, just to the left of “unheard of” past the limit of normalcy and usually over the edge. Outsider artist’s biographies reveal often-troubled lives with a good dose of trials and tribulations. Some, however, had “normal” lives and like Grandma Moses just got around to painting a bit later then most – no life of turmoil, just a busy one.
From the crucible of angst and from the depths of despair is produced a collection of works that somehow must be told, that somewhere might tell of struggles and sometime hits us square in the stomach with its truth. A vision that leaves us to ponder what our own lives have presented us; have we even come close to defining a single thought that is so poignant and disturbing as to actually tell a story as these works do?
“What’s in a name?” they ask. A lifetime, a story, a set of parameters that when tempered with the march of time, coughs up images that speak the truth of one person’s odyssey – that is Outsider Art. A group of 33 dealers brought together all the masters of “self-taught Expressionism in the Puck Building at Lafay-ette and Houston Streets.” Grandma Moses shared space with Henry Darger while Sam Doyle, Clementine Hunter and Morton Bartlett provided glimpses into atypical worlds where time, hopefully, could stand still. Sanford L. Smith & Associates produced a show that served as the punctuation mark to cap ten years of bringing awareness to a field of art that will continue to expose the inner workings of the “outside mind.”
Aarne Anton of American Primitive Gallery, New York City, responded, “Attendance at the show has always been good; this year we seemed to have even bigger crowds and more sales throughout the days. Among the featured pieces that sold were Raymond Coins’ group of 12 stone sculptures making up a Nativity scene, an early Sister Gertrude Morgan painted fan depicting herself in paradise that sold on opening night. The paintings and sculpture of Terry Turrell and Larry Calkins were well received with multiple sales. A monumental stone sculpture with three faces by Ted Ludwiczak sold opening night and will be installed in a prestigious Pennsylvania collection. We had our best Outsider Art Fair ever with sales to both new and old collectors alike.”
Carl Hammer of Carl Hammer Gallery, Chicago, replied “I felt the interest and activity to be overall still quite strong. The event has truly struck a cordial note of affection in the hearts of New Yorkers and, for that matter, others from around the country. I felt that the same issues confront the organizers, however, that being the somewhat liberal interpretation both of what outsider art is and what people feel they can bring to the event and exhibit there.
“We exhibited primarily our same cast of artists. Our intent is not to make them successful only by outsider art standards, but that they achieve recognition beyond into the contemporary and modern art realm. I believe that several of these have come into their own in that regard. Henry Darger, Bill Traylor, Joseph Yoakum and Eugene Von Bruenchenhein all have been paid considerable attention toward that end. We did reintroduce the work of Albina Felski and Albert Zahn in a major way this time around. Our sales were especially strong this year. Needless to say, with all of the museum exhibitions of his work, as well as the critical attention he is receiving, Henry Darger was our hottest commodity in this fair.”
Hammer continued, “What’s really interesting is that we will show Darger’s work again in February at the New Armory Show 2002 [Passenger Ship Terminal piers 88 and 90], and he will again be a big star of that show, especially with younger artists and collectors. There weren’t any particular trends observed, except that interest in this field still tends to be quite hot. I hope that we can continue to fine tune the quality and the understanding of this field’s uniqueness in order to maintain its presence as a force in the collecting field for a number of years yet to come.”
Henry Boxer of Henry Boxer Gallery, London, remarked, “I heard attendance was well up on last year, I had the best Friday ever at the fair. Key rdf_Descriptions displayed were an important collection of water-colors by the English outsider Scottie Wilson, some from his early Canadian years, and other magnificent ‘psychotic’ pieces from the mid 40s, I acquired these from his dealer Robert Lewin and they have never been offered before, having been in his collection for over 50 years, a number were also reproduced in the George Melly book on his life and work. I sold five of these during the course of the show.
“I sold five exceptional pastels from the early 1990s by Albert Louden, now recognized as the most important living British outsider, and a fine group of exceptionally rare, incredibly detailed draw-ings by Edmund Monsiel. He was a Polish schizophrenic who produced 500 drawings, mostly drawn in a cold dark attic, hidden from the Germans, during World War II, in a state of hallucinatory frenzy – messianic warnings to mankind. Nearly all of these were given to museum collections on his death in 1962; a few, however, were kept by psychiatrists and private collectors, only around 30 of these drawings still remain in private hands. He is regarded as one of the most important, classic art brut European outsider artists.”
Boxer continued, “Lastly I displayed a number of watercolors by the English visionary artist Donald Pass. These very much sought after and most sold at the fair. Pass had an epiphany in an English churchyard in 1969 that changed his life. His pictures all depict The Resurrection, and whilst painting he reexperiences this revelation – he sees angels, they are real.
“I have noticed an increase of interest in the ‘classic’ European outsiders, particularly those whose work is exhibited in The Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne. Artists such as Madge Gill, Scottie Wilson, Wolfli, Aloise, Monsiel, and Carlo – artists whom are now regarded as important in a historical sense and whose work was championed by Dubuffet.”
Boxer added, “There has also been ongoing interest in work by American outsiders, in particular Malcolm McKesson, the New York artist, whose erotic semibiographical draw-ings were published in the book Matriarchy: Freedom in Bondage. His work can be found in The American Museum of Visionary Art in Baltimore.
“Overall sales were up on last year. One amusing antidote in closing. I was exhibiting work by the American visionary artist Joe Coleman on my booth; at one point a lady came up to me and inquired if the artist was still alive. Joe was standing next to me and was pleased to report, ‘in the affirmative madam’!”
Leslie Muth of Leslie Muth Gallery, Sante Fe, N.M., reflected, ” It was an unusual fair, this year. Normally, our sales are the highest on opening night, and taper off from there. This year opening night sales were practically nil, and I was wondering where I might find a gun to end it all. However, Friday morning when the doors opened, I had people head straight for my booth, knowing exactly what they hoped to find. And, the show continued in that vein through closing on Sunday.
“High-end sales were lower than usual, but the volume was excellent. For the second year in a row, my top-selling artist was Greg Pelner, an autistic man from Los Angeles whose work I’ve shown for nine years. On the other hand, my second best-selling artist was Jake Harwell, a first-time exhibitor of mine. A very close third was Minnie Adkins, whose work we’ve done well with the past three years. I’m looking forward to my eleventh year next year.”
Muth closed by saying, “Upon thinking a little more about the fair, I realized I did have a trend in buying; both Greg Pelner and Jake Harwell sold several images dealing with the Statue of Liberty. Greg’s works were his loose pastels in bold colors of the Statue and Jake’s works were etched images on rusted tin. This, surely, would be a result of 9/11.”
Marion Harris of Simsbury, Conn., observed, “It seemed a huge gate – the busiest I remember in the ten years since the show started. And it did translate into sales; everyone had a successful show. We sold very well indeed, particularly Morton Bartlett photographs as the new catalog on him is out, and also the Metropolitan Museum currently has his work on exhibit. We also did very well with David Bromley, an Australian self-taught artist whose embroideries and paintings were being shown for the first time in America. I think there was a flight to quality, perhaps because stocks are so vulnerable, collectors are feeling comfortable and confident investing in art.”
Ann Nathan of Ann Nathan Gallery, Chicago, reflected, “The Outsider Fair was wonderful. Gate was excellent – on Saturday one could not get through the crowds. The admittance lines were out the door, down the stairs, backed up along the street. A smash! Paintings, sculpture, objects, all with idiosyncratic bent! Renewed interest in the ‘field’ as a whole. I do think that the excellent New York Times and Post coverage added to the fever.
Nathan continued, “Overheard in American Folk Art Museum elevator (what a hit!): ‘Oh, have you heard, Darger is downstairs autographing his new book.’ [Darger passed away in 1973]. Quote found in NY Post: ‘and there’s the chance that little painting made with crayons and paper glued together with mashed potatoes and spit will appreciate in value.’ Could they be talking about James Castle?”
Tim Keny of Keny Galleries, Columbus, Ohio, stated, ” was well at-tended and an energized event this year. I believe the gate increased by over 100 percent. The warm weather may have inspired the eu-phoric atmosphere. Sales were strong for us. The most important works [$15,000-plus] were selling equally as well as last year.”
Keny added, “We continue to have strong demand for excellent quality bas-relief carv-ings and freestanding carvings by Elijah Pierce. Also, LaVon Van Williams, JR’s woodcarvings of jazz musicians were very well received. We sold a fine Bill Traylor drawing of an evocative blue-green owl after the fair to a collector whose advisor had viewed it in our booth.”
Eva-Maria Worthington, Worthington Gallery, Chicago, declared, “The attendance at the Outsider Fair was great! This was the first time I exhibited. My material was maybe a bit too classical for this fair, although Janis Fine had also the great classic works on view, as had Jane Kallir and a very few others. I sold a very fine Bauchant, which was a higher priced work in my exhibition. A few smaller sculptures sold; they, too, were more than 30 years old. Overall sales seemed to be good. My hope is that the quality of the fair will go steadily up, with fewer ‘stuff’ around. The fair was well organized and a positive event.”
Outsiders looking in. Introspectively creating their visions. Is their craft so different, so unique that investors buy it hoping to have found the new “Blue Chip stock”? Would museums recognize the merits of a tormented face peering from a background of black without knowing the fact that the artist called an asylum home? Does ignorance denote collectablility? Does creating a drawing at age 85 warrant the clamoring and affections of praise simply because a slave put thoughts on found material? Perhaps.
The work exists as a testament to a person’s life, created because the sum of that life equaled the sculpture born from a mind that was labeled “untrained.” To quantify this art and hang it and sell it certainly fills a “need.” A market has formed to celebrate this “found” work – this is good. Some of the innocence leaves though when price tags brand the works and the vision enters the market economy.
Perhaps it is too idealistic a notion that these paintings, drawings and carvings would stay naïve and not know the goings-on of speculation and mark-ups. That they exist is enough. The preciousness of naiveté is that life continues to swirl and rush by and those artists may see its passing, but choose to stay within their own confines. Their education is rooted more in a day-to-day survival – higher education and training was simply not an option.
Folk Art – folks like you and me? Probably not. That is the draw and is the mystery we try to solve when we see a glimpse into the soul of a person who is so outside of our experience. The roster included all the names that define Folk Art, Naïve Art and Outsider Art and the efforts of Sanford L. Smith & Associates created a spectacular venue providing often hidden voices a chance to be heard.