Published: February 19, 2008
While what actually defines an Outsider artist may be debated within collecting circles for years to come, the public venue in which to acquire works by Outsiders has been definitive for more than a decade-and-a-half.
Sixteen years ago, Outsider artists were considered by the vast majority of the mainstream fine arts community to be the black sheep of the art world. It was a genre looking for recognition and a cozy stable. When Sanford Smith, the fair’s founder, swung the doors open to the first Outsider Art Fair in 1992, everyone stopped and took notice. Smith had created an exciting and fresh new show, one that succeeded in putting the Outsider and the Outsider market on the map.
Breaking new ground is nothing new to Smith; other conceptual shows created by the promoter have also gained legendary status, especially his Modernism show that takes place annually at the 67th Street Park Avenue Armory.
Since its inception, the Outsider Art Fair, most recently presented January 24′7 at the Puck Building in SoHo, has achieved high marks. Much like the marketplace itself, the fair has matured over the years with a broader and better selection of top-end materials. And while there are still the cookie-cutter, mass-produced childlike paintings that appear on the floor of the show, apparently still a viable part of the “Outsider’s” market appeal, there is also a stellar concentration of serious art for the serious buyer.
The appreciation of Outsider art is nothing new in America, and it is hardly the overnight sensation that many might think. While few realize it, the work of Outsiders has been widely accepted in the American art scene for more than half a century, its most recognized artist none other than Anna Mary Robertson Moses (1860‱961), better known as Grandma Moses, who was well represented among the hundreds of artists at the fair.
The confusion in assigning a title for her work continues, as Moses can most likely be classified as an untrained or naïve artist, headings that fly comfortably under the Outsider banner.
Those outside the mainstream were once routinely categorized by the collectors of the early 1990s under the lump heading of “Outsider.” Reclassifications with important sounding names started appearing as the market expanded, prices escalated and dealers flexed their muscles †”naïve,” “art brut,” “untrained” and “Gugging” all appeared on the scene.
These classifications have been discovered by astute collectors to be nothing new, as it was the original terminology used when these artists were initially discovered. Believed to have been the first to formally recognize the stylistic tendencies of the Outsider was German doctor Hans Prinzhorn, who collected thousands of artworks executed by institutionalized psychiatric patients and in 1922 published the findings in his book Bildernerei der Geisteskranken (Artistry of the Mentally Ill).
Artists such as Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee and Jean Dubuffet, along with other Modernists of the day, studied the works and often formed collections of their own. One artist particularly affected by the writings of Prinzhorn was Dubuffet, who coined the phrase “art brut,” or raw art. Dubuffet’s characterization of the Outsider is still regarded by many advanced collectors and curators as definitive: a “work produced by people immune to artistic culture in which there is little or no trace of mimicry.”
The Outsider Art Fair, much like the art itself, has stayed its course and mimicry comes only from other venues wishing to capitalize on the market Smith created. The presentation at the fair is top notch and dealers travel from around the world to take part in this show.
The core group of dealers contains a large contingency of New York City dealers, as well as exhibitors in attendance from Chicago, St Louis, Milwaukee, Columbus and Berkeley, Calif. Yet it is the long list of international dealers that participate in the fair that foretell the importance. Dealers from Tokyo, Berlin, the Netherlands, Austria, France, Cologne and even Haiti are all on hand, and they return year after year.
Major discoveries are commonplace at the Outsider Art Fair. And while works by some of the most desirable artists in the genre are routinely displayed at the show, the presentation of this most current show reached a pinnacle on several fronts.
The recently unearthed cache of Martin Ramirez drawings displayed by Manhattan dealers Ricco/Maresca was a highlight that will probably not be outdone at the show for years to come. Recently discovered works by Morton Bartlett offered by Marion Harris created even more of a stir at this show than they did when originally offered. And Josef Karl Radler’s unique watercolors stimulated the senses in a way that few other Outsiders are capable of at Galerie St Etienne.
Word of the discovery of the Ramirez works had spread like wildfire and the display that Ricco/Maresca presented at the American Antiques Show a week earlier had sold out instantly. Saving some of the best examples for the Outsider Art Fair, the Manhattan dealers offered several of the large format drawings.
Ramirez had been the subject of an exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum in 2006 and as rave reviews spread across the country, a Californian woman realized she had a large number of works boxed in her garage. The woman had been married to a doctor who worked at the mental hospital that Ramirez had been committed to late in his life. Supplying Ramirez with colored pencils, the doctor was given a large quantity of the drawings, 140 in total, which over the past 40 years wound up stacked in a large cardboard box that was stored atop a refrigerator in the garage.
After reading about the Ramirez exhibition at the Folk Art Museum, the woman sent an e-mail and the works were confirmed to be originals. She ultimately struck a deal with Ricco/Maresca to represent her while dispersing the collection.
A large 39-by-22-inch drawing with looping forms creating deep ravines and an “onion-domed” temple positioned at the far end of the chasm carried a price tag of $180,000. Other prices for the Ramirez pieces dropped into the $90,000 range. The dealers reportedly sold all six examples on display.
Other highlights from the booth included a Bill Traylor pencil on cardboard titled “Owl,” $28,000, and Justin McCarthy’s acrylic on canvas titled “Marilyn Monroe,” $18,000. Several pieces by William Hawkins were displayed, with “Neptune Pool” and “Jordan Memorial Temple” stickered at $55,000 and $65,000, respectively.
Originally discovered at one of the Pier Antiques Show in 1993, an entire booth filled with the personal collection of Morton Bartlett dolls and artwork was snapped up by Simsbury, Conn., dealer Marion Harris. A sign in the booth appeared shortly after the show opened declaring “Booth Sold Out.”
It took a while, but eventually Bartlett’s unique creations †and Harris’ marketing skills †produced a frenzy as the superbly crafted lifelike dolls became highly sought after. With but a couple of the examples left, Harris presented two dolls at the show, “Dancing Girl,” from the dealer’s personal collection, that was marked $110,000, and “Pointing Girl,” a seated doll that had been displayed in numerous exhibitions and was marked $95,000. Harris also offered a large quantity of photographs made from color slides that Bartlett shot depicting his dolls in a variety of poses.
Galerie St Etienne’s stand was filled with exceptional items, including a series of pencil, watercolor and gouache works executed by Josef Karl Radler, an Austrian who was institutionalized for many years prior to his death in 1917. “Half figure of a Bearded Man in a Blue Coat Smoking a Pipe,” perhaps a self-portrait, depicts the main figure in the foreground with other patients from the institution in the background, Radler’s typical commentary appears at the bottom and the entire image is contained within a colorful and ornamental border. The most striking of several Radler images offered, it was marked $7,000.
More traditional works in Galerie St Etienne’s stand, previously considered to be Americana and now realized to be the work of an untrained, naïve Outsider, were presented in the form of three oil on board paintings by Grandma Moses. “Catching the Turkey” from 1943, “The Old Oaken Bucket” from 1944 and “Spring Flowers” from 1961 were all marked “price on request.”
Manhattan dealer Phyllis Kind presented numerous pieces that had collectors salivating, including works by the likes of Charlie Willetto, Ned Chank, Augustin Lesage and Adolf Wolfli.
“Tall Man,” a sculpture by Chank constructed of cement and covered with colorful broken glass bangles, was $50,000, “Les 92 Personages,” an oil on canvas by Lesage, was stickered “price on request,” Wolfli’s “The Masked Man” was $50,000 and Henry Darger’s “Long after They are released by General Vivian who recognizes them, General Vivian is not in the picture,” a 19-by-24-inch watercolor, was also “price on request.”
A diverse assortment of materials was available at American Primitive Gallery, including a stunning hanging wall sculpture titled “Mary Grey” by Larry Calkins. The mixed media, headless doll-shaped object with a red, white, yellow and blue skirt, from 2007, was $4,000. A selection of Ted Ludwiczak carved stone heads was displayed, as was a large selection of sculptures by Terry Turrell.
Chicago dealer Carl Hammer was on hand with a wide variety of objects and pieces of art, ranging from a large Henry Darger watercolor to works by Bill Traylor. Numerous sculptures and compositions were also displayed, including the eye-catching “temptation scene” carved sculpture by Edgar Tolson, a circa 1970 carving of the Garden of Eden that depicted Adam and Eve at the apple tree with a large snake entwined in the branches.
Luise Ross Gallery, New York City, was another booth to feature the works of Bill Traylor, offering a small drawing titled “camel and goat” priced at $25,000, while a slightly larger image titled “black goat” was $35,000.
Sculptural carvings, such as “Tiger jumping Through a Hoop” by Charlie Willeto, circa 1960, was “price on request” at Keny Galleries, Columbus, Ohio, while a two-dimensional carved religious themed plaque titled “How Great Thou Art” by Elijah Pierce was $29,500.
Marc Bourlier’s “A l’ombre de l’abre,” a figural construction from driftwood, 2007, was at Cavin Morris Gallery, New York City. Two double-sided drawings of a conceptual airplane, circa 1940, titled “Dragon Scout Torpedo Plane,” graphite and colored pencil on paper, 19 by 24 inches, were by John Sowell and marked at $6,000. A metal and wooden model of the airplane was displayed alongside and was $8,000.
“Rainbow of Uneven Colors” was one of many paintings by Mary Whitfield seen in the stand of Galerie Bonheur, St Louis, Mo. Marked at $10,000 was a disturbing painting depicting a large tree with numerous branches, each decorated with brightly dressed African American figures that were swinging from nooses.
English dealer Henry Boxer displayed a wide variety of art, including watercolors and drawings by untrained English artists Scottie Wilson and Madge Gill. Featured in the booth was the work of George Widener with “Megalopolis” highlighted as the stand’s centerpiece. The large painting on paper, done in poster paint and ink, depicted a large city as seen from the distance with two large sportsplexes in the foreground. Beneath it was a calendar of events with each day of the week identified and with notations. An oil on panel by Chris Mars was another of the items featured from the stand of Boxer, with “Resurrection of the Condemned,” 2007, marked at $22,000.
Sometimes with a comical twist, Outsiders often infuse their artwork with the slightly different vantage point from which they see life. Such was the case with “The Discovery of Finster Art,” an enamel on paper from 1976 that was priced at $9,800 at Tanner Hill Gallery, Chattanooga, Tenn. The unusual painting depicted a two-story home that was set in the midst of rambling type. An autobiography of sort, the painted text traces Finster’s history from the discovery of his art by Edith Wilson to Channel 5 News& to Herbert Wade Hempill Jr… to Robert Bishop and the Henry Ford Museum. “Look out great mountain, what a great fire Edith Wilson started with her little match,” proclaims Finster across the top of the painting.
One is left to wonder if an Outsider has a similar sign pointing out Sanford Smith’s contributions to the successes of the Outsider marketplace.
For information, 212-777-5218 or www.sanfordsmith.com .
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