Carolyn Boriss-Krimsky



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Selected Writings by Carolyn Boriss-Krimsky

"Self-Taught Art: Who Are the Outsiders in ' Outsider' Art?" (Art New England, December 2000/January 2001)

Who are the outsiders in "outsider" art?

The work of self-taught or outsider artists has been receiving unprecedented attention in recent years. Some fifty exhibitions have been organized in museums and noncommercial galleries since 1993. Besides the Outsider Art Fair, due to open in January in New York, New York's Museum of American Folk Art has organized a traveling exhibit, "Self-taught Artists of the 20th Century," which will open at the Philadelphia Museum of Art this spring. Among the growing volume of written material on outsider art are newsletters such as Raw Vision and The Outsider. What is behind all this interest in self-taught art? And what are we to make of the term "outsider art?" There is little consensus among collectors, gallery owners, scholars, art historians and least of all the artists known as outsiders as to what the term really means. Here is a working definition : artwork made by people without training who create art for themselves and/or their community often without recognizing themselves as artists (until someone comes along and defines them that way).

The roots of outsider art lie in the nineteenth century when enlightened psychiatrists came to recognize the importance of the artistic expression of their patients. Coined in 1972 by British art historian Roger Cardinal, the term in English is derived from French artist Jean Dubuffet’s concept of "art brut" which means "raw art," uncooked by the culture. It has since been used to describe the artwork of psychiatric patients, self-taught visionaries, eccentrics and others perceived to be living on the edge of society. But the "outsider" category also refers to folk artists, prison artists, and indigenous artists such as Haitian muralists, African coffin carvers, and Australian aboriginal painters.

These days the phrase "self-taught" is more commonly used in art circles because the word "outsider," besides being patronizing and demeaning to some, is also paradoxical. What are outsiders supposed to be outside of? One might say that outsider artists create work outside of the mainstream art scene. But that can be said about many artists whose work never makes it to fashionable galleries. What these outsider artists have in common is that they never had any traditional art school training. But a number of so-called "outsider artists" have had international museum shows, have been featured in well-known art magazines and have won grants and awards. Once recognized in these ways, they can hardly be considered outsiders.

The Museum of American Folk Art in New York City shows self-taught work, but avoids the term outsider. Brooke Anderson, director of the new Contemporary Center (a part of the museum devoted to collecting, exhibiting and studying self-taught art) acknowledges that no term suits this kind of work. She pointed out that by using the term "Contemporary Center," the museum is defining a moment in time rather than categorizing the works creators.

What is the broad appeal of this work? And why is it so popular now? The appeal of self-taught art may lie in a search for a kind of idealized "otherness" -- an authentic, untainted, immediate visual expression connected to the honesty and clarity of young children's art, sometimes with intense emotionality. But this appeal is not new. After World War II, Clement Greenberg advocated a form of art that was devoid of Western European traditions and art school influences. Allan Kaprow published a series of articles on "the education of the un-artist." Both Greenberg and Kaprow wrote about the need for artists to become purer by "unlearning" everything they had learned in school.

The Surrealists also felt that children and the mentally ill produced more authentic art than trained artists. In fact, many artists, including Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and Gabrielle Munter were not only inspired by self-taught art (especially children's art) , they also used it as source material for their own work. Early modern artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Rousseau raised consciousness about self-taught art by elevating and appropriating it (Picasso) and by doing it (Rousseau). Dada and some of the art movements of the 1960s, which led to the acceptance of the work of women and people of color, made room for alternative ways of creating and thinking about art. But we seem especially interested in self-taught art at this particular time in history, perhaps, partially as a reaction to our increasingly complex society.

Lorri Berenberg, director of The Berenberg Gallery, (one of a handful of galleries in Boston that show self-taught work), said, "I think the recent popularity of this art is a reaction to the growing coldness of this highly technological world. A lot of contemporary art that is being shown right now can be pretty hard to understand. In contrast to this, the work of self-taught artists communicates in a direct and accessible way. Self-taught artists express human experiences and emotions that we can all relate to. Narratives can run the gamut from childhood memories to everyday life struggles to visionary revelations."

So who are these self-taught artists? The following are a few examples of the lives and work of some nationally known and extraordinary artists who occupy a place in this tradition.

Bessie Harvey: born in Dallas, Georgia in 1929, Harvey left school in the fourth grade to start working as a babysitter. She married at age 14 and had 11 children by the time she was in her 30s. To support her family, she worked as a domestic and a hospital aid. To soothe her through troubled times, she began creating mixed-media sculptures out of rocks, wood and tree roots. Initially, the organic forms of these objects suggested abstracted faces and figures. Later, Harvey's sculptures reflected her deep connection to African art as ritual. An Art and Antiques article called "Inside the Outsiders" by Eleanor E.Gaver quotes Harvey as saying "I always felt that trees was souls. So I began to work my problems out in the wood, talking to the wood. Then I started seeing faces in the wood, and I just began to bring them out."

Rev. Howard Finster: born in Valley Head, Alabama in 1918, Finster served for 40 years as a preacher in different churches in Georgia and Alabama. He became an artist after receiving a vision that directed him to preach what he considers to be Gods message through art. He has since created "Paradise Garden" in Georgia, a two-acre site filled with sculptures, exhibition sheds, paintings, found objects and signs. In the middle of the garden is a folk art church surrounded by and filled with Finster's work. Probably the most widely exhibited and well-known folk artist in the country, he has appeared on the Tonight Show, designed album covers for rock groups such as R.E.M., and exhibited in the Venice Bienielle.

Mary T. Smith: born in Southern Mississippi in 1904, Smith was one of 13 children in a family of sharecroppers. From an early age, she had a hearing impairment which made her speaking unintelligible. As a young child, she was rejected by her playmates and retreated into a world of drawing and writing. As an older woman, she lived with her son near a garbage dump. She became fascinated with scraps from the dump such as discarded tin and wood and began collecting them. Her backyard and home became filled with drawings , writings and sculptures, many of which contain religious iconograpy. Smith also created large-scale imagery that was influenced by billboards that towered over her property telling people what to do with their money or where to buy a car. She advertised herself with slogans like: "The Lord no me", and "Here I am, do you see me?" Many of her images include figures depicted with both hands raised, a gesture indicating a rising spirit that is often seen in art from Africa, Haiti and Brazil.

Purvis Young: born in 1943 in the Liberty City section of Miami, Young served time in prison for armed robbery from ages 18 through 21. It was during this period that he became interested in art and began to draw. After his release from prison, he spent a lot of time in the library, looking at art books. Inspired by pictures of urban murals of the 1960s, he began to paste his own drawings and paintings on the walls of buildings in his community. He has since been awarded an Artists Fellowship grant from the National Endowment of the Arts and has also been commissioned to create murals in the Miami area. Young is one artist who crosses the boundaries between outsider and mainstream art. His work is highly sought after by contemporary art collectors.

In the upscale and trendy art market of the new millennium, self-taught art, despite its growing popularity, can still be bought for under $1000. But it can also sell for as much as $10,000 or more. The Berenberg Gallery, at 4 Clarendon Street in Boston's South End, is the place to see the work of some of the most well-known self-taught artists in the country including Harvey, Finster and Young. Self-taught work can also be seen at Gateway Crafts and Webster House in Brookline.

Art New England, December 2000/January 2001



Carolyn Boriss-Krimsky | carolynbk@comcast.net