By Monica Westin
Ulysses Davis is not an outsider artist.
The Savannah, Georgia-based barber, who died in 1990, very much saw himself as an artist, knowing the value of keeping his collection of sixty years’ worth of carvings together—most of which he created during his downtime at the Savannah Barbershop where he cut hair. The interest in hair shows in Davis’ figural busts, including his most famous grouping of every American president from George Washington to the first George Bush. Davis’ passion for history extends to Nigerian wood-carving traditions. And as clear as it is from Davis’ current retrospective at Intuit that the artist was self-taught, it was that self-awareness of his art that sets him apart from the artists often tagged as “outsiders.” In any case, the collection is worthy of showing at any museum (which it was, in 1980, at the Corcoran Gallery), leading Janet Petry, Intuit’s chair of Exhibits Committee, to point out that the work of Intuit, which champions “intuitive and outsider art,” is something of a catch-22; by trying to mainstream the work of self-taught artists, the institution undermines the very distinction on which it was founded.
Petry points out that “outsider” is no longer a stigma—to the point that both she and Cleo Wilson, executive director of Intuit, are starting to see trained artists of all backgrounds brand themselves as outsiders. Wilson remarks that she’s seen an increase in people calling themselves “outsider artists” trying to donate work to Intuit. “Interesting to see what comes,” she says, casting a wary eye at the prospect of the rising tide of self-proclaimers. But if outsiders cannot dub themselves as such, who does? When I ask Wilson about how new outsider artists are found, she tells me there will always be undiscovered garages somewhere, but she also warns that there are more imposters than before. Where ”outsiderness” was once a fantasy of its insider proponents, its invocation by those who want to be in—or out—is yet another sign of the death of the movement. What began as a sincere interest in promoting the art of under-represented artists has now become a locus for fetishization, and—perhaps more disturbingly—a promotional gimmick.
To its benefit, as outsiderism becomes a marketing tool, self-taught artists like Davis are increasingly being taken on their own terms. And as the art is being taken on its own terms, the labels that used to describe artists outside the mainstream are losing currency. It’s not just Ulysses Davis, whose competence is obvious; the Art Institute of Chicago’s retrospective of James Castle (organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art), which closed this January, avoided the term “outsider” on wall labels and exhibition texts. Twenty years ago, however, Castle, who was deaf and implicitly labeled autistic, was celebrated for his outsider status. Instead of categorizing Castle’s drawings, which were sketched with a stick using soot and spit, and his sculptural birds and human figures made of paper and bound by twine, by the degree of his isolation from the art world and treating his work anthropologically, the Art Institute show boldly highlighted Castle’s artistic facility: his soot/spit ink is an “ingenious combination”; his art “congruent with the evolution and critical mass of art produced in the twentieth century.” Castle stood on his own at the Art Institute and the buzzwords that would have defined him before—art brut, intuitive, visionary—seem to have lost their power. As the language goes, so too the movement?
I spent much of this past fall and winter in conversation about the death of outsider art with many specialists in the field. While seemingly every few months the field is deemed, at turns, dead and resurrected, more and more dealers are selling outsiders, more and more artists are using the term in their own artist statements, and controversies, like that over the secret identity of Clyde Angel, keep surfacing. My research began as a search for the next new outsider artist, but I almost immediately found that the question on everyone’s minds is whether anyone can find one at all anymore in the same way they were discovered by intrepid collectors and dealers driving around the rural south in the 1980s and 1990s. The megastars of outsider art were always unlikely subjects to begin with: the culturally isolated, the diagnosed ‘mentally ill,’ the visionary autodidact. The field came to life in the early 1970s and has been gaining steady interest ever since, fueled by the success of a series of iconic names: Henry Darger, Martin Ramirez, Joseph Yoakum, Bill Traylor.
What does it take to be an outsider? Most critics and scholars believe that the outsider artist must not see himself as an artist creating work for a public; the general ideology seems to be that the outsider’s capital resides in the “purity” of the work that he creates, not compromised or corrupted by his sense of creating for an audience other than himself.
The field, always unsettled, seems to be deconstructing itself. “To define something—indeed even to isolate it—is to damage it a good deal. It comes close to destroying it,” wrote Jean Debuffet, the coiner of the term art brut. Lee Godie, for example, who sold her paintings of birds, flowers and glamorous women on the steps of the Art Institute, wouldn’t be considered an outsider by some because she saw herself as part of the art community; many might call her art nueve invention, a term currently in favor for artists who have some formal training or some degree of access to some public exhibition. (Could the reason so many of the terms for outsiders are French be that those in the industry are trying to build up some art-speak credibility?)
Arguably the biggest problem with 0utsider art is the fact that, irony of ironies, outsider and self-trained artists are almost never a part of the conversations about their art, either because they aren’t aware that they’re making art at all, or because they’re not in a position, because of the outsiderness that makes them so noteworthy in the art world, to take part in the discussions of that world. Even Ulysses Davis’ work is described by curators and his insider-artist friends; Davis never produced his own artist statement.
According to dealer Carl Hammer, the outsider artist is “someone outside awareness of the fact that they’re creating art. They’re communicating, like a Paleolithic caveman, using the most direct, the most effective needs, out of a compulsive, obsessive method.”
In sharp contrast, perhaps more than any other genre, trained visual artists historically have gotten to talk and write a lot about their work. From Minimalist Donald Judd’s critical writings to Robert Motherwell’s academic career, artists usually get to engage the public. The outsider artist often doesn’t get to take part in the crucial job of translating the art for an audience; the dealer, and later the critic and academic, do. (It’s worth noting that the artist is usually excluded from reaping the financial rewards of outsider-art superstardom as well.)
One of the strongest voices in the discussion of outsiderness in Chicago is Carl Hammer, who not only owns a vast collection of self-taught artists’ work, but also stands as one of the earliest and most successful dealers in the field. Hammer’s office is on the second floor of the gallery that bears his name, dappled with outsider and mainstream pieces by Henry Darger and Chris Ware that fill the walls around a leather living-room set and Noguchi coffee table. This past fall marked the gallery’s thirtieth anniversary, and what’s represented is an impressive range of the biggest names in outsider art—Traylor, Godie and Joseph Yoakum—as well as Hammer’s fresher and more mainstream discoveries. Hammer doesn’t necessarily differentiate between them.
In fact, making outsider art mainstream is one of Hammer’s professed goals, echoing Intuit’s self-negating mission. Hammer doesn’t seem worried about what he calls “lowbrow” artists passing themselves off as outsiders; he’s satisfied that the artists he discovered have been mainstreamed, enjoying the victory of having Art Chicago deny his application one year then drawing a crowd at the art fair the next with pieces by Traylor. “It’s needed time for outsider art to be framed properly, for people to realize art isn’t just produced by academics,” he says. ”We’ve broken down prejudices in our culture against the unschooled, the untaught artist,” he explains.
However, in order to be mainstreamed, it first has to be marketed, which is perhaps the genre’s most glaring contradiction: outsider art has a financial value based on the degree to which it is “pure” and “uncorrupted.” Many times in my conversations with outsider-art enthusiasts, the rhetoric of purity was invoked outright. A number of artists get called “perfect” outsider artists because they’re maximally cut off from society. For Hammer, Traylor is the “perfect” outsider artist because he never learned to read or write, but “like the caveman, he had a story to tell.” He cites Fred Stone as saying, “If only I could unlearn everything I have learned” and claims that the position of the outsider artist is an enviable one: “they look at things more honestly, with less reference, without the need to pay homage to the history of art-making.”
Is it harder to find outsider artists now? Hammer says yes, the field is somewhat mined, although new artists will “pop up.” What makes the field complicated, he argues, is the fervor of dealers trying to come up with the next new discovery, which is of course a problem of the art market as a whole. But even in the 1980s, Roger Cardinal, who coined the term outsider in 1972, wrote that the field was “already tinged with nostalgia… our technological society has reached a point where it is unthinkable that anyone should reach maturity without extensive exposure to images transmitted by the educational system and the media.”
“In a hundred years, we’re going to study a historical school called ‘outsider art,’ but there won’t be contemporary outsider art,” claims Michael Bonesteel, who teaches outsider art at SAIC. It’s not that “outsider art” is extinct as much as it was dead on arrival, or at the very least signed its own death sentence, scrawled in crayon and dirt. It’s a model that was born to die, and many in the field are quick to point out that this self-destruction is built into the mission of critics and dealers. Robert Reinard, the former program director of collections and exhibitions at Intuit, echoes Petry by pointing out that part of Intuit’s mission is “to create enough awareness and acceptance of this art to the point where Intuit’s no longer needed.” To mainstream outsider art, to make the field redundant, would be in many ways a mark of its success.
That said, the field is very young; the first Darger show was at the Hyde Park Art Center in 1978, and the field as a whole has only been around for fifty years or so. We’re at the beginning, according to Reinard, of developing academic rigor around the style and discourse of outsider art. The two obstacles he sees are first that the artists don’t get to participate in the discussions and the fact that, for there to be academic acceptance of a field, there needs to be a specific language involved. “The example I always use is that you never hear people arguing as to whether Monet was important. You need to have a language, a framework for discussion. In the outsider field, some concepts are established, but a lot of language is interchangeable, which makes it difficult for scholars to talk about it in a consistent way. Is your definition of ‘visionary’ the same as mine?”
On one hand, outsider art is still somehow lingering between an inherent suicide mission and the fact that there must be an endless supply of marginalia; after all, there will always be marginalized people in the world. Reinard explained: ”The Internet is not ubiquitous, and there are going to be people who can’t access it, who lack means of all kinds, who feel compelled to create regardless of circumstances. It might be harder to find people, but that means we have to look harder for them. But I don’t see how it can go away. We would have to live in a utopia for these circumstances to disappear.”
Lisa Stone, curator of the Roger Brown Study Collection, doesn’t like to teach vocabulary like “naive” and “art brut,” which smack of definitions and boundaries to her and sometimes confuses her students, whereas her colleague Bonesteel teaches his students all of the field’s key terms. “I don’t want to define someone by what they don’t have—it’s not a helpful way of looking at art,” Stone argues, and she points out that despite Castle’s “perfect” outsiderness as someone who couldn’t read, speak, lip-read, or sign, he had an “incredibly sophisticated inner life.” “No one’s living in a primitive society anymore, and it’s incredibly irritating to attempt to talk about the artist as if they have no connection.” She’s wary of dealers (not Hammer) who perpetuate the myth of total outsiderness, which have in part created the new group of faux outsiders who want to capitalize on its fetish. Stone points out that all artist are self-taught to some extent and that there are faculty at the Art Institute who don’t believe outsider art exists as a category, notably James Elkins, who published the polemic “There is No Such Thing as Outsider Art” in 2006.
Bonesteel, Lisa Stone’s colleague at SAIC and as canonical a scholar of outsider art as you can find—he’s written books on Chicago’s resident outsider celebrity Darger, among others—believes in teaching the vocabulary because he thinks the field should be as rigorous as any other in art. Bonesteel is the first to discuss outsider art as a historical movement, akin to Surrealism, that waxed to a high point and then waned, rather than a taxonomy. He sees the bastions of outsider art as breaking down, and marginalized art of all kinds, such as tattoos, becoming accepted, no longer ghettoized outsiders.
Can the terms hold different kinds of marginalized artists? Geniuses tower above everybody and all terms, Bonesteel says, although he teaches his students the term “art naif” as he would teach “art nouveau.” The bottom line is “how much the intuition shows… whether it can take you somewhere mainstream art can’t.” He mentions several mainstream artists he sees as “going to the same place” as outsider artists, and in his teaching Bonesteel tries to help his students go there too. Reinard echoes Bonesteel’s sentiment: “There are always going to be themes or overriding factors that link all high quality examples of art, issues of quality that are kind of stable. Any untrained person can make a painting, but even the least educated of the good outsider artists have an inherent level of quality to them.” When I ask Bonesteel about Castle, he admits that he didn’t get the work at first. “I thought [Castle] didn’t do anything for me. But then I taught… these images, made with soot and spit and a sharpened stick, and—this is going to sound like an outsider-art cliche—but he was this perfect savage savant.
“And he’s dead, so it’s even better…”