Coming to terms with Outsider Art

March 14, 1993|By Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen | Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen,Contributing Writers

Outsider Art itself may be in, but the name for it has one foot out the door.

The New Orleans Museum of Art, for example, uses the label "works by self-taught artists" instead of "outsider art" for the exhibit it is organizing of over 250 paintings and sculptures by almost 80 Southern artists from 1940 to the present.

Although some of the artists are admittedly eccentric, many are in the mainstream of rural America, explains Dannal Perry, a curatorial assistant involved in planning the show, which opens in New Orleans on Oct. 23 before touring the country.

What sets these artists apart from the mainstream American art world is that they lack formal training. "These are people who had never been to a museum in their lives until their art was put in them," Ms. Perry said, so the exhibitors opted for "the most descriptive, least politically explosive andleast argumentative name" for their work.

Similarly concerned that the words "outsider art" could be interpreted as pejorative and as having racial and class overtones, many high-powered dealers try to market it as "modern American folk art," saying one reason it's appealing in the '90s is it doesn't look commercial.

Buying was aggressive at the recent Outsider Art Fair in New York -- though some collectors there complained about the display of creations by poor, untutored whittlers and disturbed scribblers.

Buyers came from as far away as Europe, Japan, California, Oregon, Oklahoma and Tennessee. Crowds were turned away from the Museum of American Folk Art's overflowing symposium, "Uncommon Artists," which coincided with the fair.

"No two people agree about how it looks or what it is about or what is good or what is bad," noted the fair's catalog, hunting for an explanation of Outsider Art. "When it is right (like any art), when accomplished in execution, authentic in intent, and unique in point of view, it packs a force that instantly reminds us that art began as magic." Although the fair was Outsider Art's coming-out party, it has been around since the 1930s. In Europe it was called "Art Brut," and focused on the art of the insane. In America, too, a number of the field's brightest lights were in psychiatric hospitals. Eddie Arning, a schizophrenic who spent much of his life in mental institutions and nursing homes, painted about 2,000 works from 1964 to 1973.

At the fair, the Hill Gallery in Birmingham, Mich., sold about 15 Arning paintings, some inspired by magazine illustrations, priced from $2,500 to $5,500 each. Philadelphia's Janet Fleisher Gallery offered circa 1953 colored pencil drawings on paper by Mexican-born Martin Ramirez (1895-1963), long a resident of a California mental hospital. His image of a man and train was priced $30,000.

In a vacuum, these prices may sound crazy, but they're a long way from the tens of millions paid for paintings by Vincent van Gogh a century after he entered an asylum.

Much of the work at the late-January fair was fresh and exhilarating. However, it was hard to discern whether people were buying the art or the anecdotes. Dealers were anxious to tell how their artists lost their jobs and started making things out of found objects, how they lived in a school bus, or drew for hours responding to the voice of God. Others recounted hospital therapists channeling artists' creativity onto canvas. One of the hottest Outsiders is Bill Traylor (1854-1947), a former slave. "We're trying to make people look at the art and buy the art, not the story, but the stories give them a little extra," says Sanford Smith, the fair's organizer.

Some of the stories are incomplete. The Janet Fleisher Gallery had small sculptures made by an unknown artist nicknamed the "Wireman" and priced from $300 to $700. Nearly 600 of them had been retrieved from the trash in Philadelphia and acquired by Ms. Fleisher. The Rev. Howard Finster of Georgia, one of Outsider Art's superstars, whose works will be included in the New Orleans exhibition, numbers all his creations and is up to 27,000. Art is his gospel, according to John Denton of Hiawassee, Ga., who said he has 200 Finster paintings. To reach a wider congregation, Mr. Finster accepted a commission in the 1980s to design the cover of Talking Heads' "Little Creatures" record album.

[In Baltimore, Outsider Art is to eventually get a home in the American Visionary Art Museum, planned for Key Highway at the Inner Harbor.]

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