From the outside in: How an ‘elastic’ American art field is expanding to accept self-taught, visionary, and outsider artists

Brooke Davis Anderson

The director of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Museum examines the impact of several recent groundbreaking shows on previously marginalized artists, and what this means for our visual culture


Lowery Stokes Sims, a distinguished scholar and curator, once described American art history to me as being “like a rubber band,” rather than the long-standing straight line – a rigid march of the historical discipline. In Sims’s version, academic borders expand and contract over time, largely due to the inclusion or exclusion of artists often deemed on the margins. This can include at various times women, artists of color, older artists, teacher/artists, LGBTQ artists and self-taught artists. 

Horace Pippin, Interior, 1944, from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., gift of Mr. and Mrs. Meyer P. Potamkin, currently featured in 'Outliers and American Vanguard Art,' currently on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through March 17, 2019.
Horace Pippin, Interior, 1944, from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., gift of Mr. and Mrs. Meyer P. Potamkin, currently featured in 'Outliers and American Vanguard Art,' currently on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through March 17, 2019.

A quick glance at 20th-century American art, especially as it pertains to the expanding and contracting boundaries around self-taught artists, backs up Sims’s thinking – creating a lively and pulsing narrative. Some examples of this animated art history:

  • Horace Pippin and Morris Hirshfield are invited in for their authentic American voice, as seen and collected by major museums around the country, but the field contracts when these artists are seen as too figurative and crude.
  • Grandma Moses is absorbed into the art story for her sublime documentation of a kind of rural America until her work is seen as too sentimental and feminine.
  • Howard Finster is exuberantly celebrated for his funky and comprehensive environmental creations (collected by noted fan and R.E.M. lead singer Michael Stipe), but eventually his work is deemed too conservative and expensive for its fundamentalist point of view. (Northern collectors thought his religious sentiments were ironic).
  • Bill Traylor is adored for his minimal and economic line and form, but will future generations challenge Traylor’s singular, strong voice?
Howard Finster, George Washington, #6,903, 1987, at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, T. Marshall Hahn Collection; © Howard Finster/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Howard Finster, George Washington, #6,903, 1987, at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, T. Marshall Hahn Collection; © Howard Finster/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

This elasticity is nothing new in the art world, but it can be particularly stark for an artist with no formal training who has very little support – a developing market, a few select collectors, even fewer institutions and galleries devoted solely to the presentation of their careers, a handful of scholars who can ably argue for these artists, and perhaps even family members who might find their creative endeavors confusing. For example, the academic world resists the “rubber band” and elastic art history of our nation’s visual culture. In art history departments around the country, one could not write one’s dissertation on Henry Darger or his work even when Darger’s posthumous career was skyrocketing. So, advocates for self-taught artists and their work were especially excited when the esteemed curator Lynne Cooke took interest in the outlier. Cooke is known for her rigorous research and holistic approach; she devoted more than the past five years to her current project,  ‘Outliers and American Vanguard Art.’ Currently on view at LACMA in Los Angeles (through March 17, 2019), it was previously seen at the National Gallery of Art and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and is supported by an impressive volume published by The University of Chicago Press.

Cooke is known for advocating for artists such as Rosemarie Trockel Zoe Leonard Juan Muñoz, and  Jessica Stockholder, to name but a few, during her tenures at Dia Art Foundation and Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. Those of us committed to an elastic and broadened American art narrative, one that pushes our perspectives about creativity, culture and art making, were eager to witness what Cooke would discover in the outsider art world. She did not disappoint.

An expanded definition of outsider art could finally free marginalized practitioners from the 'folk art' box. Left: Judith Scott, Untitled, 2004, fiber and mixed media. Courtesy of The Museum of Everything, London, © Creative Growth Art Center. Right: Betye Saar, Indigo Mercy, 1975, mixed media. Courtesy of The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, gift of the Nzingha Society, Inc., © Betye Saar.
An expanded definition of outsider art could finally free marginalized practitioners from the 'folk art' box. Left: Judith Scott, Untitled, 2004, fiber and mixed media. Courtesy of The Museum of Everything, London, © Creative Growth Art Center. Right: Betye Saar, Indigo Mercy, 1975, mixed media. Courtesy of The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, gift of the Nzingha Society, Inc., © Betye Saar.

‘Outliers and American Vanguard Art’ is a glorious and ambitious retelling of American art of the 20th century, pointing to the collision between trained artists and artists without art training, and is structured to illustrate this around a few key exhibitions in major museums around the country. It is also about great art (art that hasn’t always been the focus of scholars like Cooke and the many other contributors to her catalog), and will no doubt pique the interest of up-and-coming future scholars. That is, in my view, the best possible outcome, because being a self-taught artist means lacking an adequate support system. Can this boundary-breaking project/proposal mean more students of self-taught artists, more thesis and dissertation topics of this work, more collectors and dealers devoting their resources to this type of American art and more museums adding this work into their permanent collections? Indications are that it will.

‘Outliers and American Vanguard Art’ opened at its first venue, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., around the same time that a group of prominent museums partnered with the Souls Grown Deep Foundation to acquire, research, preserve and exhibit significant sculptures, paintings and textiles by artists from the African -American South. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s presentation of this partnership, ‘History Refused to Die: Highlights From the Souls Grown Deep Foundation Gift,’ which was rapturously received by the critical community, also points to a growing mainstream commitment to this material allowing it to be seen in all of its fullness and purpose. Because its monetary value is still somewhat modest compared to contemporary art, the market for self-taught art is only beginning to be tested for its success and its value… nonetheless, gallerists are taking notice. Progressive dealers have been observing and supporting for generations. In New York City, dealers like Matthew Marks frequently integrate vernacular artists into their program, as does gallerist Andrew Edlin (owner of the Outsider Art Fair), in much the same way that Fleisher/Ollman in Philadelphia and Carl Hammer in Chicago have been doing for decades. 

An untitled fabric collage-quilt by Rosie Lee Tompkins, 1996, chosen by curator Lynn Cooke for 'Outliers and American Vanguard Art.' Photo by Sharon Risedorph, courtesy of the Eli Leon Trust.
An untitled fabric collage-quilt by Rosie Lee Tompkins, 1996, chosen by curator Lynn Cooke for 'Outliers and American Vanguard Art.' Photo by Sharon Risedorph, courtesy of the Eli Leon Trust.

Seeing work by James Castle, Lonnie Holley, and Judith Scott, for example, in art fairs and other marketplaces validates their importance and the desire for their work, and this is certainly the newest development around this material. There is reason to be optimistic about the market interest in this type of work, too. Hopefully, this means that the collector base is strengthening, while young scholars integrate these artists into their worldview of American expression. Artists of the self-taught nature are deserving of a vast and healthy ecology of gallerists, scholars, curators, collectors and museums. This has long been a modest but devout system of supporters, not necessarily made up of the art world’s most dominant voices, but deeply loyal to this field of study. ‘Outliers and American Vanguard Art,’ along with the attention from fairs, museums, and other venues, can mean that artists like  Thornton Dial, Lonnie Holley, Henry Darger, and Martín Ramírez, for example, can trust their place in an elastic and embracing art history.

It is still largely self-taught male artists who captivate the art world at large. Looking forward, hopefully a newfound flexible art history will also allow women artists with no formal training a place at the table: women such as Bessie Harvey, Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, Minnie Evans, Karolina Danek, and Consuelo “Chelo” Gonzalez Amezcua, each of whom is deserving of receiving monographic, serious presentations—the same sort of reception as their male peers. 

Two 1970s examples from 'Outliers and American Vanguard Art': Left: Alan Shields, Shape-Up, 1976-77, acrylic, thread, and beads on canvas belting. Courtesy of The Drawing Room Gallery, East Hampton Section, © Alan Shields Estate, photo by Gary Mamay. Right: Barbara Rossi, Rose Rock, 1972, acrylic on Plexiglas panel in artist's frame. Courtesy of the artist and Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago, © Barbara Rossi.
Two 1970s examples from 'Outliers and American Vanguard Art': Left: Alan Shields, Shape-Up, 1976-77, acrylic, thread, and beads on canvas belting. Courtesy of The Drawing Room Gallery, East Hampton Section, © Alan Shields Estate, photo by Gary Mamay. Right: Barbara Rossi, Rose Rock, 1972, acrylic on Plexiglas panel in artist's frame. Courtesy of the artist and Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago, © Barbara Rossi.

Why now? During the entirety of the 20th century, self-taught art has just as frequently been on the tip of everyone’s tongue as it has been overlooked and ignored. It appears to be a generational rhythm that can be explained in the production of major exhibitions and interest by other, more “mainstream” artists, as Cooke proposes in her exhibition. The artwork has always been good and great, important and unforgettable, contributing a voice of value. Hopefully, what Cooke’s project does is finally unleash these artists and their work from the American folk art narrative, which has prevented the work from being fully understood in other contexts, richer narratives, and deeper understandings.

This story originally appeared in the 2018 edition of Art Basel Miami Beach magazine, which can be downloaded here.

Top image: Detail of Untited, 1996, by Rosie Lee Tompkins, currently on view at LACMA in 'Outliers and American Vanguard Art.' Photo by Sharon Risedorph, courtesy of the Eli Leon Trust.