The Rise of Self-Taught Artists

Out is the new in.

Click here to see art titles and credits at the end of this piece.

Let’s get out of here, Judy said.
They’re getting closer, I can’t stand it.
But you know, our fashions are in fashion
only briefly, then they go out
and stay that way for a long time …

—from John Ashbery’s “Girls on the Run”

Outsider artists—visionary, schizophrenic, primitive, psychotic, obsessive, compulsive, untutored, vernacular, self-taught, naive, brut, rough, raw, call them what you will—are insiders now. Or, to quote a line from John Ashbery’s poem “Girls on the Run,” which was inspired by Henry Darger (1892–1973), the iconic outsider artist who wrote a 15,000-page manuscript, The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, and illustrated it with lots of pictures of embattled girls, nude or in party dresses: “You know, our fashions are in fashion.”

What are outsider fashions? Girls with penises, wings, and horns! Chicken-bone thrones! Healing machines cobbled together with wires! Spit-and-soot drawings! Newspaper letters carefully sliced apart, then pieced back together! Wooden preacher figures, nearly life-size! Huge tinfoil gorillas! Art with numbers and codes! Taxidermied squirrels covered with sequins and fitted with angel wings! Jesus painted on toilet-paper tubes! Buttons and glitter and Star Wars figurines affixed to a board! Handmade signs, with the loopy letters filled in! Cocoons of yarn! Balls of bras!

At this moment, the universe of outsider art is huge. And it’s being enthusiastically embraced—one might say swallowed whole—by the contemporary-art world. Art fairs, biographies, retrospectives, and collections are springing up in the name of outsider art. Insiders are borrowing outsider art for their installations. To take a page from Dr. Seuss, the Star-Belly Sneetches, the insiders who once loved having “stars upon thars,” now gaze on the Plain-Belly Sneetches, the outsiders, with envy. Oh, if only there were a Star-Off Machine!

Instead, the outsiders (or at least their artworks) are being invited into the Star-On Machine. At the Venice Biennale this year, the main art exhibition is titled Il Palazzo Enciclopedico, after a 1950s work by Marino Auriti (1891–1980), a self-taught Italian-born artist who built what the Biennale’s artistic director, Massimiliano Gioni, describes as “an imaginary museum that was meant to house all worldly knowledge … from the wheel to the satellite.”

At the Biennale are more outsiders: James Castle (1899–1977), a deaf and mute artist known for his cardboard-and-string constructions and the pictures he drew with a concoction of saliva and soot; Eugene Von Bruenchenhein (1910–83), a baker who photographed his wife as the pinup star of his own fantasies and built chicken-bone thrones; Arthur Bispo do Rosário (c. 1909–89), a Brazilian famous for what the critic Holland Cotter calls “embroidery-encrusted vestments”; Morton Bartlett (1909–92), a photographer who made lifelike plaster dolls in his spare time; and Achilles Gildo Rizzoli (1896–1981), who slept on a cot at the foot of his mother’s bed and made elaborate architectural renderings of temples dedicated to the people in his life (his mom included), which he labeled with letter codes such as Y.T.T.E., short for “Yield to Total Elation.”

That’s only the tip of the current outsider iceberg. In Washington, D.C., the National Gallery of Art last year acquired a large collection of Castle’s works, including a string-bound matchbox crammed with tiny handmade books, drawings on bits of ice-cream cartons, and many rip-outs of a comic-strip figure, always in the same pose. In London, the Hayward Gallery presented Alternative Guide to the Universe, featuring such outsiders as Bartlett, Rizzoli, Von Bruenchenhein, and Guo Fengyi. And the Philadelphia Museum of Art recently celebrated a gift of about 200 outsider works from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection with the exhibition Great and Mighty Things, where you could see a choice chunk of the American outsider canon. (Yes, there’s a canon.)

With outsiders so clearly on the inside, you have to wonder whether the concept of outsider art has lost all sense. But if that’s so, then why do some artists still carry the label? Why is there still an Outsider Art Fair (in New York)? An American Visionary Art Museum (in Baltimore)? A curator of art brut and self-taught art (at the American Folk Art Museum)?

From the beginning, the term outsider art has been trouble. One of the contributors to the catalog for Great and Mighty Things, Lynne Cooke, writes, “From all quarters—theoretical, institutional, and museological—apologies regularly attend usage of the term.” Every so often, someone tries to change the name, playing up or down one quality or another—art of the insane, art brut, visionary art, self-taught art. But outsider art, coined in 1972 as a recasting of Jean Dubuffet’s term art brut, is the name that has stuck.

Maybe it’s not such a bad thing. After all, outsider does have a nice little paradox embedded in it: for an artist to be considered an outsider, he or she must first be brought inside the professional art world by an insider. In other words, everyone the art world considers an outsider is de facto an insider. The standard outsider biography thus includes not only a traumatic (typically motherless) childhood, a history of institutionalization (orphanage, asylum, prison), a stunted education, a subsistence job, and an intense drive to make art, but also a discovery story, a tale of someone with cultural connections who brings the outsider in.

One of the first big outsiders was the Swiss psychiatric patient and handyman Adolf Wölfli (1864–1930), or as he sometimes called himself, St. Adolf-Great-Great-God. In 1895, Wölfli was locked up in the Waldau Mental Asylum after trying to molest very young girls. There he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and drew compulsively. Drawing calmed him down. Walter Morgenthaler, a psychiatrist, not only supplied Wölfli with colored pencils and paper but became an enthusiastic collector and, in 1921, published a study of his work.

For an artist to be considered an outsider, he or she must first be brought inside the professional art world by an insider.

When Wölfli died, in 1930, he left behind thousands of drawings packed with musical notes and dense patterns of snails, ovals, and mandalas, and he had become something of a curiosity. Carl Jung collected his art (oh, those mandalas!). And Wölfli appeared as case No. 450 in Hans Prinzhorn’s famous 1922 book of psychotic art, Artistry of the Mentally Ill. It was this book that the artist Max Ernst shared with the surrealists in Paris.

But Wölfli’s ascension from madman to artist was largely the work of Dubuffet (1901–85). In the 1940s, Dubuffet, who learned of Wölfli during a trip to Switzerland, began collecting the works of outcast and insane artists under the label art brut, or “raw art,” and formed an organization (whose members included André Breton, Albert Camus, Jean Cocteau, Paul Éluard, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Tristan Tzara) to protect and collect this art.

Tellingly, Dubuffet, the kingmaker of outsiders, could be pretty picky about whom he let in. As Daniel Sherman notes in French Primitivism and the Ends of Empire, 1945–1975, Dubuffet cast the self-taught Gaston Chaissac out of the outsiders group for being too culture-savvy. And though Dubuffet collected children’s drawings, he excluded them from the realm of art brut because he saw children as mimics of adult culture, like “the chameleon and the monkey.”

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