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.”

In the U.S., outsider art had a different trajectory. Ground zero wasn’t the psychiatric wards, but rather the South. One of the first American self-taught artists to reach star status was William Edmondson (1874–1951), the son of former slaves, who, after losing his job as a hospital orderly in Nashville, had a vision that set him on his course: “I was out in the driveway with some old pieces of stone when I heard a voice telling me to pick up my tools and start to work on a tombstone,” he recalled. “I looked up in the sky and right there in the noon daylight He hung a tombstone out for me to make.”

Like Wölfli, Edmondson was lifted into the world of high art by a chain of insiders—in his case, a Vanderbilt professor named Sidney Hirsch, the photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe, and finally Alfred H. Barr Jr. of the Museum of Modern Art, which gave Edmondson a solo show, the first there for an African American artist, in 1937. Edmondson’s ascent was unusually quick.

More typical was the slow rise of Bill Traylor (c. 1854–1949), whose spare, off-center drawings of humans, animals, and “Exciting Events” on scraps of used cardboard are now outsider classics. (The American Folk Art Museum currently has two shows devoted to him.) Traylor, also the son of slaves, had a long trip (mostly after his death) to the pantheon. In 1939, when he was an old man drawing on the streets of Montgomery, Alabama, he met Charles Shannon, an artist six decades younger. Shannon was enthralled with Traylor’s ways: “He never agonized over his work … He was very serene. He rarely erased.”

Shannon did his best to get Traylor national recognition. But it didn’t come until long after Traylor died. In 1982, Traylor was featured in the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s landmark exhibition Black Folk Art in America: 1930–1980, organized by Jane Livingston and John Beardsley, which also included Sam Doyle, David Butler, and Sister Gertrude Morgan.

This was the birth of the American self-taught canon, launching the fortunes of 20 outsider artists. The funny thing was, many of these artists were already well-known figures in their own towns—hardly outsiders, as Livingston observed. If they had been, she said, “we would never have found them.” (Which raises a conundrum: if an outsider paints in the forest and no one sees him … )

You may be wondering why Henry Darger, the most famous outsider of all, has hardly been mentioned. In 1973, Darger died, leaving behind in his cramped room his illustrated magnum opus, The Story of the Vivian Girls, along with bottles of Pepto-Bismol, balls of string, coloring books, ads featuring the Coppertone girl, and his daily weather logs.

Forty years later, Darger is the uncontested poster boy for outsider art. The American Folk Art Museum has a study center devoted to him and has presented numerous shows, including one titled Dargerism, about his influence on other artists. MoMA PS1 had a show comparing Darger with Francisco de Goya and with the contemporary artists Jake and Dinos Chapman. A biography by Jim Elledge, Henry Darger, Throw-Away Boy: The Tragic Life of an Outsider Artist, has just been published. But Darger isn’t in the Biennale. Nor was he in Great and Mighty Things. Or in the Hayward show. Is Darger in danger of being ejected from the outsider circle for being too much of an insider?

So here we are in the present, which you might call an inside-out moment. Some outsiders are being sidelined. Others are being welcomed into the best museums and fairs. Still others are being rescued from their outsider label. The critic Jerry Saltz, for instance, described the Mexican-born artist Martín Ramírez (1895–1963), who was incarcerated in mental institutions for decades, as “the 20th-century Fra Angelico,” ranking him “among the greatest artists of the 20th century, along with three other so-called ‘outsiders,’ Adolf Wölfli, Henry Darger, and Bill Traylor.” Notice the mocking quotes around outsiders.

Yet the label endures. And a number of insider artists are inching closer toward outsider modes. The artist Sarah Sze, who was chosen to present her work in the United States Pavilion at this year’s Biennale, created Triple Point, a set of “environments” that include faux rocks and ivy, a sleeping bag, espresso cups, bags of sand, ladders, paint cans, lamps, and branches. And the traveling exhibition Rosemarie Trockel: A Cosmos (part of which is in the Biennale) features not only the German artist Trockel’s own wool paintings and book drafts, but also the works of self-taught artists—paper birds by James Castle; cocoons of yarn by Judith Scott (born deaf and with Down syndrome); lifelike dolls created by Morton Bartlett; and tiny encyclopedias crafted by Manuel Montalvo. The catalog describes Trockel’s art process as “gathering and gleaning,” which is a very outsidery thing to do.

How to make sense of this craze? The critic and Stanford professor Terry Castle, writing in the London Review of Books, outlines two distinct outsider modes—the minimalist one, an “austere and evacuated style” (Traylor, for example), and the “paranoid or maximalist” style, in which the artist displays a “manic compulsion to fill every inch” of paper or space.

It’s the cramming urge, the “horror vacui” style, that dominates and that also seems to attract insider artists. Think of Wölfli, Ramírez, Darger. Or think of the sculptor Emery Blagdon (1907–86), who kept adding paintings and the gemlike wire objects he called “pretties” to his Healing Machine—the vast apparatus he created to ward off disease.

These outsiders hoard, arrange, add, and elaborate endlessly, virtually engulfing themselves in a sea of objects and markings that have meaning for them. They make the world their oyster, their palace. Each page, painting, or structure they create is but a part of their lifework.

What’s powerful about this kind of grandiose vision—or mission, or paradise, or machine—is that it can’t be easily interrupted or ruined. Look at a single decorated toilet-paper tube or a painted sign taken from the Everlasting Gospel Mission of Sister Gertrude Morgan (1900–80), and you can still see the intensity of her vision. Remove a few “pretties” from Blagdon’s Healing Machine or hang a few strands of it in an exhibit (as the Philadelphia Museum of Art did), and you can still make out the grand obsession.

While thinking about outsider art, I kept flashing back to Claes Oldenburg’s Ray Gun Wing (his collection of toy ray-guns and natural objects that resemble them), recently shown at MoMA. Here Oldenburg breaks down the boundaries between finding and making, collecting and curating, nature and commerce, obsessiveness and humor, garbage and art—much as outsiders do.

This was an attitude that was contemporary once upon a time—the idea that art can be ephemeral, funny, cheap, dirty, chancy, trashy. As Oldenburg once said, “I’d like to get away from the notion of a work of art as something outside of experience, something that is located in museums, something that is terribly precious.” Of course, he failed at that, spectacularly. It seems that everything called art, even some outsider art, is now precious, and pricey.

There’s something about the outsider artist that still eludes insiders, still makes the outsider an ideal, a model, a stigma, a fate to be feared. Or envied. And that something, I think, is the outsider’s strange mix of compulsion and nonchalance. Simon Rodia (1879–1965), an Italian immigrant, working alone with window-washing tools, constructed the 17 structures known as the Watts Towers on his own property in California with pipes and rods, wire mesh and mortar, tile and glass, bed frames and seashells. It took him roughly three decades. Soon after he was done, he left the property, never to return. Henry Darger, who must have spent practically every waking hour on The Story of the Vivian Girls, said to his neighbor shortly before he died, “Throw it all away.” And when the artist known as the Pope of Montreal lost his vast installation of hats in a fire, he told an admirer simply, “Well, that’s sad, but I will do it again.”

Art credits, clockwise from top left: Runaway Goat Cart by Bill Traylor, c. 1939–42 (Will Brown/Philadelphia Museum of Art); 53 At Jennie Richee Assuming nuded appearance by compulsion race ahead of coming storm to warn their father by Henry Darger, mid-20th century (James Prinz/American Folk Art Museum); Untitled by Bill Traylor, c. 1939–42 (Mike Jensen/High Museum of Art); Chicken Bone Throne by Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, date unknown (Will Brown/Philadelphia Museum of Art); Untitled by Martín Ramírez, c. 1953 (Gavin Ashworth/American Folk Art Museum); Gray Door by James Castle, date unknown (Philadelphia Museum of Art)