Heavily silhouetted and simplified in form, a woman wearing a black A-line skirt and heels points the finger of her bright-blue hand directly into the face of a man wearing a top hat. Outfitted in bright blue, he holds a cane in one hand while a finger of the other points significantly upwards. They float on a background of textured card, their round eyes directing us around the composition. The gestures feel important, resonant, but what’s actually going on? The meaning of Woman Pointing at Man with Cane (c1939‑1942) – as with most of the stylised paintings by Bill Traylor – feels just around the corner.
It is this Traylor work that recently fetched $396,500 in Christie’s Outsider and Vernacular Art auction in January – a record for the artist, and a fine example of the growing market for certain artists who have traditionally been labelled “outsider”. Other recent records include the 2016 sale of a sculpture by African-American artist William Edmondson (1874-1951) for $785,000; several narrative watercolour, ink and graphite works by reclusive hospital janitor Henry Darger (1892-1973) selling around the $700,000 mark; and the November 2018 sale of Holy Mountain, I, 1944, by self-taught African-American artist Horace Pippin (1888-1946), for over $3.2m at Sotheby’s. That’s $2.95m more than his previous auction record, treading well into the price area of the most prized contemporary artists today.
A slippery concept, “outsider” is broadly taken to mean an artist who has no formal art education, and often exists on the margins of society – homeless, hospitalised or self-exiled. The coming of age of outsider art is part of a larger reckoning throughout the canon of 20th-century art history. Once presented as a linear story of mainly white men in Paris and New York one-upping each other in a series of movements, the narrative of modern art is changing. In the past 10 years or so, museums and the market have been expanding their modernist purview to include artists previously overlooked on the basis of race, nationality, gender, education and sophistication. These days, a multitude of less tidy, less easily categorised and, arguably, much more interesting histories of art are coming to the fore.
“A marginalised creator is someone whose position on the periphery was determined by lack of formal art training and questions of race, ethnicity, class, gender and age,” says Lynne Cooke, senior curator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, who updated the term outsider to “outlier” in naming her 2018 exhibition, Outliers and American Vanguard Art. Cooke wooed audiences with her hanging of well-known modern and contemporary artists such as Kara Walker and Cindy Sherman alongside peripheral artists such as Traylor, Forrest Bess, Sister Gertrude Morgan, Horace Pippin, Martín Ramírez and James Castle. The show was revelatory – one of those very rare moments that can really change everything you thought you knew about art. “What gets shown by whom, and on whose authority do we make these decisions… These are pressing questions for anyone making shows today,” says Cooke.
She is not alone in her efforts to reestablish the boundaries of high art. Massimiliano Gioni’s much lauded Venice Biennale in 2013, Il Palazzo Enciclopedico, showed a number of “mystical”, self-taught and otherwise outside-of-the-mainstream artists. Traylor recently had a major retrospective at the Smithsonian American Art Museum; self-taught American artist William Copley (1919-1996) had a show at Milan’s Fondazione Prada in 2016-17. Even Frieze New York – a fair associated with cutting-edge contemporary art – this year hosted an exhibition of self‑taught artists called The Doors of Perception and curated by artist Javier Téllez.
There’s no question that the life stories of outsider/outlier artists read very differently from tales of artists hanging out with peers in cafés, bars, university campuses and other well-worn homes of avant-garde art. Ramírez or Traylor’s lives had little to do with the venerated Picassos or Bauhaus artists of their lifetimes. Born around 1853, Bill Traylor was a slave in the American Deep South who worked on cotton plantations, becoming a labourer and, it is believed, a sharecropper after abolition. When he got too old to work, in his 80s, he moved between the homes of his children (he had about 15) and life on the street.
Traylor began drawing on scraps of cardboard at around the age of 85 while living rough on the streets of Montgomery, Alabama. A young artist called Charles Shannon noticed his talent and supplied him with money and materials, and then kept most of his drawings safe – approximately 1,200 survive, made between 1939 and 1942.
His subjects include roughly drawn people, cows and horses rendered with spiky limbs, mouths and eyes, sometimes featuring top hats or carriages. The figures point, kick or bark instructions, blending past and present and the woes, joys, frustrations and insights of man and beast. For all their “outsider”-ness, the pared-down, stylised aesthetic is in sync with modernist ideals of ignoring art historical tradition. It feels very much of its time.
It was only a few years later in mainstream art history that the CoBrA movement in Europe, with artists such as Karel Appel, called for artists to break with all existing art movements and go back to a more spontaneous, primitive approach. In France, painter/sculptor Jean Dubuffet began building his art brut collection, which profoundly affected his practice. Among the artists he collected was Aloïse Corbaz (1886-1964), a governess at the court of Kaiser Wilhelm II in Potsdam. She became infatuated with the emperor and made intense paintings of her fantasised love affairs, with embracing couples and courtly scenes. Her work Aristoloches sold for a record $137,500 at auction in 2018.
An artist who featured in both Cooke’s and Téllez’s shows was the aforementioned Mexican migrant Martín Ramírez (1895-1963), who grew up in Tepatitlán, Mexico, where as a young adult he worked as a sharecropper, rode horses, married and had three children. There was a fourth on the way when debt drove him to migrate to the US to find a job. He spoke no English, and ended up on the back-breaking building of the California railroads from 1925. He was then laid off in 1930 in the Great Depression. Homeless, in 1931 he was diagnosed with catatonic schizophrenia and institutionalised. He remained in care for the next 30 years until he died.
Ramírez glued together bits of paper with a paste he made out of bread or potato and spit until he had a large enough surface to draw on. Many of his drawings were thrown away, but in the last 15 years of his life one of his doctors took an interest and roughly 300 drawings survive, some on torn pieces of medical examination-table paper. He repeated similar motifs over and over – men on horseback, trains, cars, Madonnas and more – almost always surrounded by rhythmic architectural lines, blending biographical moments with aspects of his Mexican and American experiences, and occasionally a touch of Hollywood. Reviewing his 2007 show at the American Folk Art Museum, the New York Times’s art critic Roberta Smith declared that Ramírez’s work “should render null and void the insider-outsider distinction… He belongs to the group of accessible, irresistible genius draftsmen that includes Paul Klee, Saul Steinberg and Charles Schulz.” Ramírez’s works sell for $25,000 to $600,000 on the private market.
“Bill Traylor and Martin Ramírez, together with Henry Darger, are almost like old masters of outsider art, they’re becoming so well known and sought after,” says Cara Zimmerman, Christie’s specialist in outsider and folk art. “But there are amazing younger or lesser-known artists too. It’s part of what I love about this field – you can get great works for $400,000 and more, but also for $800.” Among the still-living artists she enthuses about are Domenico Zindato and Leopold Strobl. Zimmerman cites a jump in prices in recent years: “We’re seeing collectors who are established contemporary art buyers now collecting outsider art because they love the work. We’re also seeing collectors from new markets buying. There’s been a lot of growth in Asia. There are some great Henry Darger collectors, for example, in Japan.”
Darger is probably the best-known outsider artist among art-world insiders, and one of the most challenging. His drawings and paintings all tell one epic story, In The Realms of the Unreal, which centres on a group of princesses and their troops of young Catholic girls as they go to war against a monstrous empire, Glandelinia, which is basically devoted to enslaving and murdering children. The girls are sometimes sweetly shown in idyllic landscapes, but also depicted in terrible peril, at the most extreme being strangled, disembowelled or crucified, and all in a style that riffs on children’s book illustrations.
Darger’s life story is instructive to understanding these works. He was born in Chicago. His mother died in childbirth when he was four, and his baby sister was put up for adoption. Until he was eight, Darger lived with his father, who was then moved to a home for the elderly – at which point Darger became a ward of a Catholic boys’ home. When his father died five years later, Darger was diagnosed by the nuns as “feeble-minded” and committed to an asylum. After several attempts to escape, he did so successfully at the age of 17, and worked as a janitor in Catholic hospitals. In 1930, he settled into an apartment on Chicago’s north side, where he would spend the next 43 years as a known recluse who frequently went to mass and occasionally rummaged through bins in his neighbourhood. When, in 1972, he moved into the same home for the elderly that his father died in, his landlord discovered hundreds of old bottles of Pepto-Bismol, balls of string and other detritus, and the 15,145-page In the Realms of the Unreal manuscript, with 300 accompanying panoramic paintings, some of them 10m wide.
Among the other great outsider artists whose works are posthumously revising art history are American Forrest Bess (1911-77), whose work has recently been represented by Modern Art, a leading contemporary art gallery in London (at a recent show three pieces went for $220,000 each). Bess spent more than 20 years on a remote island off the coast of Texas, reading extensively and writing letters, building a theory that joining the masculine and feminine could extend life, culminating in his operating on himself (with the help of alcohol) to try to achieve a hermaphroditic state. Bess’s intensely private language results in beautiful abstract paintings of thick impasto and inventive textures. Also revelatory is the practice of African-American artist Thornton Dial (1928-2016), a metalworker in an Alabama railroad-car factory who made large-scale assemblage sculptures and paintings rife with sociopolitical anxieties. Appreciation for Dial has boomed in the past few years, and his estate has been taken on by the hip New York-based David Lewis gallery. His works now sell for up to $350,000.
Should we look at these artists the same way we look at the great masters of the 20th century such as, say, Picasso or Jackson Pollock? Lynne Cooke suggests it remains more complex than that. “The way to expand art history is not by adding token examples,” she says, “but by telling different narratives to arrive at a more nuanced multi-vocal history. Such narratives would take into account questions of gender, race, ethnicity and class, in addition to artistic training and cultural context. There are ways of telling history in which each artist has a place.”