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From Curiosity to Institution: The Outsider Art Fair at 25

The 2017 edition of New York’s Outsider Art Fair will mark the 25th anniversary of what has become one of the international art market’s most distinctive, lively, and sometimes contentious forums for the presentation of often label-defying forms of artistic expression.

The image that became the cover of the Sufjan Stevens album “The Age of Adz” (2010): “Prophet” Royal Robertson, The Day the Earth Stood Stell, circa early 1980s, enamel paint, marker and glitter on poster board, 28 x 22 inches (photo courtesy of Shrine)

Sanford L. Smith, who is known to the art world as “Sandy,” recalls exactly when he and his team of special-events producers, who had made their collective name organizing successful, theme-specific art fairs, decided to develop one dedicated to the then still emerging, outsider-art category. “Momentum in this field had reached critical mass,” Smith told me, recalling that the Outsider Art Fair, which his company, Sanford L. Smith + Associates, first presented in 1993, was an outgrowth of its popular Fall Antiques Show. That event had been the first all-American antiques fair of its kind, featuring works by folk and self-taught artists among more traditional offerings. “It was Caroline Kerrigan and Colin Smith who came to me with the idea to create a completely separate fair to recognize the growing outsider-art market. I wondered: ‘Would it succeed?’ Well, they put it together, and we ran with it.”

Smith’s firm produced the fair for 20 years before selling it to Wide Open Arts, a newer New York-based company formed by the art dealer Andrew Edlin, which has presented it since 2013 (and launched a smaller, sister event, the Outsider Art Fair Paris, in October of that same year). Next week, the 2017 edition of New York’s OAF will mark the 25th anniversary of what has become one of the international art market’s most distinctive, lively, and sometimes contentious forums for the presentation of often label-defying forms of artistic expression.

Leopold Strobl, Untitled, 2015, graphite and colored pencils on newsprint cut and mounted on paper, 1.7 x 3.9 inches (photo courtesy of Ricco/Maresca Gallery)

This 25th-anniversary edition of the Outsider Art Fair comes at a time when many players in the so-called mainstream art world — meaning dealers, curators, critics, collectors, fans and assorted other supporters, producers or purveyors of contemporary art — have enthusiastically embraced the work and creative sensibilities of art-makers who once found or still find themselves on the margins of conventional society and culture, either by force of circumstances or by choice.

Meanwhile, positioning oneself as an “outsider,” even if only in aesthetic solidarity with truly marginalized art-makers — those who often face serious economic or health-related challenges and hardships, that is — has become something of a career-enhancing option for some more privileged, academically trained, “professional” mainstream artists. But that’s another story…

J. J. Cromer, Untitled Structures 40, 2016, ink and colored pencil on vintage calligraphy paper, 8 x 6.75 inches (photo courtesy of American Primitive Gallery)

John Ollman, the owner of Philadelphia’s Fleisher/Ollman Gallery, notes, “When the OAF started, it was still difficult to get serious critical and institutional attention paid to this [kind of art]. Now it seems that the lines are so blurred across contemporary, modern, and self-taught art that the categories themselves are almost irrelevant.”

The permeability of art-market categories between outsider art and “mainstream art” or, put another way, of outsider art and whatever lies “inside” a market-privileged “center,” is one of the themes that will mark this year’s fair. So is a sense of history — that of the fair itself and that of the combined field of research and collecting it represents and celebrates.

Foma Jaremtschuk, Untitled, circa 1950, ink on found paper, 12 x 18 inches (photo courtesy of Henry Boxer Gallery)

With this in mind, the attention of some longtime outsider-art aficionados may turn to nine of the galleries that first participated in the OAF all those years ago — and which continue to prove that there are still great finds to be had in a field that sometimes seems to have been picked clean of significant, new discoveries. These galleries, all of which have helped develop a market for the works of self-taught artists, often also provide opportunities to revisit and think anew about the innovations and accomplishments even of those who are already well known.

Minnie Evans, Untitled (decorated head), circa 1940, graphite and crayon on paper, 7.25 x 5 inches (photo courtesy of Luise Ross Gallery)

So it is that New York’s Luise Ross Gallery will offer, among other works, a selection of boldly colored, psychedelic-feeling drawings by Minnie Evans (1892-1987), a presentation that will serve as a teaser for the comprehensive Evans survey now on view at its Chelsea location (through February 25). As a child, Evans, who was brought up by her grandmother in North Carolina, experienced hallucinations. Instructed by an inner voice to “draw or die,” she began making art when she was in her early forties. Often symmetrical, her compositions boast flowing, florid forms and biblical references. “Self-taught, motivated to create her art for deeply personal reasons, a visionary — Evans is emblematic of what this field is all about,” observed the dealer Luise Ross, who has played a notable role in bringing to market the work of such now-canonical American outsiders as Evans and William (“Bill”) Traylor (c. 1954-1949).

Albert Zahn, Family Tree, circa 1925-50, painted wood, 48 x 30 x 24 inches (photo courtesy of Carl Hammer Gallery)

Also among the “Original OAF Nine,” Carl Hammer will showcase painted, carved-wood sculptures by Albert Zahn (1864-1953). A veteran, Chicago-based dealer, Hammer recalls stumbling into Zahn’s “Birds Park” in the mid-1970s; that indoor/outdoor environmental work in eastern Wisconsin was “chockablock full of bird carvings, sea captains, deer carvings and more; there, Zahn had created an alternative world.” Hammer’s encounter with it, he notes, “revolutionized the direction in which my collecting eye would take me.”

The London-based dealer Henry Boxer, like his New York counterparts Shari Cavin and Randall Morris of Cavin-Morris Gallery and Roger Ricco and Frank Maresca of Ricco/Maresca, is known for surprising audiences with his finds. (It was Boxer who years ago first presented the mixed-media drawings of the American savant George Widener, which visualize complex, date-related calculations linked to human-caused or natural disasters.) This year, Boxer’s line-up will include hallucinatory, ink-on-paper drawings by Foma Jaremtschuk (1907-1986), a Siberian villager who was sent to a Stalinist labor camp for criticizing the Soviet Union and, later, after being diagnosed as mentally ill, to a psychiatric hospital. There, through the early 1960s, he produced hundreds of bizarre images of insect-humans cavorting with or devouring each other, often rendered in cross-section or with ribbons flowing out of unusual orifices. Boxer will also show an OAF first — stained-glass works. Their creator: the Scottish artist and singer Pinkie Maclure, who recasts people and episodes from her hardscrabble, personal past in settings that are as stately as they are, inevitably, luminous.

Pinkie Maclure, Collectors, 2014, stained glass, 19 x 21 inches (photo courtesy of Henry Boxer Gallery)

Looking forward to what he expects will be an “anything-goes” fair, dealer Randall Morris said, “It could be thrilling and dangerous at the same time — thrilling in that surprises will surely abound, and dangerous in that we seem to have circled back to a certain chaos in the field. You can’t assume that just because an artist’s work is at the fair, it will be real art brut. This reflects what is going on in the field at large. So collectors, dealers and curators need to be informed and conscientiously develop criteria for determining real quality.”

Davood Koochaki, Three Figures, circa 2015, graphite on paper, 27.56 x 39.37 inches (photo courtesy of Cavin-Morris Gallery)

Just as they did at the first OAF in 1993, Cavin and Morris will show some of the colorful drawings, filled with organic shapes, the Cezch artist Anna Zemánková (1908-1986) routinely made while in a trance-like state. (Highly respected in the art brut/outsider art field, Zemánková’s work will be the subject of an exhibition opening at the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland, in June.) Cavin-Morris will also feature some new finds: big, exuberant, mixed-media-on-paper pictures by France’s Caroline Demangel (born 1982), whose lumbering, Picasso-meets-Basquiat figures, the artist has noted, are part of “the hatching [of] something buried I am still exploring”; and ambiguously human creatures drawn in pencil on paper by the Iranian Davood Koochaki (born 1939), in whose fuzzy forms smaller ones nestle, like bugs caught in shaggy fur.

Caroline Demangel, Le dragon de Wimbledon, 2016, mixed media on paper, 51.57 x 79.53 inches (photo courtesy of Cavin-Morris Gallery)

Ricco/Maresca, which in recent years has presented vernacular photographs and Mexican pulp-paperback cover art at its Chelsea location, will include the sometimes mystifyingly, semi-abstract drawings in pencil and colored pencil on paper of the Austrian Leopold Strobl, an artist associated with Galerie Gugging, a component of the Art Brut Center Gugging, near Vienna. Ricco/Maresca’s and Galerie Gugging’s side-by-side booths will share a common space devoted to a mini-exhibition of Strobl’s works. Meanwhile, on the margins of the fair, Ricco/Maresca co-founder Frank Maresca has guest-curated the exhibition Known/Unknown: Private Obsession and Hidden Desire in Outsider Art at the Museum of Sex (opening January 19). There, among an array of self-taught artists’ essays in erotica and titillation, surreptitiously snapped photos of women made with handmade cameras by the Czech Miroslav Tichý (1926-2011) will reek of voyeurism and a peculiar — or creepy-desperate? — kind of yearning.

Miroslav Tichý, Untitlted, date unknown, mixed media on photograph on cardboard, from the Museum of Sex exhibition “Known/Unknown: Private Obsession and Hidden Desire in Outsider Art” (photo courtesy of Delmes & Zander)

More to look out for from the Original OAF Nine: Philadelphia’s Fleisher/Ollman Gallery, which several years ago brought the world the meticulously crafted, cigar-wrapper collages of the Cuban-American Felipe Jesús Consalvos (1891-c. 1960), will present, among other works, a debut selection of abstract, marker-on-paper images by Jenny Cox, in which cell-like clusters formed by what look like comic-book text balloons seem to shimmy through each drawing’s pictorial space. Dealer Aarne Anton of New York’s American Primitive Gallery will show recent colored-pencil drawings on vintage calligraphy paper by the Virginia-based artist J. J. Cromer, whose dense compositions in the past have touched upon such themes as war, racism and technology. His newer works bring to mind ancient parchments covered with symbol-rich, indecipherable writing.

Jenny Cox,Tip Honey, date unknown, marker ink on paper, 11.5 x 17.375 inches (photo courtesy of the artist, Fleisher/Ollman Gallery and the Center for Creative Works)

The New York dealer Marion Harris, who in the early 1990s introduced Morton Bartlett’s finely crafted, psychosexually charged doll sculptures depicting young girls — think Lolita in miniature and in plaster — will show some of this artist’s related, black-and-white photographs, as well as ceramic-critter sculptures by the Canadian Jordan Maclachlan, who long ago became fascinated with animals. As a child, with her parents’ permission, she “walked” on all fours and ate food from a dish on the floor.

Jordan Maclachlan, Three Pigs, 2016, terracotta and paint, 12 x 8 inches (photo courtesy of Marion Harris Gallery)

From Louisiana, Gilley’s Gallery will feature paintings by the Southern regional icon, Clementine Hunter (1986-1988), along with pictures and word paintings by the self-styled “prophet,” Royal Robertson (1936-1997), some of which depict his futuristic visions. Others offer stinging comments about his ex-wife, who left him after almost 20 years of marriage, taking their eleven children with her. Downtown Manhattan gallery Shrine will feature an in-depth survey of Robertson’s paintings, including the iconic work that became an inspiration for and the cover image of musician Sufjan Stevens’ album, The Age of Adz (Asthmatic Kitty, 2010). That record’s entire graphic-design scheme made use of Robertson’s art.

Kazumi Kamae, Masato, Enjoying Fireworks with Me, 2014, fired clay, 10.75 x 13 x 10 inches (photo courtesy of Yukiko Koide Presents)

Both foreign and, like Shrine, newer OAF participants continue to bring the event the valuable, international chic and hipster cred that have influenced its character. Now, more than ever, its boundary-blurring, label-confounding vibe — what’s really “outsider,” and what really isn’t? — provokes an unmistakable frisson that is part of its allure. From Tokyo, Yukiko Koide’s offerings will include Momoka Imura’s ever more obsessive, fabric-blob objets covered with crusts of plastic buttons and Kazumi Kamae’s powerfully expressive, unglazed ceramic sculptures, which romantically honor the director of the disabled persons’ workshop where she creates her art. She immortalizes her crush on him in clay.

Daniel Swanigan Snow, Cinema Verde, 2016, mixed media, variable dimensions (photo courtesy of Cathouse Proper)

The cheeky Brooklyn outpost Cathouse Proper (an outgrowth of the now-closed Cathouse FUNeral) will show new works by the B-movie and Shakespearean actor Daniel Swanigan Snow, whose mixed-media sculptures often incorporate electric lights. From Texas, Webb Gallery will feature one of the biggest discoveries in recent years from the American Southwest — psychologically charged, mixed-media drawings by North Carolina-born Moshe Zephaniah Ezekiel Isaiah Mordecai Baronestrevenakowske, who is simply known, mercifully, as “Moshe.”

This elderly artist’s real name was James Brown; he legally changed it years ago. Moshe’s oeuvre was saved last year in Denver just before it landed in a dumpster. It was spotted by a rescue-mission worker at the artist’s vacated apartment, and a city-government official, who was not sure if the piles of paper had any value, then called an antiques dealer he knew. That reputable businessman, along with dealers Bruce Lee Webb and Julie Webb, have since helped settle the struggling Moshe into a secure residence and conserve and document his art. As much of a loner as this artist has been for much of his life, decades ago he was the onetime romantic partner of the American modernist painter George Tooker (1920-2011).

Moshe, Untitled, date unknown, mixed media on paper, 48 x 18 inches (photo courtesy of Webb Gallery)

Research regarding the scope and themes of Moshe’s work is under way. Julie Webb said, “It seems that the U.S. Southwest, or what we refer to as the ‘Borderlands,’ is a region that is still ripe for new finds of expressive artwork, perhaps due to the fact that it’s a place of real and conceptual borders. Maybe Moshe recognized this; he gave up urban California for the isolation of the Southwest, where he created his extremely emotional and elegant art.”

Obsessive attention to detail is a hallmark of many a self-taught art-maker’s creations. It’s evident in the elaborately patterned drawings in colored ink on handmade, Oaxacan paper by the Mexico-based, Italian artist Domenico Zindato. Several of them from his new suite, 31 (2014-16), will be on view at Andrew Edlin Gallery’s booth. “My compositions are never planned; they just grow and grow,” Zindato told me by telephone from his home in Cuernavaca. “Eventually I had thirty-one drawings, and they naturally fit together, creating a new energy together, as a whole.” The artist has made a limited edition of high-quality, digital-print facsimiles of his boldly colored image suite; each set comes packaged in a linen-covered box handcrafted by the Mexico City book artist Yazmín Hidalgo.

This year’s 2017 OAF will also commemorate its own history with The Outsider Art Fair: 25 Years, an exhibition which, as a specialist in the field, I was invited to curate. This survey will feature one work from previous fairs to represent each year of the OAF’s run, up to today. A highlight: Satan Takes Over/The Beast Out Of The Sea (c. 1978-85), a double-sided painting on Masonite, inspired by the Bible’s Book of Revelations, by the American artist Myrtice West (1923-2010).

Artist Domenico Zindato (left) with drawings from his boxed suite, “31,” and, at right, the complete series of related works on display at Nixon, an art space in Mexico City, late last summer (photo, left, by Edward M. Gómez; photo, right, courtesy of Domenico Zindato)

For all the diverse offerings this year’s fair will have in store, something — or rather someone — will be missing. That is the presence of the now-retired dealer Phyllis Kind, who once had galleries in Chicago and New York. She closed her Manhattan venue in late 2009, by which time she had become recognized as a doyenne of the outsider-art sector and, along with her colleagues among the Original OAF Nine, one of the key figures in the development of its market. Last week, by telephone from her home in San Francisco, she recalled, “To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure about the idea of a special fair for this art when Sandy first told me about it. Would there be an audience? Would people buy? Would it have legs?”

Kind let loose a rumbling chuckle and added, in the gravelly voice many an OAF visitor still remembers, “But it wasn’t long before I realized the Outsider Art Fair had become a damned good show!”

The 2017 Outsider Art Fair (Metropolitan Pavilion, 125 West 18th Street, Chelsea) will be open to the public from January 20 through January 22. A vernissage will take place on January 19 from 6 to 9pm.

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