Top 10 Things to Know About Outsider Art
1. Outsider art is a term used to designate art that is created by those on the margins of society, including those with mental illnesses, recluses, artists motivated by religious or spiritual visions, and naïve artists who are untrained and may have developed their own unique tools or methods. The term was coined to correspond to art brut, which was coined by French artist Jean Dubuffet in the mid-20th century to describe art made by children and patients of psychiatric hospitals whose aesthetic influenced his own work.
2. In recent years, so-called “outsider” art has been increasingly embraced by the mainstream art world, selling at art fairs, and making its way into museum collections.
3. Many outsider artists suffer from some form of mental illness or severe neurosis. There is evidence that mental illness is often correlated with high levels of artistic creativity. Most are familiar with the notion of the tortured artist, struggling to realize his vision in a world that doesn’t understand him. Beethoven, Virginia Woolf, Jimi Hendrix, and Ernest Hemingway have been said to have suffered from what we would now call bipolar disorder. Psychotic or schizophrenic individuals may undertake massive creative endeavors as a sole means of expressing their thoughts and feelings, or as a method of working through past traumas. Individuals who are in some way socially or mentally limited (such as individuals with certain types of autism or Down syndrome), may find that they are able to overcome those limitations through artistic means. Proponents of outsider and self-taught artists recognize the power that such marginalized individuals have, namely, to show the world in a way that no one else could have done.
4. Outsider art is often equated with folk art because artists in both groups operate outside of the aesthetic expectations of mainstream art academies and art market. In general, folk artists are working in the vein of established local traditions, and folk art tends to be more utilitarian or decorative than most fine art, or “high” art. Examples of folk art might include quilts, woodwork, art by indigenous groups, and religious icons. As both folk art and outsider art exhibit a “rough” or “naive” aesthetic, there is no hard line between the two terms. In general, however, the term “outsider” is reserved for artists at the margins of society, working without direct reference to an identifiable tradition, drawing inspiration instead from inner visions or fantasies.
5. Atlanta’s High Museum distinguishes itself as “the first general museum in North America to have a full-time curator devoted to folk and self-taught art”. Their Folk Art collection focuses primarily on self-taught artists from the American South, and includes work by Henry Darger, Nellie Mae Rowe, Martin Ramirez, Thornton Dial, Bill Traylor, and Reverend Howard Finster, among many others.
6. One of the best-known outsider artists was Henry Darger. Born in Chicago at the end of the 19th century, Darger was a recluse and eccentric with few acquaintances or friends. His masterwork is an epic illustrated fantasy novel of over 15,000 pages entitled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Sorm Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion (often shortened to In the Realms of the Unreal). Darger worked on this text over a period of six decades, using children’s coloring book pages to create his watercolor illustrations, and telling his tale of the titular Vivian girls, and their escape from slavery and torture into an escalating war with their oppressors, the Glandelinians. Darger’s work was discovered near the end of his life in 1973, and it’s artistic merit was quickly recognized. His aesthetic, and the Vivian girl characters have gone on to influence numerous musicians and artists, and his artwork sells for upwards of $750,000.
7. Bill Traylor is a perfect example of a self-taught artist whose work slowly made its way into the mainstream. Born a slave in Alabama in 1854, he spent the majority of his life as a free sharecropper, and did not begin to make art until the age of 85, when he picked up a piece of cardboard and began drawing what he saw. Traylor’s simplified drawings of Southern people and culture have reached an iconic status in the American art canon, and have been exhibited in a number of American museums. Some of his works feature prominently in the debut exhibition for the Whitney Museum’s new building.
8. Adolf Wölfli was a Swiss artist who spent much of his life in the Waldau Clinic, a psychiatric hospital in Bern, Switzerland for psychosis accompanied with hallucinations. At the age of 35, some years after being committed to the clinic, Wölfli spontaneously began to draw what became a massive illustrated narrative of over 25,000 pages, all created during his time in the hospital. The subject of his work is a fantastical reimagining of Wölfli’s own life, From the Cradle to the Grave. His writings are accompanied with elaborate drawings, calculations, and musical notation. Wölfli is noted among the first arts associated with the label ar brut and Jean Dubuffet counted many of Wölfli’s works among his own collection. More recently, various composers have undertaken projects to transcribe, perform, and record Wölfli’s musical works.
9. Thortonton Dial was born in rural Alabama in 1928. From childhood on, he has created works with whatever materials he could find, recycling tin cans, coat hangers, plant roots, and other refuse which he uses to create assemblages that address a wide range of American sociopolitical issues. His work has been compared favorably to such canonized artists as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. As an African-American artist with no formal training, he has struggled to shake the outsider art label, and have his works included alongside his contemporaries in major museums. Dial is represented by the Bill Lowe Gallery and the Andrew Edlin Gallery, and his work is currently included in Atlanta’s High Museum; Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the American Folk Art Museum, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC.
10. Judith Scott was an American fiber artist who lived from 1943 to 2005. She was born deaf and mute, and with Down syndrome. Scott spent much of her life in an Ohio state hospital where she was determined to be “ineducable”, largely because her caretakers did not realize that she was deaf, and believed her to be profoundly disabled. In 1987, her fraternal twin, Joyce, obtained custody of Judith and she was enrolled in classes at the Creative Growth Art Center, where she quickly distinguished herself as a fiber artist with a strikingly unique technique and aesthetic, taking found objects and wrapping them in carefully selected colored yarns. Currently, her work sells for upwards of $15,000 and is held in the permanent collections of a number of international museums for outsider and self-taught art.
Featured Image: Henry Darger, At Jullo Callio via Norma They are captured by the Glandelinians, mid-20th century American Folk Art Museum, museum purchase © Kiyoko Lerner