Snoeck, 192 pp., $35.00
It is possible that the people who run the American Folk Art Museum have wondered in recent years about the name of their institution. Works by American folk artists make up the majority of its exhibitions, it is true. In the last decade or more, however, the museum has become an invaluable part of New York’s cultural life because it has produced a little stream of full-fledged introductions to figures who are much the opposite of folk artists and frequently are not American. The term “folk art” implies an art for a wide, popular, and perhaps not overly discriminating audience—ingenious and lovely as folk-art creations can be. But the day has passed when this kind of work, which was at its most vibrant in the early decades of the nineteenth century, was crowded with figures waiting to be discovered.
In this gaping situation the museum has informally reinvented itself with occasional explorations of what have been called outsider artists. They are sometimes confused with folk artists in that their work also has little or no connection with professional art-making. Yet in their creations (and their persons) they present the underside of the demotic, folk ethos. In no way a movement, they give us instead highly idiosyncratic, often confounding experiences. Folk artists in their work tend not to invite us into their private lives. We almost assume that they do not have private lives. Outsider art, which is frequently made by people who have spent their days as isolates, or have suffered mental or physical impairment and need to be cared for in assisted conditions, can seem like nothing but an immersion in the private.
The Folk Art Museum has given us definitive shows of such masters of the private as Martín Ramírez, Henry Darger, and Adolf Wölfli.* Two years ago, to take another significant example, there was an overdue examination of Jean Dubuffet’s pioneering project, begun in the 1940s, of collecting the work of these artists, which he called “art brut.” And recently the museum again expanded our sense of outsider art—a term that the curators there seem to use sparingly, preferring “self-taught art and art brut”—with separate but concurrent shows of Eugen Gabritschevsky (1893–1979) and Carlo Zinelli (1916–1974).
These were first-ever retrospectives in the States for these artists, though Zinelli, who spent a fair amount of his adult life in a psychiatric hospital in Verona, may be an almost-familiar figure for some New York gallery-goers. His good-size works on paper, which show silhouette-flat figures, abstract shapes, and passages of writing lined up in loose formations—and which please us in the seemingly spontaneous yet rhythmic ways they are parked here and there—often seem to be on hand at art fairs. One remembers regularly finding them at the…
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