In Their Own Worlds

Outliers and American Vanguard Art

an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., January 28–May 13, 2018; the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, June 24–September 30, 2018; and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, November 18, 2018–March 18, 2019
Catalog of the exhibition by Lynne Cooke and others
National Gallery of Art/University of Chicago Press, 396 pp., $65.00; $39.95 (paper)
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
William H. Johnson: Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, 28 5/8 x 26 1/2 inches, circa 1944

In recent decades, a tale unfolding within the larger story of contemporary art has been our gradually learning more about, and our trying to place, outsider artists. Problems begin at once, with the label. It is a description that many remain ambivalent about, and often believe should be put in quotation marks, to indicate its tentativeness. The situation somewhat echoes the moment, beginning in the 1920s and 1930s, when folk art was first being taken out of attics and looked at anew, and commentators were not sure whether that term—or the labels “self-taught,” “naive,” or “primitive,” among others—was the appropriate one or would merely suffice. “Self-taught,” though imprecise in its way—it has been said, for example, that most of the significant painters of the nineteenth century were essentially self-trained—has remained interchangeable with “folk art” for many commentators. It is sometimes used interchangeably with “outsider,” too. It strikes far less the note of a judgment from above.

Yet “outsider” catches better the quality often evident in the work of such creators of being a surprising, or possibly strange, one-of-a-kind accomplishment. Put roughly, an outsider artist is a figure who makes a body of work while operating in relative isolation, unaware of, or indifferent to, developments in the work of professional artists—though this isn’t always the case and it doesn’t mean that such a person is unaware of being an artist. Nor should it suggest that an outsider artist is a sporadic creator. Many are mightily prolific.

An outsider artist might be someone who resolutely, and perhaps eccentrically, wants to live and work only on her or his terms. An outsider artist might be someone who has been institutionalized, or who suffers some physical impairment, which keeps the person at a remove from others. But an outsider artist, as the term has evolved, might as easily be someone whose daily experience—as, say, a black person in the South—has kept that person from having any real contact with the larger culture beyond his or her immediate community.

Outsider art is largely a phenomenon of the last century (as the richest examples of folk art date to the first half of the nineteenth century), and at this point there are numbers of such creators whose accomplishments we look at with love and admiration. Simply to give a sense of the range of such figures I would mention Bill Traylor, who was born a slave and was discovered in 1939 working out of a booth on a street in Montgomery, Alabama. His gift was for finding the most precise and elegant way to place his silhouette-flat human and animal figures on otherwise empty pages. Twisting, running, growling, and gesticulating, his characters, although not part of some larger atmosphere, seem nevertheless to…

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