Band of Outsiders

Memory Palaces: Inside the Collection of Audrey B. Heckler

an exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum, New York City, September 17, 2019–January 26, 2020
Untitled; drawing by Martín Ramírez
Collection of Audrey B. Heckler / © Visko Hatfield, courtesy of the Foundation to Promote Self Taught Art and Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.
Martín Ramírez: Untitled, 45 1/2 x 31 inches, circa 1948–1952

There are two stories, one might say, being told at the American Folk Art Museum’s current show “Memory Palaces: Inside the Collection of Audrey B. Heckler.” The first and more clear-cut is that the exhibition gives us a chance to see what must be one of the most discerning and wide-ranging collections of self-taught, or outsider, art in this country. There are top-notch works here by artists of varying degrees of recognition, many of whom were active in the middle and later years of the last century. Some, including Carlo Zinelli, William Hawkins, Adolf Wölfli, Thornton Dial, and Madge Gill, are known to people who follow this art but are not quite household names. There are strong works here as well by artists—such as Christine Sefolosha, Malcolm McKesson, and Edmund Monsiel—whose pictures may come as a welcome surprise to nearly everybody. And there are fine pieces by Bill Traylor and James Castle, and extraordinary ones by Martín Ramírez, who are all becoming widely known.

For some museumgoers, the Mexican-American artist Ramírez, whose sometimes impressively large drawings are generally made up of parallel lines that form mountains and railway tracks, horseback riders and theater-like settings—linear realms that suggest both Art Deco ornamentation and imprisoning situations—may be as beckoning a figure as any mainstream artist of the past few decades. His renown is such that a few years ago the US Postal Service made him the subject of stamps showing a number of his images. With his immediately accessible pictures, Traylor’s audience is probably broader. In his deceptively simple silhouette drawings, based on memories and experiences of his native rural Alabama, fierce animals, adamantly striding men in high hats, and the occasionally wobbly fellow with his bottle have the presence of characters in an epic told entirely in hieroglyphics.

The second and somewhat buried story in “Memory Palaces”—which was preceded by a volume entitled The Hidden Art: 20th- and 21st-Century Self-Taught Artists from the Audrey B. Heckler Collection (2017)—revolves around the nature of the artists we are seeing. They come from notably different places, both geographically and in the kind of work they make. Put simply, the ever-expanding realm of self-taught or outsider artists (or, to use a recently proposed term, outliers), who have been increasingly of interest to art historians, museum curators, and collectors, breaks down into roughly two approaches. On the one hand, there are a number of American and largely southern figures whose pictures and sculptures often appear to have been made quickly and spontaneously. A fair number of these artists became known beginning with an influential 1982 exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington called “Black…


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