Monday, October 6, 2014

Everyday Geniuses at the Art League

Robert Boyd

One of a Kind at the Art League

When it rains, it pours. First there was Kindred Spirits at the Art Car Museum. Now there is One of a Kind: Artwork from the Collection of Stephanie Smither at the Art League. Both are shows of self-taught artists. This is a type of artwork that is quite dear to me, and it my review of Kindred Spirits, I proposed a theory that this kind of artwork didn't "become art" until "discovered" by someone who has enough artworld credibility to declare it to be art. This theory was received with the vast indifference that it probably deserves, but as I was researching some of the artists in Kindred Spirits, I came across mention of Everyday Genius: Self-Taught Art and the Culture of Authenticity (2004) by Gary Alan Fine. Fine looks at the world of folk/outsider/self-taught art from the point of view of a sociologist. This is a potentially fruitful way to look at art--Pierre Bourdieu and Howard Becker both famously studied the art world (indeed, their studies helped to define the "art world"), and both men's work is referenced by Fine in Everyday Genius. And Fine does deal with what happens when a hitherto isolated self-taught artist comes into contact with a representative of an artworld.

Writing about art often comes from two poles as identified in the Raphael Rubinstein-edited book Critical Mess as bellelettrist and theory-derived. The former writers are poets and literary writers with an interest in visual art--think Baudelaire or John Ashbery--and the latter are those more heavily influenced by philosophy--think Clement Greenberg and Rosalind Krauss. But there are other schools of art writing that in many ways I find more appealing. There are journalistic writers--Robert Hughes and Jerry Saltz for example, and writers who come from the social sciences like those mentioned earlier, as well as sociologist Sarah Thornton and economist Don Thompson. My preference is for the latter two types--journalists and social scientists--because they tend to deal with art as a class of people and objects and activities that exist in the real world. This is what Fine does in Everyday Genius. He writes about the artists, of course, but also collectors, the market for this work, the institutions that collect and/or display it, the community that has developed around world of self-taught art, the issue of boundaries (what falls into this category of art and what doesn't?--"boundary-work" being a key concept in sociology, apparently), and the idea of an art world for this kind of art.

Part of creating boundaries for the field deals with what to call the field, and this is contentious. Almost every commonly accepted name for this kind of art is problematic--folk art, art brut, outsider art, naive art, vernacular art, self-taught art, visionary art and some even more obscure terms. When I first became aware of this art in the 1980s, "outsider art" was commonly used, but it has fallen out of favor. But some of the terms, regardless of their problems, remain in use because they have been institutionalized in one way or another--the American Folk Art Museum, Collection de L'Art Brut Laussane, the American Visionary Art Museum, the Outsider Art Fair, etc. Fine chooses "self-taught art" because it seems the most neutral, and I'll follow his lead here.

As I suggested in my review of Kindred Spirits, this is art that has a relationship with the mainstream art world but is not fully congruent. Many, if not most, museums are reluctant to collect this kind of material. While there are "mainstream" galleries that carry this kind of art--the best known was Phyllis Kind Gallery, which closed in 2009 after 42 years in business--many of the galleries that feature the work of self-taught artists look and operate quite differently from the standard white cube (for instance, the Webb Gallery). There are few places where a prospective art historian can study this work, and few places where an expert art historian can teach it. Collectors tend to specialize in it, as we can see in this exhibit. And while some pieces by a small number of artists can reach six figures, the prices for self-taught art are, on average, far lower than that of mainstream contemporary art. Fine doesn't mention it, but lower prices help make it easier in one key respect to collect the work of self-taught artists. But acquiring knowledge about what to collect is harder than it is for mainstream art, so while one barrier drops, another grows higher. (This is equally true of a kind of art I personally collect, original comics art. I am a collector of modest means, but I can easily afford to buy artistically-significant works of comics art because generally this original art is not terribly expensive. On the other hand,  my ability to identify artistically-significant work is the result of a lifetime of critical study of the field.)

Howard K. Finster, A Great Wood Carving Year, 1983, wood carving, 29 x 15 x 3.5 inches

Smither's collection includes work by some of the best known self-taught artists, like Bill Traylor , Howard Finster and Thornton Dial; work by regional (Texas) self-taught artists like Ike Morgan, Rev, Johnnie Swearingen and Frank Jones; and anonymous folk artwork. Without knowing for sure, I am going to assume that this show only represents a portion of her entire collection. (I make this assumption because every collector I know, including myself, is a hoarder at heart.)

Nearly all these artists learned their art more-or-less in isolation from other artists (obviously this is not the case with many kinds of folk artists who learn their art from elder craftsmen--quilters for example). This doesn't mean they were isolated from images--they live in a world where mass culture exists, and they can hardly have avoided coming into contact with movies, magazines, TV, advertising signs, graffiti, etc. But nonetheless, they are profoundly unlike elite artists who get MFAs during which they are immersed in both art history and in current artistic practices.

It is therefore surprising to see how so many works of self-taught artists exhibit certain similarities.

Ben Hotchkiss, untitiled, 1980, colored pencil on paper, 14 x 17 inches

One commonality that we see frequently in Smither's collection is horror vacui--the seeming need for many artists to fill every bit of the surface on which they're drawing or painting. I first noticed this when I saw an exhibit of Adolf Wölfli in 1988, whose extemely dense artworks astonished me. We see it in the work here by Ben Hotchkiss (above), Frederick Harry Kahler, Alan Wayne Bradley (a.k.a. "Haint"), Timothy Wehrle, Winfred Rembert and others.

Frederick Harry Kahler, untitled, ink on illustration board, 26.5 x 14 inches

Frederick Harry Kahler, untitled (detail), ink on illustration board, 26.5 x 14 inches

When I first encountered this tendency to cover the entire surface with a dense skein of marks, I thought it might have something to do with the mental state of the artists. Wölfli was a mental patient when he produced his remarkable body of work, so I thought this might be a symptom of his mental illness. But now I reject such amateur psychoanalysis. There are two other explanations that I think are just as plausible. First, these artists cover ever square centimeter because to do otherwise would be wasteful. And a corollary to that might be that the artists might feel like they aren't giving their viewers their "money's worth" if they don't cover the surface with dense detail. Second, because they haven't received an ordinary art education, they aren't beholden to conventional esthetics that would require that artists give the viewers' clear foregrounds and backgrounds, "balanced" compositions and places to "rest" the eye. When an elite artist like Jackson Pollack broke all these rules, art history saw it as admirable iconoclasm. But with self-taught artists, there are no rules to break in the first place.

Of course, these are just guesses on my part. I find this density of design appealing and something you are much more likely to see in the work of self-taught artists than in the work of a conventionally educated artist.

Alan Wayne Bradley (a.k.a. "Haint"), untitled, mixed media collage, 15 x 38 inches

Frederick Harry Kahler, untitled (detail), ink on illustration board, 26.5 x 14 inches

Timothy Wehrle, One of many wrong remedies to put out an ungrateful flame, colored pencil and graphite on paper, 23 x 42 inches

Timothy Wehrle, One of many wrong remedies to put out an ungrateful flame (detail), colored pencil and graphite on paper, 23 x 42 inches

Winfred Rembert, Chain Gang Picking Cotton, dye on carved and tooled leather, 37 x 33 inches

Another feature of self-taught art, especially that by Southern artists, is that much of the art is by African American artists, particularly rural African American artists who had little or no access to art education because of their poverty. Such is the case with Winfred Rembert (b. 1945), who was unjustly imprisoned. Chain Gang Picking Cotton, done on carved leather, reflects his personal experiences as well as many other African American men caught up in the post-Civil War version of forced servitude. (You can see a documentary, All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert, on Hulu.)

The thought of bourgeois white collectors and dealers driving the backroads of the South looking for rural black self-taught artists is slightly uncomfortable. It has hints of colonialism, paternalism and slumming. This comes up in Everyday Genius.
This art world involves the intersection of groups who would not ordinarily meet. Such contact can produce condescension by the more powerful (and rage or amusement by those less powerful.) Does contact invariably involve colonization? [...] If elites treat the impoverished by elite standards, they can be criticized for cultural imperialism, but if they treat them according to their perspective of the other's culture, they can be accused of being patronizing." (p. 108)
Fine points out that African-American collectors rarely collect art by self-taught African-American artists. Some see the collecting the work as condescending. Whatever the reason, Fine writes collecting and viewing the work of  African-American self-taught artists is primarily done by white people. This is a complaint by Rembert, expressed in All Me. Rembert particularly regrets this because all his work depicts the historical reality (and biographical detail) of a youth and young adulthood in Cuthbert, Georgia, during the 50s and 60s. Rembert, who now lives in Connecticut, is pained that younger African-Americans don't know the painful histories of their parents and grand-parents. The film climaxes with an exhibit of his work at the Albany Civil Rights Institute (about 50 miles away from Cuthbert), where it finally gets wide exposure to many of the African Americans who shared aspects of Rembert's upbringing.

Of course, the most obvious "colonial" aspect is that collectors, gallerists and scouts can often get away with paying little (or even nothing!) for the work of a financially naive self-taught artist and selling it for many multiples of what the artist gets. That feels like raw exploitation, and often it is. Not every seeming case of exploitation is so straightforward.

Bill Traylor, untitled, 1943, poster paint and pencil on cardboard

For instance, One of a Kind features a painting by Bill Traylor (1854-1949). His work is the opposite of the horror vacuii school--his drawings, like this one, are minimal and witty, like a cartoon by Charles Schulz or William Steig. Traylor was born a plantation slave, and moved to Montgomery, Alabama in1936 because, "my white folks had died and my children had scattered." Homeless, he started amusing himself by drawing on discarded pieces of cardboard. He tried to sell them for five cents a piece without much luck until a white artist, Charles Shannon, discovered them (the standard discovery story). Shannon worked at the time to promote Traylor's work, putting together exhibits in Mongomery and New York City. Although the exhibits generated a lot of interest, sales were not forthcoming. Perhaps it was just too early for people to really see Traylor's astonishing work.

In the mid-70s, Shannon tried again to interest the art world in Traylor's remarkable oeuvre, which he had kept stored for nearly 30 years. This time he was very successful, and the work entered museums and became highly collectible, individual pieces achieving six figure prices. In the mid-80s, descendents of Traylor discovered that Traylor had become a well-known artist. They sued Shannon for a cut, claiming he had cheated Traylor. The case was settled out of court, with the family getting a large settlement.

So was Shannon a colonialist exploiter of Traylor? If Shannon hadn't come along and bought Traylor's work, it would never have become valuable in the first place. Nonetheless, the work did end up becoming a huge windfall Shannon--as if he had bought a seemingly useless piece of land and 30 years later discovered oil on it. My feeling is gratitude towards Shannon (and others like him)--otherwise, I would never get to see Traylor's art. And if Shannon had been more successful in promoting Traylor's art in the 1940s, Traylor probably would have shared the benefit in the years before his death. It wasn't like Shannon planned to hold onto the art until the 70s and get rich off of it then. But at the same time, such a relationship is obviously unequal.

Thornton Dial, untitled, watercolor and graphite on paper, 35.5 x 38 inches

Thornton Dial is represented in this exhibit with an atypical piece. Most of the work by Dial I've seen involve thick layers of scrap material collaged onto a surface. His works also tend to be much more abstract than this. Dial is one of the few well-known self-taught artists whose work seems not dissimilar from his contemporaries who got MFAs and came up through the contemporary art world. I find Dial's work tremendously appealing in general, but this watercolor does nothing for me.

He has a tight relationship with dealer/scholar/impresario William Arnett. I've written about this relationship before. Arnett has been raked over the coals more than any other art dealer because of the "exposé" on 60 Minutes. It's hard not to see his relationship with Dial as being paternalistic. However, when Fine visited Arnett, Arnett told Fine that he "consider[ed] this art [African-American self-taught art] to be the most important art of the century" and that Thornton Dial was the "Michelangelo of the twentieth century." Furthermore, he felt the reason that these judgments weren't universally held  was because of the racism or "Afro-phobia" of the art world. He hardly comes across as a colonialist.

Moses Ernest Tolliver, untitled, house paint on plywood, 24 x 30 inches

Moses Ernest Tolliver (1920-2006) is one of the most popular and respected of the African American self-taught artists. After an industrial accident left him crippled in the late 60s, he took up painting to pass the time. The birds in this painting remind me a bit of Bill Traylor, but the electric color on the faces made me think of Madame Matisse. This brings up the question of comparing the work of self-taught artists to art from the "mainstream" art world. Does self-taught art have a distinct aesthetic that requires a separate judgment? I don't think this is an easy question to answer. For one thing, almost all these artists started creating their work in isolation from one another. In the world of contemporary art, we can say that a young artist was influenced by an older art, or is responding to the work of older artists, or even was a student or studio assistant of an older artist. But we know for certain that Tolliver wasn't "influenced" by Traylor.

Sam Doyle, untitled, housepaint on found roof tin, 52 x 31 inches

Sam Doyle (1906-1985), another African American self-taught artist, lived on St. Helena Island in South Carolina. Like Winfred Rembert, his subject matter is highly localized.Many of his subjects have to do with illness and local traditional healers. This one seems particularly grim. What sticks in my mind, however, is the combination of blue and black and especially the corrugated tin on which it is painted. This provides a connection between self-taught art and contemporary art--bricolage. Self-taught artists by necessity and because of their lack of formal training use whatever materials are available. We can relate this to assemblagists like Robert Rauschenberg or Ed Kienholz. But for fans of self-taught art, this bricolage is a sign of authenticity, one of the most valued qualities that a self-taught artist can possess. Sam Doyle gained a certain amount of fame from his inclusion in Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980, a 1982 exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery, and the market for his work expanded accordingly. If he had started using Winsor Newton paints and doing his work on stretched and primed canvas, would it have lost "authenticity"?

Ike Morgan, untitled, pastel and pencil on paper, 26.5 x 18.5 inches

I was a little startled to see this drawing by Ike Morgan--up to now, I had only seen his portraits of presidents and historical figures. But his style is instantly recognizable. He has two big wins in the self-taught artist authenticity race--he's an African American from a rural background (born in Rockdale, TX) and he is mentally ill (schizophrenic). (He even has one further somewhat dubious mark of authenticity--he committed a horrible crime. Morgan murdered his grandmother. It was this act that landed him at the Rusk Hospital for the Criminally Insane and later the Austin State Hospital.) Synonyms for "authentic" might include "unpolluted" or "uncontaminated." "Childlike" and "naive" are two rather patronizing synonyms for authentic. It's a problematic term, in other words. Of course Fine discusses this at length, without really trying to define authenticity or judge whether or not it is a positive aesthetic quality. His interest is in the use of "authenticity" within the field--its value to collectors, dealers, curators and the artists themselves. He writes, for example, "Members of this art world have a strong preference for early 'uninfluenced' works by self-taught artists, although later works my have more artistic power, as an artist learns from experience, but such a view flies in the face of the assumptions of the field." A dealer Fine spoke to remarks that artists whose authenticity is beyond question--Bill Traylor and Martin Ramirez, for example--are the ones most likely to sell in the six figure range.

As problematic as the various categories of the authentic (self-taught, rural, impoverished, mentally ill, isolated) and the inauthentic (MFA, contact with other artists, middle-class, mainstream, subscription to Artforum) in this field are, perhaps the most dangerous notion is the idea that if an artist is a good businessman, that makes him less authentic. A key example of this is the Rev. Howard Finster. When his work was discovered by collectors, he and his family started to aggressively market it (even setting up an 800 number). Somehow this overt concern for one's own career rubbed collectors wrong, and now works from the late 80s, when Finster started marketing the work heavily, is worth less than the earlier work, which is seen as more authentic. For a self-taught artist to achieve a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle (much less to become rich) is to lose authenticity. Poverty is seen as authentic and real.

Frank Jones, untitled, colored pencil on paper

Frank Jones (1900-1969) scores super-high on the authenticity scale. Convicted of murder, he served a life sentence in Huntsville, where he began to draw. He saw "haints" (ghosts) and devils, which he housed in spiked dwellings, as in the picture above. It seems symbolic of his own circumstance and dwelling--where monstrous men were locked in tight cells in a sturdy building ringed with barb wire. Jones' drawings are humorous (the devils are smiling) but also disturbing. Jones' devil houses are fearful places.

Roy Ferdinand, Jr., Portrait of Frank Jones, 1994, paint, marker and ink on paper

Roy Ferdinand, Jr. (1959-2004) was an artist who painted violent scenes from his home of New Orleans. (Despite what you might guess given his subject matter, Ferdinand's early death was due to cancer.) Smither commissioned  portraits from Ferdinand of other self-taught artists. There are four of these portraits in the show, including this one of the late Frank Jones.

François Burland, untitled, watercolor on paper

Smither's collection includes European self-taught artists, like the Swiss artist François Burland. Burland's work in this show reminds me of Stéphane Blanquet's silhouettes--they each have a deliciously creepy quality.

Alfred Marie (a.k.a. A.C.M.), untitled, mixed media, 20 x 18.5 x 9 inches

Alfred Marie (aka A.C.M.), unlike most of the other artists here, received an art education and couldn't be reasonably said to have created his art in total isolation from the art world. But he withdrew from world of mainstream art and his work gets classified as "visionary." A.C.M. is a good example of how the nomenclature doesn't totally overlap. One can be a visionary artist without being a self-taught or folk artist. I'd put Charlie Stagg in that category.

anonymous, untitled, ink on three envelopes

Fine doesn't much discuss anonymous art. One exception is the Philadelphia Wireman, whose identity is unknown but his works are distinctive. In the context of, say, a museum exhibit, he wouldn't be treated by an ordinary anonymous folk artist--his work would be credited to him particularly. But often when we think of folk art, we think of truly anonymous works. A real folk song is not one written by Woody Guthrie or Pete Segar--it's a song written by nobody, a song that has been passed around and tweaked by dozens if not hundreds of anonymous performers. But in the world of visual folk art, biography is important. For one thing, it adds authenticity.

But Smither showed some truly anonymous works. Some were classic examples of folk art, but I was intrigued by these envelopes, which are identified as "prison art." The catalog that accompanies the show has a paragraph accompanying each piece--but this one is blank. The art is skilled and reminds me of the kind of art you'd see on vans in the 70s. Symbols of freedom and imprisonment cover the envelope in a dense design. They were obviously meant to be used to send letter--the artist left spaces for the stamps and mailing address. It's easy to imagine the prisoner fighting the boredom of prison life creating these lovely envelopes, which he could then trade to fellow inmates.

Anonymous, untitled, matchstick clock sculpture, 38 x 9.5 x 8 inches

This clock feels more like traditional folk art. It may not be the work of a self-taught artist--this artist may be part of a tradition and learned this craft from an older master. Nor is it personally expressive. While the designs may be original, they are fundamentally decorative. For many collectors, this is not appealing--they want work that is highly meaningful to its creator. Visionary and religious art is highly desired. But Smither's collection displays a wide spectrum of art that falls within the folk/visionary/self-taught field.

Collectors specialize. We have some category that we end up focusing on--whether it is the work of particular artists, work in a particular genre, or work by a type of artist. Fine suggested that self-taught art is a kind of identity art, where the art is important, of course, but so is the biography of the artist. Some collectors may specialize in African American art, others in art by women, others in Japanese prints and others in Netherlandish art--Smither chose this field. The paradox is that this identity may be prevent self-taught art from ever being mainstream. It is its separation from the mainstream art world that makes it so treasured by its aficionados. So even though Thornton Dial does work that to my eyes seems strikingly contemporary, he is not considered in the same breath as other more mainstream assemblagists. Some self-taught artists choose between the self-taught art world and the mainstream art world--Bert Long and Patrick Turk (whose work is included in this exhibit) seem to have deliberately chosen to be part of the mainstream art world of grants and prizes and residencies. But many of these artists weren't given that choice due to their poverty, lack of education, mental issues, etc. Nonetheless, this exhibit amply demonstrates that their art is worth considering alongside that of the mainstream art world. It is equally capable of being exciting, beautiful, provocative, expressive, etc. It is a bizarre coincidence that two similar (indeed overlapping) exhibits of self-taught art are happening in Houston simultaneously. Do yourself a favor and see both.


  1. Wow, Robert. This subject is obviously very near and dear to your heart. Good article. Maybe there's a book or magazine series within you on this subject.

    My take on the subject of "horror vacuii" is that self-taught artists have a different understanding of the distinction between their artistic urges and the needs of viewers. These artists NEED to create, they NEED to put stuff on canvas, they NEED to put MORE stuff on canvas, and MORE, and MORE. And they are the only viewer around.

    It's through the external support groups of the art world -- like "crits", exhibition reviews, and so on -- that emerging artists can learn to channel this urge. One of my teachers called it the ability to curate one's own work.

    This is similar to your idea of the relationship to a "conventional education", except that I don't think it has to do with "breaking the rules" so much as it has to do with learning that art is a language, and learning how to use it to form conversations.

    When you're in a one-way conversation -- just you and your canvas -- you produce art that's different than when you're in a two-way conversation -- something between you and the artworld outside. Not better, not worse, just a different road.

  2. The self taught, the outsider, the "primative" , are very engaging and have had a termendious influnce on contemporary artists. I include myself. That said ... all self taught art rises to a certain level of technique & subject and stays there, never developing. Once one has knowledge of art via schooling or whatever, you can only pretend to be an outsider. Artistic Isolation is a thing of the past. Beginning with Jean Dubuffet outsider art is mainstream.

  3. Hi Robert Boyd-

    Thank you for your fantastically detailed and interesting piece on self taught artist, and folk art. I am not sure how I landed here, but it began with a thread from Jerry Saltz regarding Moses Tolliver, and then I searched Sam Doyle. I fell instantly in love with Sam Doyle's artwork at a LACMA exhibition two years ago on a Sunday morning when I had him all to myself for an hour! It was not a large presentation. But the images of the south, black history, the colors, the beauty made me cry with happiness and appreciation. Such an artist! All this to say thank you for your excellent writing. ❤️

    1. I'm glad you found this post. Thanks very much for writing.

  4. Outstanding article! I agree absolutely that folk artists or "untrained" artists need to "put stuff on canvas" and then "more and more." I am a "professional" poet (whatever THAT means!), but also a highly untrained artist, or, rather, so bad at artistic skill that I call myself pre-primordial primitive. In my poetry, I must work to make each word and image "right." In my "art," I need to put stuff on canvas--and what a joy that is, and sometimes a really true need. Thank you so much for your insight!