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Outsider Art is not a particular genre as much as it is an abundance of them: folk art; folk art; visionary art; works by institutionalized, imprisoned or disabled artists. The only thing these artists have in common is that they are self-taught. Not surprisingly, there has been a long-running debate about the effectiveness of using “Outsider Art” as an overarching term for this type of work, and attitudes toward it as a cultural phenomenon have changed over the years. During the 1920s, studies of psychiatric patients used the label “art of the insane” to describe works of art made by some of them. In the 1940s, French artist Jean Dubuffet fought for such an expression as a category in itself, dubbing it Art Brut. Meanwhile in the United States, folk art – or Americana as it also became known – captured the imagination of the public during the 1950s and 60s. It was not until 1972 that Outsider Art as a descriptor was invented by the British art historian Roger Cardinal as the title of his book on the subject. Since then, self-taught artists have become mainstream and blurred the difference between their work and formally trained artists. Whatever you want to call it, some of the most astonishing artists of the last century have worked apart from the art-historical canon — which you will find in our recommendations of the best monographs on outsider artists. (Prices and availability are applicable at the time of publication.)
1. Klaus Biesenbach, Brooke Davis Anderson, Michael Bonesteel, Carl Watson, Henry Darger
Calling Henry Darger a superstar would be an understatement. He has been the subject of films and has inspired poems, rock bands, video games, fashion designers and even an opera. Yet, as described by Klaus Biesenbach, Darger worked in total obscurity, supporting himself as a janitor and dishwasher in hospitals around his hometown of Chicago. His most important pastimes were attending the fair and working at home on his amazing oeuvre, Realms of the unreal, a 1,500-page book of accompanying drawings and collages with androgynous, prepubescent children, often depicted naked. Carved from newspapers or traced from photostatic magnifications taken from coloring books and catalogs, these images depicted the “Vivian girls,” as Darger called them, and caveded in prelapsaric landscapes while battling graphically with soldiers willing to destroy them. A bizarre pas de deux between brutality and idyll, Darger’s work was first discovered when his landlords cleared his apartment shortly before his death. Although Darger lived on the edge of society, he left it an astonishing legacy.
Buy: Henry Darger $ 31.49 (new) on Amazon
2. Paul Arnett, Joanne Cubbs and Eugene W. Metcalf Jr., Thornton Dial in the 21st Century
One of the more notable developments that has influenced outsider artists in recent decades has been the increasingly porous boundaries between their efforts and those of art school graduates. There is no better case than Thornton Dial, who has become a key figure in contemporary art despite his self-taught background. Dial was born in Alabama in 1928, and his mixed media constructions — usually made of wood, painted fabric, and found objects — are certainly a match for all that the best American artists of his generation produced. This book is richly illustrated with 150 images and focuses on Dial’s output after 9/11, which included drawings and mixed media, combining comments on the events of the day and the invasion of Iraq that followed. Also highlighted is Dill’s tribute to Gee’s Bend quilt makers and works alluding to his poor childhood in the South.
Buy: Thornton Dial in the 21st Century from $ 36.48 (used) on Amazon
3. Jeffrey Wolf et al., James Castle: A retrospective
Born in Garden Valley, Idaho, in 1899, James Castle was deaf from childhood and did not speak. Still, Castle found a way to communicate through an extraordinary amount of drawings and three-dimensional constructions made of paper, cardboard, wood, and objects salvaged around his parents’ homestead. From childhood, he depicted his rural surroundings with depictions of houses, interiors, animals, landscapes and local inhabitants created with a mixture of wood-burning stove soot and saliva applied with sharpened sticks and other custom-built tools. His style, while intuitive, reflected contemporary developments in 20th-century art such as expressionism, making his works appear strikingly fresh. This final volume at Castle served as the catalog for his retrospective career in 2008 at the Philadelphia Museum and contains 300 images as well as a DVD documentary that dives into his life and art.
Buy: James Castle: A Retrospective $ 125.00 (new) on Amazon
4. Lynne Cook, ed., Martín Ramírez: Reframing Confinement
For people who associate Outsider Art with mental illness, Martín Ramírez’s works seem to showcase immediately – but only up to a point. A Mexican farmer born in 1895, Ramírez was institutionalized after arriving in the Depression in California in search of work to support his family. When he found little to no one, he had an emotional breakdown and ended up being arrested in 1931 for vagabond. Considered not composed by the authorities despite his protests, Ramírez was subsequently sent to state asylum for the rest of his life. After repeated escape attempts, he was abandoned to his fate and began making drawings that have since been recognized as some of the finest of the 20th century. Taken from memory, his images often depict men on horseback within claustrophobic settings defined by embedded, repetitive lines. This volume of essays prepared by Lynne Cook is accompanied by 80 illustrations and contains the latest research on Ramírez’s life and work.
Buy: Martin Ramirez: Reframing Confinement $ 25.14 (new) on Amazon
5. John M. MacGregor, Metamorphosis: Fiber Art by Judith Scott
Among other things, John MacGregor’s book raises the question of intentionality in Outsider Art and takes the fiber sculptures created by Judith Scott as an example. An Ohio native born with Down syndrome, Scott was also deaf and could not speak. At age 45, after enrolling at Oakland’s Creative Growth Art Center, she began making enigmatic, cocoon-like shapes by wrapping yarn, string and strips of fabric around an assortment of found objects. Sometimes her work seemed figurative, especially a piece depicting joined forms that may or may not refer to the twin sister (who was not disabled), from whom Scott was separated when she was first institutionalized at the age of seven – a loss Scott apparently felt throughout her life. (Her sister would later become Scott’s guardian.) Whatever motivated her, Scott and her findings are honestly and empathetically examined in this account illustrated with photos by Leon Borensztein.
Buy: Metamorphosis: The Fiber Art by Judith Scott $ 129.99 (used) on Amazon
Leslie Umberger, Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor
Bill Traylor was considered by many to be a canonical figure of 20th-century art and was born into slavery on a plantation in Alabama in 1853. He witnessed the Civil War, reconstruction, and the emergence of Jim Crow, who worked as an actor after emancipation. In 1939, at the age of 85, he moved to Montgomery, where he fell homeless on the streets of the city’s black district. Spending his time looking at people along the neighborhood’s main street, he found a discarded pencil and paper one day and spontaneously began drawing. Using a local white artist (who valued Traylor’s talent and gave him art supplies), Traylor eventually produced about 1,500 reproductions populated with figures and animals based on his observations and memories. He worked in a sensationalist modernist style, presenting his subjects as boldly colored, abstract forms floating against a glossy background. Traylor created a kind of magical minimalism and testified to the resilience of African Americans in a dark era. About 205 images of his work, including previously unpublished examples, accompany this compendium of writings on Traylor, which includes an introduction by artist Kerry James Marshall.
Buy: Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor $ 37.08 (new) on Amazon
7. Harald Szeemann et al., Miroslav Tichy: Dedicated to the Women of Kyiv
As mentioned above, the separation of “outsider” artists from the “insider” variety has become increasingly difficult over the years, with the work of the Czech artist Miroslav Tichy being a perfect illustration. Tich? went to art school in Prague and gained some reputation as a modernist painter until social realism was imposed as an official style after the communist takeover of 1948. Tichy stopped painting and retired in isolation in his hometown of Kyjov. There, he began what can only be described as a de facto outsider practice that involved taking voyeuristic pictures of women with a rough, hand-built camera. Secretly snapped at a distance, Tichy’s pictures were blurry and barely legible. Yet they were full of a gruesome eroticism that apparently originated literally from the gutter when Tichy, who had gradually grown untidy, wandered the streets, catching his subjects in various phases of dishabille (ironically, he himself was overseen by the state as a dissident ). His work remained unknown until a neighbor brought it to public light. This catalog by the legendary Swiss curator Harald Szeemann further illuminates Tichy’s remarkable career.
Buy: Miroslav Tichy: Dedicated to the Women of Kyjov $ 152.01 (Used) on Amazon
8. William Fagaly, Sister Gertrude Morgan: Tools of Her Ministry
Religion has often motivated outsider artists, but few have taken as seriously the role of proselytizer as Sister Gertrude Morgan, who left her husband after a divine revelation sent her on her way to preach. She settled in New Orleans in 1939, where she established a ministry for orphans and abused children. As a musician and poet, Morgan turned to painting and drawing 30 years later when another epiphany led her to visualize the new Jerusalem Jesus would establish upon his return – at which point he would also marry Morgan. (Years earlier, Morgan had already begun to wear completely white in anticipation of their impending wedding, which she often portrayed.) Illustrated with her dense, childlike compositions, Fagaly’s book is the first monograph on Morgan; it accompanied a 2004 retrospective at the American Folk Art Museum in New York and the New Orleans Museum of Art.
Buy: Sister Gertrude Morgan: The Ministry of Her Ministry $ 34.57 (used) on Amazon