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I searched and searched, but nowhere could I find, explicitly stated, the proposition that seems to be at the heart of Lynne Cooke’s Outliers and Vanguard American Art: that the categorical separation upheld primarily by specialist dealers, curators, and historians of “outsider art” between self-taught artists and those with college or university degrees is untenable, and should be henceforth abandoned.
That idea, at this point in time, is not even so controversial, having begun gathering steam as early as 1992, when LACMA mounted Parallel Visions: Modern Artists and Outsider Art, and arguably reaching its apotheosis in 2013 with Massimiliano Gioni’s the Encyclopedic Palace exhibition for the Venice Biennale and the 2013 Carnegie International.
I, for one, had half expected—hoped for, even— Cooke’s show to be the final word on the matter, a definitive demonstration that categorizations like “outsider,” “folk,” “visionary,” or “naïve” are not only inaccurate but also ethically compromised. What separates sculptor John Flannagan, for instance, who incorporated ancient Celtic references into his stone carvings, from William Edmondson, whose motifs often came from African American burial traditions, but race and class? Evidently, it was me who was naïve. While Outliers seeks to broaden the art historical conversation to include voices previously ignored, drowned out or condescended, Cooke is rightly careful never to blithely paper over the divisions that have long existed, and which continue to exist, in the contemporary art world as in American society at large.
Outliers maintains focus on three periods in the last 100 years or so when the boundaries between the center and the margins were especially porous. (Retrenchment usually followed.) The implication is that these are moments to be celebrated— and indeed the brilliance of the work in the exhibition backs this up—but the presentation and the interpretive didactics retain the dispassion and fastidiousness of historical analysis.
Cooke’s study begins in the 1930s, when WPA programs allowed a host of skilled amateurs to be employed in artistic pursuits. Concurrently, Alfred H. Barr was making compelling arguments at the nascent Museum of Modern Art for the significance to American Modernism of what he regrettably termed the “modern primitive.” (His ridiculed exhibition of the self-taught artist Morris Hirshfield contributed to his dismissal in 1943.) What is clear from the outset is that in the 1930s, “primitive” was usually was usually a euphemism for work by African American or Latinx makers. Artists such as Horace Pippin—whose Holy Mountain III (1945) recalls the jungle scenes in Henri Rousseau’s Tropical Forest with Monkeys (1910), in the previous gallery—were not so much uneducated as schooled in a different set of folk aesthetics that they each applied to contemporary subjects and themes.
Next, we leap forward to the early 1970s, when Chicago Imagists and Bay Area Funk artists such as Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, Roy De Forest, and William Wiley enthusiastically promoted “outsiders” including Joseph Yoakum and Martín Ramírez, influenced not only by their styles but also by their aberrant relation to the mainstream. While this section of the exhibition contains some of the most powerful work from both sides of the academic divide—notably Ramírez’s grand Untitled (Madonna) (c.1948–63)—it is also not without ethical unease. What were the power dynamics of these relationships, especially when one artist could not speak for himself? (Yoakum died in 1972; Ramírez in 1963.) Did the academically credentialed younger artists really consider their unschooled colleagues to be equals? (We can never know.)
Instead of “outsider,” Cooke proposes the more sympathetic term “outlier”—a word implying unexpected exceptionalism rather than inevitable exclusion. My guess is that, sadly, it won’t catch on, not because it isn’t better but because it lacks the tragic romance of “outsider”—a romance that is especially appealing to the “insider” art world.
It is in the third section of the exhibition that we become most aware that Outliers offers no overarching thesis about the relationship of the artistic center to the margins—still less a model by which we might proceed in the future. Cooke observes that in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when photography, performance, and text-based work was prominent in American contemporary art, self-taught artists working in those media, such as Lee Godie or Eugene von Bruenchenhein, were championed by the vanguard. Separately, the quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, were celebrated thanks in part to their affinity with textile artists and abstract painters like Mary Heilmann, whose gorgeous Orchid Lady (1994) features here. In the final gallery, Cooke enacts what in her catalog essay she calls “curatorial fabulations,” in which artists who may not have been aware of each other’s work are placed together, such as Nancy Shaver, Jessica Stockholder, and Judith Scott.
Curatorial fabulations may be the most honest and least objectionable means of bringing together the schooled and the unschooled, but they are nevertheless somewhat unsatisfying. Is there anything more than a coincidental relationship between the severely handicapped Scott, who created her bound yarn and fabric totems at the Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, and Stockholder, who graduated with an MFA from Yale and is currently a professor at the University of Chicago? By the conclusion of this exhibition, I was hungry for something more hopeful, less arbitrary and speculative. While Outliers might be the most substantive contribution to this debate in years, it provides no bromides, no facile generalizations, and no remediations for past injustices.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 15.