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Outliers and American Vanguard Art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, offers an ambitious study of the significance of self-taught art to the production of mainstream US American artists. The expansive exhibition presents more than 250 works by 84 artists and is organized around three historic periods that, argues its curator Lynne Cooke, saw a surge in formal support for objects made beyond the conventional bounds of the art world: 1924–43, 1968–92, and 1998–2013. Outliers and its accompanying catalogue present an original and compelling account of US American art, bringing together many rarely exhibited artworks in illuminating arrangements. The presentation is impressive and, despite some occasional flaws, promises to generate further curatorial and scholarly inquiry into the pressing questions of what has been excluded from US art histories and how best to redress these absences.
In the near century of artistic production covered by the exhibition, art historians and critics have developed myriad terms to describe artists whose conditions of production have situated them beyond the normative confines of art making: “outsider,” “self-taught,” “folk,” “naïve,” “isolate.” Cooke, senior curator for special projects in modern art at the National Gallery, posits “outliers” as a term for our present moment, one that jettisons the negative associations that now saddle earlier terms. Outliers denotes variance with a statistical norm, and if it also connotes assertively individual ambition and achievement, Cooke complicates these undertones with an arrangement that implicitly asks visitors to consider how social statuses of race, gender, and class, in addition to training, shape artists’ access to the mainstream.
The exhibition’s overview of interactions between untrained and formally tutored artists draws attention to the historical variability of the recognition and visibility that self-taught producers have received. In her efforts to present outliers’ art “without distinction,” alongside art of the “vanguard,” Cooke privileges these works’ artistic merits (formal inventiveness and conceptual insight, for instance) over issues of difference (of access, resources, and support). In many instances, the details of individual artists’ circumstances, how they were positioned in relation to formal art institutions, remain opaque to the visitor. Cooke leaves it to well-researched catalogue essays by Thomas J. Lax, Jennifer Jane Marshall, Richard Meyer, Jenni Sorkin, and Suzanne Hudson to provide the kind of contextual background that would allow one to parse the outlier and vanguard affiliations of the artworks on view (though in the texts, these characterizations remain complexly fraught, and rightly so). This blurring, a key theme of the presentation, effectively conveys the convergences—between pedigreed and untutored, “high” and “low”—that pulse through American art.
The exhibition’s earliest galleries, which are its most convincing, are devoted to works from the period between World Wars I and II, years during which modern art institutions and trained artists newly embraced a variety of untrained styles. This turn toward folk and so-called primitive art informed searches for uniquely American, modern idioms grounded in cultural patrimony. Trained artists such as Yasuo Kuniyoshi and Charles Sheeler collected homegrown artifacts and incorporated their formal concerns for graphic simplicity into their own paintings. Wooden sculptures by Patrociño Barela and José Dolores López attest to the cross-cultural flows that comprised American folk in these years. These galleries are strengthened by their visual cohesiveness and thematic clarity, both evidence of the historical discourses that melded self-taught and trained art.
Previous exhibitions of self-taught art serve as frameworks for several of Outliers’s galleries. Cooke’s rigorous research shines through these examples, even if the vastly varying scopes and goals of the cited antecedents sometimes make for awkward transitions between galleries. Exuberant vegetal compositions by French housekeeper Séraphine Louis enliven a gallery replete with pastoral and otherworldly landscapes by Pedro Cervántez, Edwards Hicks, John Kane, and Henri Rousseau. Vibrant paintings by Morris Hirshfield, Jacob Lawrence, Horace Pippin, Janet Sobel, and William H. Johnson, and an arrangement of stone sculptures by Henry Bannarn, William Edmondson, and William Zorach conclude this first section. Works in this gallery attest to the centrality of black artists’ engagements with untrained styles to the aesthetics of interwar American art.
The second section of the exhibition presents examples of interactions encouraged by the cultural changes wrought by wide-ranging social liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s. A spacious gallery pairs art by the Chicago imagists with the local untrained artists for whom they advocated. Exceptional works include imagist Barbara Rossi’s luscious quilted-satin etching, dreamily drawn pastel-hued landscapes by Joseph Yoakum, and Martín Ramírez’s large, linear drawings on pieced paper, which he created while confined to a mental hospital.
Within this and other groupings that refer to literal interactions between untrained and mainstream artists, visitors encounter the exhibition’s most compelling resonances, because these galleries must contend with both the formal similarities between works and their material differences. The polish of Jim Nutt’s cartoon-like paintings and the stains and tears of Ramírez’s drawings speak to the divergent realities in which they forged their artistic creations and to how differently their production has been valued in the intervening years.
A captivating gallery of Southern folk works further demonstrates the geographic expansions that differentiated characterizations of outsider art in the long 1970s from earlier manifestations, which focused on New England makers. Christian themes find dynamic form in script-ridden works by Sister Gertrude Morgan and Elijah Pierce’s lively carved and painted wood reliefs. Steve Ashby’s mixed media works provide cutting commentary on US race relations and segue to a gallery devoted to California assemblage.
Works by Los Angeles–based artists Senga Nengudi, John Outterbridge, Noah Purifoy, and Betye Saar, all of whom took inspiration from the Watts Towers to work with repurposed materials, are paired with assemblages by contemporaneous white Northern Californian “funk” artists. As this second section concludes, the gallery encourages visitors to consider how the notions of “incommensurability” and authenticity that marked era formulations of outersiderness intersected with racial paradigms.
Outliers’s final section attempts to desegregate outliers from the parallel worlds they have often been made to inhabit by borrowing from literary theorist Saidiya Hartman’s concept of “critical fabulation” (20–21). A method of advancing speculative narratives based on research, Hartman developed critical fabulations to address the limits of archives of transatlantic slavery, which have silenced and erased the experiences of enslaved black women. Cooke’s curatorial fabulations generate some successful pairings of works by outliers and trained artists. For example, in a gallery that both introduces and concludes the exhibition, three-dimensional pieces by Judith Scott, Nancy Shaver, and Jessica Stockholder make a riveting formal dialogue tied together by each artist’s use of fiber to activate color and abstract line.
This approach likewise works well in a gallery thematizing both photography’s easy passage from trained to untrained hands as well as its intrinsic capacity for accommodating play and performance. A fictive archive coproduced by Cheryl Dunye and Zoe Leonard for Dunye’s landmark 1996 film The Watermelon Woman, receives a sprawling case whose contents “document” moments from the life and career of a queer black woman. This installation resonates with smart projects by Lorna Simpson and Eugene von Bruenchenhein, both of which speak to photography’s dual ability to illustrate and invent. Works by Lee Godie and Greer Lankton highlight entwinements of feminine performance and the photographic, a topic cogently undertaken by Douglas Crimp in his contribution to the catalogue. In an adjacent gallery, quilts by Annie Mae Young and Mary Lee Bendolph, both of Gee’s Bend fame, and Rosie Lee Tompkins reverberate alongside paintings by Mary Heilmann, Al Loving, and Howardena Pindell, all of whom brought textile forms, textures, or materials to bear on their painting practices of the 1970s.
By contrast, a section on “world-making” is somewhat jumbled in the connections it draws between trained and untutored makers. One-gallery retrospectives for now-canonical “outsiders” Forrest Bess and James Castle, while honorific, isolate those artists’ works. It is far too easy to miss the small wall text in the Bess gallery noting that the arrangement is a reinstallation of artist Robert Gober’s contribution to the 2012 Whitney Biennial. Likewise, a visually jarring juxtaposition between Henry Darger’s double-sided drawings of the Vivian Girls and inked sheets created under hypnosis by trained artist Matt Mullican generates some vexed analogies. These large works also diminish the impact of smaller pieces by Lonnie Holley and Purifoy. This passage of the exhibition surely speaks to limitations of the gallery space itself, but also reveals some of the inherent challenges of Cooke’s curatorial framework, which leaves it to the viewer to determine whether the mainstream thematics of the exhibition are adequate for outliers’ art.
For visitors wishing to take in the full depth of Outliers’s contributions to art historical discourse, the academic-leaning catalogue is indispensable. Sharp essays by Crimp, Darby English, and Sorkin are especially illuminating. Lucid artist biographies and stellar reproductions will appeal to all, though the endpapers’ blown-out reproduction of a detail of Pindell’s collaged painting, stunning in person, is a disappointment.
Outliers brings together objects and makers whose interactions push against intersecting limitations of normative art’s institutional categorization. In its deployment of “curatorial fabulations as means to effect modes of reconciliation,” the exhibition at times overplays the theme of parity at the price of sociohistorical nuance (24). Although it successfully counters the de facto segregation of self-taught and trained art, reconciliation requires a reckoning. Outliers commendably opens space for future projects that offer a frank evaluation and contestation of inequity.
Sarah Louise Cowan
PhD candidate, History of Art Department, University of California, Berkeley