The Outsider Art Fair, Jan. 28-30, 2005, at the Puck Building, 295 Lafayette Street, New York, N.Y. 10012
The fervor that began in 1982 with the exhibition "Black Folk Art in America 1930-1980" now reaches a peak each year with the Outsider Art Fair at the Puck Building in New York. The commercial and curatorial success of Outsider Art has been accompanied by an increasingly intense debate over definitions, greed and questions of exploitation of the sometimes unsophisticated artists.
With Outsider Art, its high quotient of deceased and minimally educated artists, market manipulation can seem more glaring than in the mainstream art world. Often, the vernacular artist's hard luck story can garner as much attention as the art. One couple at this year's fair, looking at quilts in the booth of Ricco/Maresca Gallery (quilts were much in evidence at this year's fair, thanks to what could be called the "Gee's Bend" phenomenon), got right to the point as the work was being unfurled, asking, "What's the story."
What's more, the majority of the most popular Outsider artists are of African-American descent, unlike the dealers on hand at the Puck Building. Plus, there's the economic disparity -- upon entering this year's fair on a frigid Friday afternoon, I was awestruck at the number of patrons clad in full length fur coats.
On a more positive note, there's the work itself, of course -- rich in personal reflection, historical reference and an open-ended imagination. While contemporary art obsessively seeks the new, Outsider Art looks back, to history and the self.
Ricco/Maresca also boasted four large paintings by the Outsider Art master William Hawkins (1895-1990). I was lucky enough to see Hawkins' very first gallery exhibition in 1982, a two-person show with Russell "Smoky" Brown at Roger McClane's Ohio Gallery in Hawkins' home town of Columbus, Ohio, where works were priced at $500 a shot. Today, the price range for Hawkins paintings is $40,000-$55,000. Hawkins must be rolling over in his grave.
Hawkins' particularly robust, enamel-on-board painting Winter Sleigh #1 -- which was marked "sold" -- shows a group of six powerful steeds rushing off to one side, while a rifle-toting individual stands at and peers off the other edge. Hawkins would often employ a painted frame around his works and commonly penetrated this edge with his imagery in order to expand the work into a greater spatial relationship with his viewer. Horses were a common theme for this artist, who was raised on his grandparents' farm in Kentucky and remembered perusing a file of horse illustrations that his grandfather had clipped and kept.
The Keny Galleries, from Columbus, Ohio, also had on hand a couple of very strong smaller paintings by Hawkins. By the last day of the fair, Keny had sold Hawkins' Buffalo Hunter, which measures about 22 x 36 in., for $18,000. Keny also had half a dozen works by the carvers Elijah Pierce (1894-1984) and Ernest "Popeye" Reed (1919-1985), both Columbus-area natives who are today garnering museum exhibitions and international recognition. Reed's stone carving CB Hog is particularly strong, depicting a seated humanoid figure with breasts and the head of a pig. The artist's adept handling of the chisel is particularly evident in the treatment of this creature's head, which is covered with incised lines, in contrast to the smooth body.
Other Outsider Art masters include David Butler (1898-1997), Willie Massey (1906-1990) and Clementine Hunter (1886 or 1887-1988), who has been called the black Grandma Moses. Gilley's Gallery of Baton Rouge had particularly good, early examples of both Hunter's and Butler's work on display. Shelby Gilley reported especially strong sales this year, saying that it was "the best opening night in 13 years."
Hunter's painting Three Soldiers, an early, museum-quality work with an unusually muted palette (compared to her later works), was sold for $22,000. Gilley's also sold several works from Butler's outdoor environment of cut-sheet-metal images during the fair's preview. At last look, Gilley was still in possession of two fantastic Butler whirligigs.
Despite these impressive prices for the masters of the genre, sensational works can still be had by those of more modest means. Luise Ross Gallery in SoHo brought to the fair a beautiful, painted green bird of tin-foil crafted by Willie Massey, which was snapped up for a bargain $600. The Dean Jensen Gallery from Milwaukee had a superb Massey birdhouse, topped with a painted white, foil bird and small, brown wooden airplane.
Iowa dealer Sherry Pardee brought a number of modestly priced drawings and paintings by both Emitte Hych (b. 1909) and Hawkins Bolden (1914-2005), a blind artist who lived in Memphis. Bolden's pierced, found-object work was originally intended for use as scarecrows in his "mater" (tomato) patch. Bolden passed away a couple of weeks ago, so don't expect to see his work available at these prices during next year's Outsider Art Fair.
As many Outsider artists live to see a ripe old age, I am convinced that turning to the creation of art lends to the longevity of these individuals, who often begin their production late in life after loss of employment and spouse. What a shame that so few of them reap the monetary benefits that the art market now offers owners of their works.
JOHN DRURY is a New York based artist, writer and teacher.