The insane, the eccentric, the untrained and the simply weird were celebrated at the Tenth Annual Outsider Art Fair, held at the Puck Building in SoHo, Jan. 25-27, 2002. Spread through the sprawling ground-floor quarters of the historic building were booths for 34 galleries, who presented exhibitions of their newest discoveries as well as works by old favorites.
At the gala preview on Jan. 24, which benefited the American Folk Art Museum, a pair of performers played spoons and some kind of down-home bluegrass instrument. The dinnerware beat was an apt accompaniment for a boisterous art collector buzz.
A little pushing and squeezing were needed to arrive at Galerie St. Etienne's double booth. Director Jane Kallir, elegant in attire and soft-spoken in manner, pointed out a wall of works by the Austrian Josef Karl Rädler, who she described as her "hottest discovery. "When we showed him last year, it created a sensation." Mustachioed men huddle behind a profusion of purple pansies in Patients with Violets, a minutely detailed work in muted colors. Measuring ca. 13 x 10 in., the work dates from 1909 and is priced at $7,000.
Rädler was, Kallir says, "a nasty guy." Institutionalized by his family after his bizarre behavior got him in trouble, he had artistic gifts that flourished at the hospital, which miraculously held onto his drawings until the 1960s, when they were finally tossed in the garbage. A nurse with a good eye scooped the goods and salvaged Rädler's legacy.
But it was Outsider superstar Henry Darger who commanded center stage at Galerie St. Etienne. A long narrow watercolor, measuring 77 x 22 in. and titled At Jennie Richie, are Brought to City, was $60,000. Kallir says At Jennie Richie is the only Darger set in an urban scene. Darger lived a marginal existence on Chicago's North side, working menial jobs at Catholic hospitals. When he died in 1973, his landlord discovered a 15,000-page fantasy tale illustrated by hundreds of watercolor murals. For more on Darger's dark world of hermaphrodite children, visit the Henry Darger Collection on view at the Folk Art Museum until June 23.
Chicago's Carl Hammer Gallery also presented a large Darger mural for $80,000. A Bill Traylor painting called Exciting Event, ca. 1940, with blue figures leaping and boozing, was saddled with an equally blue-chip price tag: $90,000. Around the corner, a wall was devoted to the wondrous objects of Eugene von Bruenchenhein. Acid color paintings hung next to black and white pin-up photos of wife Marie. Boxes made from chicken bones and pottery rounded out the array -- representative of von Bruenchenhein's strange artistic impulses.
Over at the Dean Jensen Gallery, several von Bruenchenhein paintings were on display, priced from $3,200 to $3,600. How to describe the artist and his wife? "Well," said dealer John Sobczak thoughtfully, "they were really weird." Their entire home was crammed with 40 years worth of art making, which was only discovered in 1983, after the artist's death.
The Jensen booth was anchored by two large sculptures by the late Howard Finster. The concrete cartoonish cutouts of a blue-nosed John Kennedy and a pompadoured Elvis Presley came from Finster's Paradise Garden, a Georgia swamp turned into a living museum. Sobczak said Finster's prices increased considerably since his death in 2001. Kennedy and Elvis, two of Finster's heroes, are priced at $17,500 apiece. Last year, they might have cost $10,000.
Charcoals by Jonathan Lerman, a 14-year-old autistic boy who has recently been riding a wave of publicity, spread across the walls of Tribeca gallery K.S. Art. A Jan. 16, 2002, profile of Lerman by the New York Times' Ralph Blumenthal started the media frenzy. A parade of television crews came by to shoot Lerman's drawings. His medium is charcoal and pastel. His subject matter is human portraiture. Charcoals are priced at $1,800.
For a mere $750, consider a quietly lyrical landscape by another K.S. Art artist, Harold Cromwell. Using a black ballpoint pen and paper plate, Cromwell, 85, creates a detailed miniature world.
The big guns of Art Brut are found down the aisle at Jennifer Pinto Safian. A tiny red sticker covered the label of a 22 x 17.5 in. pencil and crayon drawing by Adolf Wölfli. Safian said the work sold for $55,000 as soon as the show began. Wölfli made his images at a Swiss psychiatric clinic, his permanent home after a series of child molestation convictions. More of the artist's hallucinatory compositions of masked men are slated to be shown at the Museum of American Folk Art in 2003.
Safian's relatively large (23 x 16.5 in.) In the Woods of the Lovers by Aloïse, a Swiss nanny with delusions of grandeur, was priced at $60,000. The double-sided crayon on paper reflects Aloïse's romantic fantasy: a voluptuous raven haired beauty -- the artist herself -- is kissed by a handsome Kaiser. Aloïse, like Wölfli, remained institutionalized for much of her life.
The best of British outsider art was on view at Henry Boxer Gallery from London. An intricate ink and crayon drawing by Scottie Wilson, Flowering Thought (ca. 1940), was priced at $6,500. Boxer talked provenance. His inventory came directly from Robert Lewin, Wilson's primary dealer. The artist was a reclusive scrap dealer who found a gold nib and began doodling. He continued for 42 years.
David Janis Fine Art had several important -- and costly -- canvases in his booth. A 1945 painting by Morris Hirshfield, Boy with Dog, was available for $375,000. Janis is grandson of the celebrated Modernist dealer Sidney Janis, who also authored They Taught Themselves, an important text on primitive art in America. Before he started painting at age 69, Hirshfield was a slipper manufacturer. The Museum of Modern Art gave him a solo show in 1940.
MoMA retrospectives might not be in the works for the artists exhibited at Art + Community, but director Margaret Bodell is no less passionate about the artwork. Art + Community is an umbrella organization that works with disabled artists in 16 community-based art programs. "I am so sick of the stigma attached" to Outsider art, said Bodell, noting terms like "mental illness." Her artists have "neuro-diversity." Several continuous line drawings by Jonathan Stark, a resident of Anchor House were priced at $750.
At 9 p.m., the Puck Building pulled the plug. Gallery lights began flickering off. No time to visit Phyllis Kind Gallery, Ricco/Maresca Gallery and Chicago's Judy Saslow. In the dark, bright sequins and glossy painted objects took on supernatural powers. A roomful of brilliant visions, born of damaged minds, were left alone.
LINDSAY POLLOCK is a freelance writer living in New York.