The circus was in town this weekend. Another rollicking Outsider Art Fair rolled into the ground-floor exhibition galleries of the Puck Building, produced by Sanford Smith in cooperation with the Museum of American Folk Art. Despite its jam-packed, rag-tag feeling, this show represents an increasingly important sector of the art market.
After a decade-long boom, the field is in fine shape, and exhibiting signs of maturity. Last week Sotheby's New York sold the Herbert Waide Hemphill collection for a total of $239,200 (top lot was a $46,000 Bill Traylor) and the late collector's papers have gone to the Smithsonian. The Museum of American Folk Art finally begins construction on its new facility down the street from the Museum of Modern Art next spring, with completion scheduled for 2001. The American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, dedicated to outsider art (and unrepresented here) has been open since 1995, and a variety of museum shows have swelled the inventory of publications on the genre.
This art really is irresistible. Most of its practitioners, despite the clamor of commerce that surrounds them, have the same appeal that Henri Rousseau had for the Paris bohemians -- an innate honesty. The work has a quality of moral integrity that, even when it's shot through with sentimentality, gives it the power of truth.
And of course, there's sex, violence and old time religion.
Exemplary of the benevolent other-worldly quality that makes Outsider Art so captivating are the paintings made by Minnie Evans (1892-1987). Last fall, Luise Ross showed works by Evans at her New York gallery, and brought to the fair an untitled Evans image of a garden (price: $13,000). The Garden of Eden is a favored subject in American art, but Evans imagined it not as an ideal landscape, like Edward Hicks, but as a pure mental product flowing out of the contented dreamer's head. Evans' work is invariably symmetrical, with kaleidoscopic shifts of figure and ground. She interlocks faces, figures and flowers, and punctuates this density with eyes, heavy-lidded, cat-like, puffy and Egyptian. Evans wrote that she did not remember ever sleeping without dreaming.
One of the first things to catch the eye upon entering the fair were several large drawings by Martin Ramirez at the booth of New York dealer Phyllis Kind. Ramirez lived in an asylum, where he made images surrounded by obsessively drawn haloes of pencil lines. One rather atypical, large work shows a bearded and robed figure drifting along on a streetscape marked by a huge arch and a cathedral with two cross-topped towers. In the foreground is a garden made of a patch of collaged elements. This drawing has a Baroque, Orientalist feel that recalls the work of underground filmmaker Jack Smith. A collector must have agreed, for the work sold for $85,000.
Another arguably "Baroque" outsider was A.G. Rizzoli, whose elaborate drawings were at the booth of Ames Gallery of Berkeley, Ca. A draftsman for a Beaux Arts architectural firm, Rizzoli made allegorical "portraits" of his friends as imaginary buildings. These works are quite wonderful, and their conception is immediately strange. In any case, they are highly prized, with major ones selling for as much as $95,000.
In contrast to such intricate eccentricities are the works of Outsider Art's "brutalist" school. Georgia Sea Islands painter Sam Doyle (1906-1985) painted on corrugated metal, imbuing the surfaces with a warbling opticality. Hung in a corner of Phyllis Kind's booth was Doyle's Try Me, an image of a pink-skinned girl in a red bikini. Her red cheeks and lips and the dots of flesh color in her eyes give a formal frisson to the painter's image of a "painted woman."
Another Doyle work, Bull Dager, was at Dean Jensen Gallery of Milwaukee. Painted on an artfully corroded piece of corrugated tin, the image is a pinwheeling half-male, half-female figure from Doyle's personal mythology. These works were priced at $15,000 and $10,000, respectively.
At the fair's gala premiere, the artist Purvis Young was at the booth of Chatanooga's Rising Fawn Folk Art gallery, doing ink paintings of figures and horses on bound musical scores, rather in the mode of craft demonstrations at old time historical villages. Young's painterly compositions on irregular wooden panels feature spindly horses and masses of figures before veils of color.
Cavin-Morris of New York had a group of paintings of Jon Serl. Like a cartoony Edvard Munch or James Ensor, Serl works in matte colors, setting up his stringy figures in entranceways to gloomy beyonds. His figures are involved in incomprehensible emotive interactions or simply posed as nervous spectators of some out-of-frame mystery.
Gilley's Gallery from Baton Rouge had a portrait head of George Washington made of sun-baked clay in 1984-85 by bluesman James Henry "Son" Thomas. Displayed in a vitrine, with a catalogue illustration open to a section subtitled "Patriotism," this work is particulary interesting on the bicentennial of the death of the nation's founder and senior slave-holder. But it seems less patriotic than ironic, like a tennis ball with blank eyes and cotton hair, singularly unexpressive, mute and cool. Thomas' work raises a fundamental question of portraiture: Who's looking at whom? The work is priced at a bargain $1,200.
La Pop Galerie from Ivry sur Seine, France, showed paintings by Raymond Reynaud, a retired French housepainter who is at the center of a school of "imaginistic" artists in Provence. Reynaud's symmetrical abstractions are delicately colored and calmly decorative, as if discreet bacchanals hide in the leaves. A photo of Reynaud showed an elderly man in a studio surrounded by paintings from floor to ceiling. In advance of any text, this image validates the artist as an outsider: He is old, and he cranks it out.
London's Henry Boxer has included works by two younger New York painters, Alex Gray and Joe Coleman, among his wares. Both are more crossover than outsider. Gray is a meticulous hallucinatory visionary, while Coleman is a celebrator of the criminal and perverse. In his distinctive brand of "biographical painting," Coleman images a warty, sweating Henry Darger (1892-1973), the reclusive hospital janitor who produced The Story of the Vivian Girls. This remarkable epic details a war in the "Realms of the Unreal" fought by heroic little girls against soldiers and monsters. The large-format collage works taken from Darger's book are among the standout items in any outsider show.
It is curious to note -- and here I draw on one of the always illuminating handouts from the Galerie St. Etienne in New York, which is showing Darger through Mar. 13 -- that in fact Darger made most of his work as an abstinent young man, between 1910 and 1921.
Why must the Outsider be old? Besides the sociological fact that working people usually don't have time for art until they retire, there is the question of the anti-youth of this anti-avant-garde. The elderly are easily conceptualized as occupying their own whimsical realm.
By contrast, we have the charming works of Florence Saville Berryman (1900-1992), the daughter of a political cartoonist who between the ages of 10 and 15 produced picture novellas describing the adventures of a nymph and a mermaid. These tiny images have the naïve charm of much children's art. This earnest retelling of a poignant fairy tale includes a salient exhibitionary event -- "A man comes to take them to the museum" -- wherein a blue-coated fellow lays hold of the fantastic females like so much fish. Fourteen panels of a series at Dean Jensen Gallery are individually priced at something less than $1,000 each.
The growing market segment of Outsider photography is somewhat problematic, since the medium involves a sophisticated, modern technique. But in the end the search can only enrich the field with extraordinary examples of popular creative practice.
The Galerie Suzanne Zander from Köln exhibited a group of collaged photographs from the 1870s, disturbing tableau vivants that depict beheadings and funeral pyres as static events -- just the before and after. These studies in barbarism refract Orientalism (the weapon is a scimitar; the pyre looks Indian), while they are redolent of Bluebeard's Lustmord, and of the magic shows that lay behind the later cinema of George Melies. They are credited to "an anonymous French artist" and priced at $4,000-$12,000.
Also notable were the grand array of tattoo "flash" (sample designs) from the 1930s on view at Fleisher/Ollman of Philadelphia. These fiercely declarative images speak volumes of proletarian history.
As ever this fair exposes new artists, opens new avenues, and raises new questions about what has become the great middle-class art collectible. Still well removed from academy and salon, it is the people's art. The constellation of folk and outsider art is a window on the popular creative soul, a refreshing perspective to set against an often depressing political one.
ALAN MOORE is an art historian who writes on art.