Good news! The Outsider Art Fair, Jan. 9-11, 2009, generated positive buzz and good sales in its 17th annual outing. I attended the preview, a benefit for the American Folk Art Museum, and the crowd was as big as at last year’s event, perhaps a bit larger. That’s saying a lot, because the fair, previously at the Puck Building in SoHo, this year moved to the Mart, a new Midtown location across from the Empire State Building.
While I liked the funky Puck Building, it was getting funkier and more cramped each year. (Word is that the ground-floor space is being redesigned as a restaurant.) This year the Mart’s wider aisles, maze of white walls and grey carpeting gave the event a more professional (and tad more corporate) air. I suspect a more laid-back vibe and more varied décor will prevail once dealers get used to the space.
More importantly, most of the 34 dealers, including nine new galleries, were doing good business. Things weren’t flying off the walls, but there was steady selling and smiles both at the opening and later on.
The international reach of the fair seems to be as expansive as ever while the price range is broadening. I found works between $125 and $280,000, and good value at every price point. Most items were still $1,000 to $5,000, but it’s tougher to pick up a masterpiece for peanuts, which is as it should be.
Three standout newcomers made me especially happy. Stephen Palmer (1882-1965) was a member of a Christian fringe group in the Midwest, and he obsessively turned out images of Christ and other religious figures, embedded in wild geometric designs. Uncovered after his death, his trippy drawings, executed during 1955-1965, aren’t like any religious paintings you’ve ever seen. He had visions and expressed them in the psychedelic visual language of the time. Maybe he even got there first, as there is a lot more to learn about this fascinating discovery.
I saw Palmer’s religious portraits a year ago at the American Antiques Show, where a Wisconsin gallery was handling him. The estate is now divided between Carl Hammer Gallery of Chicago and Ricco / Maresca in New York, both dealers having wonderful examples of his work at the fair. You could buy a one for $4,000-$5,000, and many people did.
At the Ames Gallery of Berkeley, Ca., Bonnie Grossman came up with a handful of the 30 to 35 extant paintings by Ursula Barnes (1872-1958), whose diva fantasies can be sexy or romantic or both. The Suitor shows a flower-toting gent peeking at his ladylove, who seems more preoccupied with the three dogs and four puppies that surround her. In Eve, Adam and Eve stare at the viewer, while the serpent nibbles Eve’s ear. The German-born artist went through a number of careers in this country, and died in California, where the Oakland Museum owns some of her work. A large painting was only $9,000.
My other favorite new artist is very much alive and producing new works like mad. This remarkable young man, Andrew Blythe of New Zealand, makes drawings mostly in black and white acrylic. The Stuart Shepherd Gallery had several beauties, including one using "x" and "No" as repeated motifs. Blythe’s sophisticated, syncopated patterns are complex and totally satisfying. His layering of paint made me think of Franz Kline with his remarkable interweaving of white and black that leave the viewer unable to tease out which was put down first.
Blythe’s drawings were priced from $900 to $1,200, which I consider incredibly cheap. Besides Blythe, the Shepherd Gallery was also behind the positive / negative geometric Martin Thompson drawings that the American Folk Art Museum showed in "Obsessive Drawing" in 2005. I found several other young artists there that were worth looking at, too.
I liked two artists from the Netherlands. At George Jacobs Self-Taught Art from Newport, R.I., I noted the small, swirling figure drawings, very Klee-like, by Riet van Halder (b. 1930). This Dutch housewife suddenly felt called upon to paint and has explored a large number of media.
The other artist was Ognjen (Ogi) Jeremic (1953-2005), who was born in Bosnia-Herzegovina and died in Amsterdam. A restless man, his surrealistic drawings are often populated with fantastic avian creatures, and bare the trace of his travels to India in the exotic, vibrant colors he combined with tiny, black, obsessive patterning. I had seen his black-and-white pieces at other fairs, but these works in color were even more interesting. Galerie Atelier Herenplaats of Rotterdam had the work.
I’d love to see more of Frank Calloway’s scroll-like drawings. Andrew Edlin of the eponymous New York gallery was showing two works by this newly found centenarian artist from Tuscaloosa, Ala., the longest measuring about ten feet. I’ve seen similar images of architecture, animals and cars, but never on this scale. He supposedly starts at one end of a 30-foot-long roll of butcher-block paper and keeps going until he comes to the end.
Luise Ross Gallery was showing the drawings by Violetta Raditz (1912-1998), usually picturing a single young woman. The spare drawings have an innocent charm balanced by an innate elegance. The works were all done when the future designer was only eight years old.
Another newcomer was Melvin Edward Nelson, whose cosmic drawings at Cavin-Morris relate to UFOs. Among a mix of old and new pieces at the gallery’s booth, I also admired a group of works by Japanese Outsiders, well-known in Japan but new here, especially the bold designs of Takashi Shuji and the antic pastels of Yoshimitsu Tomizuka.
Speaking of Japanese artists, I caught up with an old acquaintance, Hiroyuki Doi, at the Phyllis Kind Gallery booth. Doi was in town from Tokyo for the fair and his one-person show at the gallery in Chelsea. That exhibition runs until Feb. 28, 2009. Smaller works were at the fair; larger ones at the gallery.
Doi was painting landscapes and still lifes when his brother died, 20 years ago. Out of his grief and the insomnia that resulted from it, he began a new body of work made entirely of circles, universal symbols of the soul. His black ink on Japanese paper drawings contain hundreds or maybe thousands, of light, dark, small or large circles massed in various ways. His ethereal drawings resemble germinating egg cells, bubbles and galaxies, both microcosm and macrocosm, yet each is distinctive.
Among other classic works on display, I enjoyed the selection of European Outsiders, especially the work of Carlo Zenelli (1916-1974) at Judy A. Saslow Gallery from Chicago. His often double-sided drawings are enigmatic with repeating religious, military and esoteric motifs.
The delicate, almost lacy, assemblages of A.C.M. (Alfred Corinne Marie) at J.P. Ritsch-Fisch Galerie of Strasbourg, France, have become more intricate over time. Born in 1951, A.C.M. has been constructing and assembling artworks for some time. His most recent pieces have tinier bits -- electrical and mechanical parts that he cleans, bathes in acid, assembles, distorts and sometimes paints. The results are astonishing, something totally new, half-made and half becoming. A typical work is slightly more than a foot tall.
Among American self-taught artists, one of the most prominent is Purvis Young (b. 1943). Young’s paintings depicting the lives of blacks in Overtown, a section of Miami, were at several booths. One of the best and certainly the biggest was at the Outsider Folk Art Gallery, new to the fair this year and run by my friends, Sue and George Viener, collectors turned dealers. Black Jesus (1973), an early work in house paint on wood, has a group of ecstatic angels at the left of the painting, beneath the arm of a cross from which hangs a black Christ. It was priced at $175,000.
Gilley’s Gallery in Baton Rouge usually brings up a batch of memory paintings by the popular artist Clementine Hunter (1886-1988), who lived most of her life on Melrose Plantation. While she probably painted about 4,000 paintings before she died at 101, she made only about 25 quilts that were not strictly utilitarian. One of these, bearing images of the plantation, was the focal point of Gilley’s display this year. The asking price was $35,000.
Not every blue-chip Outsider was expensive. Several booths had inexpensive glamour-girl watercolors by Justin McCarthy (1892-1977), the Pennsylvania artist with an Expressionistic touch. Carter Grey - Objects of Art from McLean, Va., also had small oil by McCarthy, Pipe Smoker, for only $2,250.
The best one-person show at the fair was the Janet Sobel survey mounted by Gary Snyder Project Space of New York. Sobel (1894-1968), a Russian-born artist whose drip paintings inspired Jackson Pollock, had a complicated career, starting out as a folk artist and growing increasingly more self-conscious with lots of stops in between. Snyder told me he’s planning a show for later this year, tentatively titled, "Janet Sobel: Dripping in the Forties." It will be a must-see.
The most expensive piece that I saw at the Outsider Art Fair this year is also the one I most wanted to own. Galerie St. Etienne’s booth had Morris Hirshfield’s View, an oil from around 1945, priced at $280,000. Frankly, it was so good that I wondered why a museum hadn’t snapped it up at any price in the first moments of the preview.
The painting’s blue background is lovingly built up in tiny ridges of paint. The paint handling is so delicious that I didn’t know whether to lick it or look at it.
View is an almost impossible painting with its push to reveal its sensuality and its pull to restrain it. Hirshfield (1872-1946), a retired slipper manufacturer, took up painting late in life, and his subjects were mostly women, animals and plants. His family frowned upon his oils, which are among the most wonderful ever produced in America -- beautiful, sophisticated, a little bit goofy.
Did you miss the Outsider Art Fair? If you did, too bad, so make sure catch next January’s installment, with its visionary, passionate and colorful art.
And in the meantime, you can console yourself by seeing several other Hirshfield works in the important loan show "They Taught Themselves," based on the landmark book by Sidney Janis with this title, at the midtown Galerie St. Etienne until Mar. 14, 2009.
N.F. KARLINS is a New York critic and art historian.