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What is Outsider art?

An expert guide to a category featuring self-taught artists from outside the art establishment — featuring works from our 20 September sale in New York

‘Outsider Art is perhaps a catch-all term,’ explains Christie’s specialist Cara Zimmerman. ‘I tend to classify it as art made by people who weren’t working within the artistic establishment.’

In the United States, she says, the material stems from a folk-art tradition. Most Outsider artists received no formal training and were influenced by pop culture and the world around them rather than other mainstream artists.

In the modern world, says Zimmerman, ‘The idea of an artist removed from society doesn’t exist.’ This might explain why the Outsider artists whose work is offered in the Important American Furniture, Silver, Outsider and Folk Art sale on 20 September have earned an important reputation for exploring ‘a world that wasn’t really documented’.

William Edmondson (1874-1951), Critter, 1930s. Limestone, 12 in high, 31 ½ in long, 6 in wide. Estimate $50,000-150,000. This lot is offered in Important American Furniture, Silver, Outsider and Folk Art on 20 September 2016 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Plaza

William Edmondson (1874-1951), Critter, 1930s. Limestone, 12 in high, 31 ½ in long, 6 in wide. Estimate: $50,000-150,000. This lot is offered in Important American Furniture, Silver, Outsider and Folk Art on 20 September 2016 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Plaza

In this video, the specialist looks at Critter by William Edmondson (1874-1951), whom she describes as possibly her ‘favourite artist of all’. Edmondson held two jobs for much of his adult life: from 1900 to 1907 he worked for the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railway, and from around 1907 to 1931 he served as a janitor at the Nashville Women’s Hospital. 

After he lost his job at the hospital, Edmondson decided to become a tombstone carver. ‘After a while he started to carve what he called his garden ornaments,’ says Zimmerman, looking over the skilled architectural carving on Critter. Remarkably, Edmonsdon became the first African-American artist to have a solo exhibition at the MoMA.

Bill Traylor (1854-1949), Green Construction with Two Men and a Dog, 1939-1942. Crayon on card, 10⅜ x 9⅝ in. Estimate $30,000-50,000. This lot is offered in Important American Furniture, Silver, Outsider and Folk Art on 20 September 2016 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Plaza

Bill Traylor (1854-1949), Green Construction with Two Men and a Dog, 1939-1942. Crayon on card, 10⅜ x 9⅝ in. Estimate: $30,000-50,000. This lot is offered in Important American Furniture, Silver, Outsider and Folk Art on 20 September 2016 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Plaza

Bill Traylor lived most of his life on a plantation in Alabama, and only began to make works of art in 1939, when he was aged around 75. ‘What he’s really known for are his animated figures,’ explains the specialist as she takes a closer look at Green Construction with Two Men and a Dog (above).

Thornton Dial (1928-2016), Open Windows, 1992. Enamel, towels, tin, rope, carpet and industrial sealing compound on canvas mounted on wood, 60 in high, 73 ½ in wide, 2 ½ in deep. Estimate $20,000-40,000. This lot is offered in Important American Furniture, Silver, Outsider and Folk Art on 20 September 2016 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Plaza

Thornton Dial (1928-2016), Open Windows, 1992. Enamel, towels, tin, rope, carpet and industrial sealing compound on canvas mounted on wood, 60 in high, 73 ½ in wide, 2 ½ in deep. Estimate: $20,000-40,000. This lot is offered in Important American Furniture, Silver, Outsider and Folk Art on 20 September 2016 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Plaza

‘Thornton Dial was a very political person,’ Zimmerman continues, ‘and by the time he died [in January 2016] he had really begun to push the envelope on all sorts of things.’ Highlighting the example of Open Windows (1992), she points out how the canvas, which is built up with towels, metal, rope, carpet and industrial sealing compound,  ‘fits into his legacy of work, which is all about struggle’. 

These works and more will be on view from 17-20 September at Christie’s, located in the Rockefeller Center in New York. The sale begins at 2pm on 20 September.