The inside track on Outsider Art — the artists to know
Head of Outsider Art Cara Zimmerman profiles the artists every aspiring collector should know about — with selected works from the Outsider and Vernacular Art sale on 18 January 2023 at Christie’s in New York
First coined by the critic Roger Cardinal in 1972, the term ‘Outsider Art’ was originally employed as a synonym for ‘Art Brut’. That label was created by Jean Dubuffet in the 1940s to describe works produced beyond the boundaries of the mainstream art world.
In the ensuing decades the label has broadened to encompass work by artists who have not had any formal training, and who have never been part of the art establishment. Some of those described as outsiders have come from difficult circumstances, having experienced poverty or mental illness.
In recent years the popularity of Outsider Art has increased among both collectors and curators, with countless examples appearing at auction and in international exhibitions. Given its raw, democratic origins, Outsider Art has a universal appeal. Not only does the work transcend genres, it also serves as a powerful mirror of the artist’s state of mind and of the time in which he or she lived. ‘It is impossible to get Outsider Art that is removed emotionally and personally from its maker,’ says specialist Cara Zimmerman.
Here, Zimmerman highlights the artists for collectors to look out for, with selected works from Outsider and Vernacular Art on 18 January 2023 in New York, and previous standout pieces offered at Christie’s.
Of all of the artists mentioned by Zimmerman, Henry Darger is the one whose story reads most like a fairy tale. Born in Chicago in 1892, Darger spent much of his childhood at the Lincoln Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children. After leaving at 16, he found work as a janitor.
By the time he died, in 1973 at the age of 81, his landlord had discovered In the Realms of the Unreal, an epic 15,000-page typed manuscript of text, accompanied by large-scale watercolour drawings that Darger had been working on for almost six decades.
Telling the story of a child-slave rebellion on an imaginary planet, the drawings that accompany In the Realms of the Unreal are an incredibly complex body of visual work, using collage, assemblage, tracing, photo enlargement and drawing. ‘The drawings themselves are phenomenal,’ says Zimmerman. ‘They can hold up anywhere. They show an incredibly sophisticated understanding of composition, as well as a bright and interesting use of colour.’
It’s tempting, she notes, to focus on Darger’s personal history when considering the work. But, as with most great Outsider artists, the quality of Darger’s art transcends his narrative.
Bill Traylor (circa 1853-1949) was born into slavery and spent his entire working life on an Alabama plantation. He likely did not begin drawing until he was in his eighties after moving to Montgomery, Alabama in 1928. When he reflected on the move in later life, Traylor — who estimated he had ‘raised 20-odd children’ in his lifetime — reasoned: ‘My white folks had died and my children had scattered.’
Life in Montgomery, however, proved difficult. Although he sought employment, painful rheumatism left Traylor unable to work. With no income except a small public stipend, he became homeless, sleeping in the back room of a funeral parlour at night, and spending the day camped out on the city's Monroe Avenue.
Daily life on Monroe Avenue, and his memories of the plantation, inspired Traylor’s art. He worked in pencil, on cardboard or other scraps of material, and his subjects included people he saw on the street, animals and found objects. In the spring or summer of 1939, Traylor met the artist Charles Shannon, who began to provide him with materials and to preserve his older drawings. In 1940 his first exhibition opened, entitled Bill Traylor: People’s Artist.
Born to former slaves on a farm near Nashville, Tennessee, William Edmondson (1874-1951) moved with his family to Nashville proper in around 1890 after urban expansion obliterated his childhood home. He 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. In the early 1930s, Edmondson established a stonecutting business next to his home to create tombstones for his community. There he began to carve the freestanding limestone sculptures of religious figures, people and animals for which he has achieved international acclaim.
Edmondson’s yard quickly attracted the attention of art lovers. In 1936, Vanderbilt University affiliate Sidney Hirsch came across it, and he introduced his friends Alfred and Elizabeth Starr to the artist. The Starrs in turn brought Harper's Bazaar photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe to the yard, and she photographed the artist and his work multiple times between 1936 and 1937.
After seeing the Dahl-Wolfe photographs, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., then director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, authorised a 1937 exhibition of works by the sculptor, making Edmondson the first African American to have a solo show at MoMA. Christie’s set a world auction record for a piece of Outsider Art with Edmondson’s Boxer, which sold for $785,000 in January 2016.
African-American artist William Hawkins (1895-1990) is known for his graphic, large-scale images depicting animals, architecture, religious scenes and historic events. He was raised on a farm in Kentucky and attended school up until third grade. After moving to Columbus, Ohio, in 1916, he held jobs ranging from plumber to truck driver to brothel manager. Although Hawkins began creating art in his thirties, he did not earn public recognition until 1981, when Columbus artist Lee Garrett first noticed and promoted his work.
Hawkins painted borders directly on his pieces to save his patrons the expense of purchasing frames. He also took great pride in his role as an artist, and as such always signed his work in large block lettering, including his birth date alongside his name.
While the artist used magazine images and photographs as source material, his paintings were organic and often free-form. He would tilt his surfaces after applying his signature semi-gloss enamel paint, allowing the artwork to ‘make itself’ before he finalised his imagery.
Thornton Dial and Ronald Lockett
What sets Thornton Dial and Ronald Lockett apart from other Outsider artists — besides the fact that they were cousins — is that they worked in a particular landscape of the African-American South. Living close together in Bessemer, Alabama, they both produced work that deals, in different ways, with poverty, racism and environmental degradation.
The work of Dial, who was born in 1928, was first informed by his employment as a steelworker at the Pullman Company, which produced railway carriages. Using materials such as rusted metal, he created sculptures that he then buried in his backyard. When he retired from his day job in the 1980s, he began making art full-time.
As he became more famous, his work was shown at the Whitney Biennial in 2000, in a major solo exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston in 2005-06, and in a massive touring retrospective organised by the Indianapolis Museum of Art. He used found materials from his neighbourhood to create dense, layered paintings and drawings redolent of Rauschenberg and Pollock.
‘His work reflects his culture and his community,’ Zimmerman says. ‘The found objects that are incorporated into the artworks are laden with information. The finished pieces would have entirely different meanings without the incorporation of these materials.’
Much younger than his cousin, Ronald Lockett was born in 1965 and grew up observing the art being made around him. When he began creating his own work, it manifested itself in dark, complex assemblages that used materials including rusted metals and nails to explore dark moments in human history — the Holocaust, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the plight of Native Americans.
After Lockett contracted HIV in the early 1990s, death became a central theme in his work. He began to use found objects that related to themes of regeneration — a repurposing of the discarded. ‘He had access to pain, and he used it,’ says Zimmerman. In 2014, major works by both Dial and Lockett were acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Born in 1895 in Tepatitlán, Mexico, Martín Ramírez emigrated to the United States in the 1920s to find employment on the railways. Six years later he was diagnosed with catatonic schizophrenia, and institutionalised until his death in 1963.
After being transferred to DeWitt State Hospital in Auburn near Sacramento in 1948, he met Tarmo Pasto, a visiting professor of psychology and art, who began saving the large-scale works Ramírez was making out of materials including brown paper bags and saliva.
Pasto provided Ramírez with the paper and drawing implements he would use to create many works. These pieces explored themes such as the railroad, the Virgin Mary, and his native country. ‘He had the ability to create depth and perspective using really sophisticated rendering techniques,’ observes Zimmerman.
Although he remained largely unknown during his lifetime, since his death he has been the subject of international art exhibitions at institutions such as the American Folk Art Museum in New York. In 2015 the United States Postal Service honoured his work by featuring five of his drawings on a series of limited-edition stamps.
What makes Ramírez’s work great, according to Zimmerman, is that it completely transcends collecting genres. ‘I’ve seen it in great collections of Americana, Post-War, Contemporary and Old Masters,’ she says. ‘His art holds its own alongside works of any genre.’
Although Outsider Art comes from around the world, Zimmerman notes that Art Brut was originally used to describe work made in Europe, such as that by Adolf Wölfli. Wölfli was the subject of a 1921 book, A Mental Patient as Artist, by psychiatrist Dr Walter Morgenthaler, and later captured the attention of Dubuffet and Surrealists such as André Breton in the early 1940s.
Born in 1864, Wölfli was institutionalised for the entirety of his adult life until his death in 1930. He considered art as his ‘bread’, and traded it with other patients for cigarettes and food. He is best known for a semi-autobiographical epic he began in 1908, which grew to encompass more than 25,000 pages with 1,600 illustrations.
A heavy layering of details that betrays a ‘horror vacui’, or fear of empty space, marks his compositions. ‘It’s incredibly exciting and dense,’ says Zimmerman of his work. ‘He created an entire body of work around an imagined life.’
Fibre artist Judith Scott (1943-2005) is renowned for her intricately wrapped sculptures that transform everyday found objects into cocoon-like, abstracted forms. From 1987 until her death in 2005, Scott worked at the Creative Growth Art Center, Oakland, California, where she developed her singular artistic voice.
Delicately and carefully enveloping her chosen supports with layers of yarn, cloth and other fibres, Scott engages in a painstaking sculptural process through which she engages with the world around her. The artist was extremely close to her twin sister, and many of her works feature pairs or variations on themes of duality.
Scott was born with Down’s Syndrome and lost her hearing early in life; art became her main method of communication, and her lasting legacy. Scott’s art was the subject of a major retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, New York, in 2014-15, and is held in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the American Folk Art Museum, both in New York, and the Museum of Everything in London.
George Widener (b. 1962) has always been able to calculate numbers and patterns far beyond the capacity of an ordinary person. Diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is recognised as a numerical savant, keeping a series of notebooks in which he records meaningful dates, numbers and historical events. Dates, in particular, are important to the artist, who has stated that they are ‘not a single static item’ but ‘part of a vast interconnected network’. For Widener, ‘the dates of the last century have a dynamic connection to the dates of today as well as the future’.
Much of Widener’s work has grappled with the sinking of the Titanic. The artist’s 50th birthday fell in the same year as the 100th anniversary of the tragedy, and he discovered, uncannily, that another George Widener — a businessman and arts patron from Philadelphia — was among those who had gone down with the ship. The artist also considers his pieces to be in a dialogue with the work of the Japanese conceptual artist On Kawara — ‘albeit in a whimsical Asperger’s fashion’.