Skip to Content

Members' Research Report Archive

Outside In: A Study of the Interface Between Mainstream and Self-Taught Art in the United States in the Twentieth Century

Lynne Cooke
, New York City
Andrew W. Mellon Professor, 2012–2014

The center, the professional art world, at once defines and depends upon its periphery, which it directly engages intermittently, in terms that constantly morph and mutate. The self-taught artist, an inhabitant of the margins, is a problematic modernist cultural construct whose definition has been subject to revision throughout this period. In restoring to the notion of the “outlier” its historical specificity—charting the debates that contextualized it generation by generation—much of the obfuscation and confusion that surround it disappears. An in-depth, historically grounded analysis of what are usually considered interchangeable monikers for the marginalized creator—folk, naïve, vernacular, visionary, and outsider artist—reveals the forms of investment, both theoretical and instrumental, made by professional artists, critics, gallerists, collectors, and curators in this fraught concept. This study of shifting relations between mainstream artists and autodidacts at key moments in the modernist and late modernist era is focused in the United States, where they have charted a very different course from the trajectory manifest in Western Europe during the same period.

Painted with small areas of mostly flat color, this horizontal painting shows three brown-skinned people in the room of a home with pale gray walls and wood floors. To our right, a woman wears slate-gray skirt, a white apron and shawl, and a red headscarf with black and white polka dots. She sits in a black wooden chair facing our right in profile, smoking a pipe. A steaming kettle and bright green coffee pot sit on a black wood stove behind and to the right of the woman, with firewood stacked to the right. A clock or timer and an oil lamp sit on a red shelf above the stove and the woman’s head. Beneath her feet is one of three rectangular area rugs with a pattern of green, black, white, and red stripes. A window at the center of the back wall of the room is mostly covered by a dark green curtain. The panes along the bottom are black and lined with white, suggesting snow or frost. A bucket and pewter-colored shallow bowl sit on a bench on the second striped rug under the window. To our left, a small person standing on the third patterned rug wears short black pants, stockings, and suspenders over a white shirt. That person turns away from us and rests elbows near a lit candle on a table with a red and gray checkered tablecloth. The third person, possibly a young girl, sits on a blanket or a fourth rug patterned with yellow, red, black, and green triangles. That young girl wears a gray dress and black shoes. She cradles a baby doll, and a white dog, perhaps a stuffed animal, sits next to her. A few cracks in the wall near the window expose horizontal bands, perhaps narrow wooden boards under damaged plaster. The artist signed the work with black letters in the lower right corner: “H. PiPPiN.”

Horace Pippin, School Studies, 1944, oil on canvas, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Meyer P. Potamkin, in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art, 1991.42.1

My research currently suggests that the critical discourse and artistic exchanges between outliers and the mainstream American art world came to a head at three moments during the past century. On each occasion, this interface was vividly evidenced in landmark exhibitions initiated by museums devoted to the presentation of modern and contemporary art. In the earliest period, that is, circa 1926–1943, the locus of this burgeoning exchange was New York, where two fledgling institutions, the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Studio Club (from 1931 the Whitney Museum of American Art), played seminal roles, initially through their embrace of traditional folk art as the prime locus of inspiration for a uniquely American vanguard modernism and then in their support for certain modes of the genre of popular painting exemplified in the work of the self-taught African American Horace Pippin (1888–1946). When the mainstream art world re-engaged with the widening category of the self-taught after World War II, in the period stretching from the late 1960s through the early 1980s, the existence of a viable living (as opposed to a traditional and hence defunct) national folk art was widely recognized, and a subset of that production became identified as outsider art. Originating as a historically bounded category, rooted in the preindustrial, largely rural, culture of the Northeast, circa 1750 to 1870, a twentieth-century folk art now came to be seen as something produced mainly in the South, in poor, and in many cases African American, agrarian communities. This redefinition, in turn, effected a radical shift in the paradigm governing the professional/self-taught inter change from a model based in center/periphery relations to one that would henceforth be limned in terms of parallel worlds.

As previously, these recharged conceptual constructions were figured through the vehicle of seminal shows and exhibition programs that were initiated by institutions on the East Coast. Though little remarked upon to date, curatorial endeavors and the critical reception they provoked were (in tandem with the aesthetic responses of professional artists) instrumental once again in reshaping the field. This project will consequently pay particular attention to exhibition histories and the formation of collections, both public and private, and to their reception in the critical literature generated in catalogues, professional journals, and the popular art press, as well as in diaries, biographies, and memoirs.

According to some cultural theorists, among other transformative social factors, changes in communications technologies and in medical practices relating to the mentally and physically challenged, together with rising levels of education, make it improbable that significant bodies of work will continue to be created by individuals whose biographies approximate that of the paradigmatic twentieth-century outsider artist. Those rare exceptions who challenge this endgame prognostication no longer orbit in a parallel world but assume a place alongside the medley of makers of today’s vastly expanded, globalized art world, their indifference to the tenets and protocols of artistic discourse seemingly no handicap to participation on what is deemed to be an even playing field. If formerly isolating definitions like “outsider” and “self-taught” are abandoned because they fail to serve a critical function, and the honorific of artist is unproblematically available to all, the subject addressed by this project would appear to have reached a terminus. Spanning the period from the mid-1990s to the present, the third section of this study will test these contentious claims.