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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

Four people with black skin are squeezed into a narrow boat on bright, turquoise-colored water that nearly fills this stylized, square painting. All four sides of the unstretched canvas are lined with six gromets spaced along each edge. The boat approaches a carnival-like tunnel near the upper right corner. Cartoon ghosts loom at the tunnel entrance and a translucent, veil-like ghost hovers over the left half of the painting. The horizon comes almost to the top of the canvas, where white clouds float against an azure-blue sky. A long, lemon-yellow line curls back and forth in a tight, curving zigzag pattern that widens out from a tiny sun setting on the horizon. A red cross on a white field floats near the upper left. At the top center, the word “WOW” appears in white letters within a crimson-red, bursting speech bubble with long trailing tendrils, like an exploded firework. Below the boat and against the water to our right, the word “FUN” has been overlaid with a white square so the tall, white letters are barely visible. The words “GREAT AMERICA” appear in a curling banner across the bottom half of the painting.

Kerry James Marshall, Great America, 1994, acrylic and collage on canvas, Gift of the Collectors Committee, 2011.20.1

Fueled by the current wave of interest in the self-taught artist within the contemporary art world, this project aims to restore to the notion of the outlier its historical specificity by charting the debates that have shaped and contextualized it generation by generation. An in-depth, historically grounded analysis of the marginalized creator—identified under various rubrics: folk, naïve, vernacular, visionary, and outsider artist—exposes the forms of investment, at once theoretical and instrumental, made by professional artists, critics, gallerists, collectors, and curators in the United States in this contentious concept at key moments over the past century.

Typically, the work of the outlier enters the public arena either through the advocacy of artists or in major museum exhibitions. During the interwar period, the locus of this burgeoning exchange was New York. In 1932 the Museum of Modern Art staged a large-scale presentation of traditional folk art, then considered a primary source of inspiration for a uniquely American vanguard modernism, and subsequently, by means of acquisitions, collection display, and solo and group shows, promoted the work of contemporary self-taught artists from the United States and abroad under the rubric “Modern Primitives.”

Beginning in the late 1960s, claims were advanced that a living, as opposed to a traditional, form of folk art could still be found in certain parts of the country, notably in small rural communities in Appalachia and the South. Previously conceived as a historically bounded category rooted in the preindustrial culture of the Northeast, circa 1750 to 1870, the realm of the self-taught practitioner was now broadened. In addition to the work produced in poor, and in many cases rural, African American communities in the South, it came to encompass the work of reclusive artists, purportedly indifferent to all forms of high art, who, in the 1970s and 1980s, came to be labeled as “Outsider” or “Isolate.” Or it might take the form of environmental installations—private dwellings and compounds, gardens, and visionary edifices—constructed by autodidacts in remote parts of the country. As previously, such recharged conceptualizations of the outlier were figured through seminal exhibitions. These, however, were now often hosted by museums in regions throughout the nation, in accordance with the widely dispersed nature of this increasingly diverse phenomenon. For the first time, critiques generated from a range of disciplines—folklore, ethnography, and material culture—contested entrenched methodologies that had conceptualized folk art only in terms of painting and sculpture and evaluated it according to aesthetic criteria normative to fine art. From a modernist model based in notions of center and periphery, the paradigm governing relations between the schooled and the unschooled artist was revised: henceforth they would be seen to occupy parallel worlds.

Forebodings that outsider art would come to an end because of the vast social, cultural, and political changes reshaping the later twentieth century, not least the impact of mass media communications and enhanced mobility, have proven ungrounded, as the “discovery” in recent years of significant oeuvres by James Castle (1899–1977), Judith Scott (1943–2005), Morton Bartlett (1909–1992), and Rosie Lee Tompkins (1936–2006), among others, has demonstrated. Ironically, at a time when stewardship of the work of the outlier has come under the auspices of institutions dedicated specifically to the collection and display of works by the self-taught, in contrast to the earlier twentieth century, when this work was channeled through museums of modern and contemporary art, vanguard artists have discerned a timely relevance in its protocols, legacies, and lineages. Calls to abandon such classifications as “outsider” and “folk artist,” which marginalize the autodidact, in favor of positioning the self-taught and professional on an even playing field, where the honorific of artist is unproblematically available to all, have taken on greater urgency.

Encompassing the years from the mid-1990s to the present, the third section of this project (currently in preparation as an exhibition and accompanying catalog) examines the current context by means of three case studies organized around pivotal issues, including the recuperation of African American folk art lineages into establishment circuits explored, for example, in the work of Kerry James Marshall (b. 1955), David Hammons (b. 1943), and Kara Walker (b. 1969).