Friday, June 21, 2013

The Bonovitz Collection of Outsider Art at the Philadelphia Museum

Bill Traylor, 1943 (collection of Judy A. Saslow).
By Charles Kessler

You missed your chance to see this heartwarming exhibition – it closed June 9th. But don't fret. Although Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz have been complaining that museums don't exhibit outsider art, lucky for you the Philadelphia Museum of Art is one of the few museums that does. As a result, some of the work that was in this exhibition – one of the most enthralling I've seen in years – will always be on view. The informative exhibition website is still active, and here's a link to excellent reproductions of almost everything in the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection. Best of all, a beautifully illustrated hardcover exhibition catalog with excellent essays about this exhibition, and outsider art in general, is still available.
Installation view, Felipe Benito Archuleta's carved animals, Philadelphia Museum of Art. To the credit of the PMA, each artist was given the respect of having their own space, often their own room. 
There's some dispute about what outsider art is, but it's safe to say that it's art made by people who are not connected to the fine art world. Outsider artists have no traditional art training (although for some reason, trained artists who become schizophrenic are sometimes considered outsider artists). And outsider artists are not engaged with the business side of the fine arts, at least when they first begin making art. 

To be clear, outsider artists are self-taught, not untaught. Nor are they anti-social – they are isolated from the fine art tradition not by choice, but by poverty, racism, geography or some other reason beyond their control. The artists in this exhibition were driven to work hard, they were prolific, and they got better at what they did. Most of them enjoyed showing their work and were pleased when they got a positive response.  

Most outsider artists that we know about began making art late in life, when they were too old to work. They were usually motivated to create art by some inner compulsion or a sign from God. Most didn't see themselves as artists or their work as art, but rather their work served some functional objective like spreading the gospel, curing illness, or documenting some current or historic event. A great deal of outsider art is inspired by popular culture, but it's stylistically very varied.

Many art professionals say that some outsider art is among the best art made in our lifetimes. I agree. And this isn't a trendy new view. Via Lynne Cooke's essay in the exhibition catalog, I learned in 1942 the legendary Alfred Barr wrote:
Just as [Henri] Rousseau now seems one of the foremost French painters of his generation, certain of our self-taught painters can hold their own in the company of their best professionally trained compatriots. [From They Taught Themselves, one of the first books on outsider art.]
Here are some of my favorite artists in the exhibition:

Felipe Benito Archuleta, born Santa Cruz, New Mexico, 1910; died Tesuque, New Mexico, 1991.
Felipe Benito Archuleta, Mule, 1975, wood, paint, sisal, sawdust and glue, 51 ¼ x 70 x 15 ½ inches (PMA, BST-68).
When he was fifty-five, Archuleta received a vision from God that he should make wood carvings, but he said he didn’t feel worthy enough to make religious art like Santos, so, using traditional Santos carving techniques, he carved animals instead.

I find it interesting that eventually Archuleta was engaged enough in the art world that he was encouraged by collectors and dealers to make larger animals. They even encouraged him to make some exotic animals like the lynx below. Unlike the earlier work of animals he saw everyday, for these he needed to refer to magazines like National Geographic. This "insider" influence didn't seem to effect the quality of his work.
Felipe Benito Archuleta, Lynx, 1977, cottonwood, paint, sisal, sawdust and glue, 37x15x29 inches (PMA, BST-67).
In spite of the stiffness and simplification of his animals, they have a disconcerting aliveness about them, as if they are real animals inside a wooden animal costume. Perhaps it has something to do with Archuleta carefully choosing logs appropriate for carving his animals, like Michelangelo did with marble.

Emery Blagdon, born Callaway, Nebraska, 1907; died Callaway, 1986.
Emery Blagdon inside his Healing Machine, 1979 (Photo copyright Sally and Richard Greenhill).
When his mother and father died of cancer, Blangdon started to construct hundreds of sculptures (more than 600 – he called them "pretties") that, according to him, channeled the electromagnetic energy of the earth and healed anyone who came into the shed where they were installed. Blangdon may have been on to something – even though he too died of cancer, he lived to be almost eighty, much older than his parents.
Installation view of Emery Blagdon's machines for healing the sick.
Blagdon's "healing machine" was made up of wire, scrap metal, beads, aluminum foil – whatever was around, and the whole thing was lit by Christmas lights. Entering the shed must have been quite an experience. Unfortunately, separating out just three of his sculptures from their context saps the magical impact they must have had. In this case, photos of Blagdon's "healing machine" may give you a better idea of what it must have been like.
Emery Blagdon inside his Healing Machine, 1979 (Photo copyright Sally and Richard Greenhill).

James Castle, born Garden Valley, Idaho, 1899; died Boise, Idaho, 1977.
James Castle, Gray Bowl, n.d., dark gray paper (from a Sears shopping bag) tied with cotton string; green wax crayon,
3 ¼ x 7 ¾ inches (PMA, BST-15).
James Castle was born deaf and had no language. He wasn't able to work on the farm like his brothers and sisters, so he spent his time making art from things he salvaged in his everyday life – things such as flattened food cartons and cigarette packs, packaging of all types, shopping bags and envelopes; and he made his ink from soot. He produced an enormous amount of work which he carefully stored in his house. He was particularly fascinated with making books and invented his own secret code of symbolic pictographs.
James Castle, Abstract Construction, n.d., cardboard, string, wiped soot wash, 8 x 6 inches (PMA, BST-11).
I find the exquisite sensitivity of the work and meticulous care he took with it very touching. They remind me of Tantra Paintings in that respect.

Sam Doyle, born St. Helena Island, South Carolina, 1906; died Beaufort, South Carolina, 1985.
Sam Doyle in his yard, c.1983 (photo by Roger Manley).
Sam Doyle dabbled in art his whole life, but in his early sixties he decided he needed to document significant people and events in his Gullah island community, and important African Americans in general, and he went at it with great intensity. In the tradition of African American yard art, these were displayed in his yard – what he called "The St. Helena Out Door Gallery."
Sam Doyle, Dr. Boles Hi Blood, c.1985, reused corrugated and galvanized iron sheet and paint,  26 x 34 1/2  inches
(PMA,  BST-168).
What I believe to be his best painting, Dr. Boles Hi Blood, c.1985, is inexplicably missing from the PMA website, but fortunately I took a pretty good photo of it. I have no idea what's going on in the painting – perhaps it illustrates a Gullah spirit myth or a medical procedure. But the physicality of the work, the aggressive colors, the bold placement of the figures, the reduction down to bare essentials, and of course the lurid subject, result in an astoundingly powerful and dramatic work. 

Martín Ramírez, born Rincón de Velázquez, Mexico, 1895; died Auburn, California, 1963.
Martin Ramírez, Verticle Tunnel with Cars, wax crayon, graphite, water-based paint on papers, 58 x 23 ¾ inches
(PMA, BST-43).
Diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1931, Ramírez was committed to a mental hospital where fortunately they encouraged his drawing. Like many of the other outsider artists, he preferred to draw on found papers pasted together from smaller sheets. His subjects are mostly cars or trains entering or leaving a tunnel, Madonnas, horses and riders, and landscapes, and sometimes he would include images from magazines like the Saturday Evening Post.
Martin Ramírez, Train, Cars, Tunnels, and Windows, 1953, graphite, wax crayon, water-based paint and ink on paper,
23 ¾ x 90 inches (PMA, BST-40).
In 1968, Jim Nutt, one of the Chicago "Hairy Who" artist, discovered Ramírez's work and told Chicago art dealer Phyllis Kind about it. Together they bought hundreds of his drawings, and she exhibited them in her gallery as early as 1973. As a result, Ramírez (along with Traylor, below) is probably the most well-known of these outsider artists, and he became an important influence on the Chicago art scene in the 1970s.

Bill Traylor, born near Benton, Alabama, c. 1853; died Montgomery, Alabama, 1949.
Bill Traylor, Runaway Goat Cart, c. 1939-42, opaque watercolor and graphite on cream card,
14 x 22 inches (PMA, BST-52).
Bill Traylor was born a slave on a plantation and remained on the land as a farmhand for most of his life. In his mid-seventies, when he could no longer farm, he moved to Montgomery where he became essentially homeless. In his mid-eighties, stimulated by the teeming street life and its raucous characters, he suddenly began to make drawings of animals, household objects, and what he called "exciting events." He produced an astounding 1200 drawings in four years. One interesting note: the young artist Charles Shannon tried promoting Traylor's work and occasionally bought him art supplies, but Traylor preferred to work on the rough, irregularly-shaped cardboard he found.
Bill Traylor, Men Drinking, Boys Tormenting, Dogs Barking, c. 1939-42, opaque watercolor on card with dark gray prepared surface, 14 ¼ x 21 ¾ inches (PMA, BST-48).
He was a master story-teller, getting down to the bare essentials of his subjects and animating his zany vignettes in a direct and visceral way.


The breathtaking quality of the work in this exhibition gives pause. How can such great art be made without art training? Are art schools useless or, worse, can they be harmful?  Can art training extinguish the drive to express oneself and substitute instead a necessity to make work that's tired, super-refined and empty, the way the Academy did in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? I suppose it depends. Some people some time do well in some art schools; others are destroyed by them. Some people are helped by schooling; others are gifted enough to not need it. 


Maureen said...

Wonderful and fascinating examples from such creative spirits! Thank you for giving these artists the space they deserve.

Charles Kessler said...

If only the Met and MoMA and other museums would start showing these great artists.

Ken Garber said...

Thanks for posting these Charles. They're wonderful. Looks like you've been having some great viewing times.

Ken Garber

Charles Kessler said...

Thanks Ken. I have been seeing and enjoying a lot of art, but I've been too lazy to blog about it until now. Next post, if I get over my natural sloth, will be about some artists we're familiar with from the good old days in LA.

Kyle Gallup said...

Charles, thank you for this article and the links. Sorry to have missed the exhibition. I'll make a trip to Philly to see the work that's in the collection soon. James Castle and Martin Ramirez are two artists that I admire greatly and draw personal insight from. I also wonder about work that is fueled by artists with unlimited resources(schooling, money, time, space, connections, materials, mobility) vs artists who out of necessity and limited resources connect and communicate with the world by creating a visual and personal language. There is power in their ability to tease out what they have to say through humble materials--that feels real and truthful.

Charles Kessler said...

Great comment Kyle. There's something so awesome (and I meant that literally) about the compulsion some people have to express themselves.

BTW, John Yau just came out with an interesting article in Hyperallergic on Emory Blagdon's Healing Machine:

Kyle Gallup said...

Thanks Charles. Read John Yau's article this morning--so informative and interesting. Went to a panel discussion at the American Folk Art Museum this past week about "outsider artists"with Karen Wilkin, Ken Johnson, Brett Littman, and Roger Denson.It was called "The Museum, the Critics, and the Self-Taught." There's a beautiful, huge Bill Traylor exhibition up there right now. Had not heard Karen speak about "Outsider Artists" before.

Charles Kessler said...

You're way ahead of me!

Kyle Gallup said...

Haha! Not're on it and some.

Shelley Whiting's art said...

Felipe Archuleta's sculptures are very simple and elegant. Most artist go overboard. His works are very timeless.