The genesis of Outsider Art could well be traced to an imagined prehistoric cave wall, to the work of your favorite eccentric visionary (think William Blake), or to the mythic artist-genius dreamed up by Romantic philosophers and poets. Outsider Artists began to emerge as a force to be reckoned with during the early 1920’s, with the publication of two pioneering studies of art made on asylum inmates, conducted by European psychiatrists in search of universal truths about human creativity.
German Expressionists soon fell in love with the schizophrenic artists presented in these books–especially Adolf Wölfli, Karl Brendel and August Naterrer–and adopted them as creative muses by appropriating their imagery. In Paris, the Surrealists looked to the same books for inspiration, and also to Spiritualist Mediums such as Augustin Lesage and Helene Smith who were famous local practitioners of automatic drawing.
It wasn’t until after World War II that Outsider Art was truly recognized as more than simply source material for the modernist avant-garde. The French artist Jean Dubuffet took the Surrealist obsession with Outsiders to a new level by daring to collect and exhibit their work. Not only did he champion the artwork of schizophrenics and local mediums, but he also celebrated art made by eccentric isolates and self-taught laborers. Dubuffet recognized in the work of these divergent groups one unifying trait: a raw quality untouched by academic rules or current trends.
In 1947, Dubuffet staged a ground-breaking, manifesto-driven exhibition in Paris, aptly naming his category art brut (Raw Art). Dubuffet’s Collection de l’Art Brut grew in the subsequent decades, and eventually found a home in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1976. This unique collection might well have remained in isolation, if not for the publication of a 1972 study of art brut entitled Outsider Art written by the British scholar Roger Cardinal. Cardinal’s book, and his 1979 London exhibition Outsiders, launched Outsider Art as a powerful global force that continues to challenge and redefine the limits of what we call art.
SPECIAL EXHIBITION BY GEE’S BEND QUILTMAKERS AT 25th OUTSIDER ART FAIR
The quilting tradition in Gee’s Bend goes back to the 19th century Perhaps influenced in part by patterned African textiles, female slaves pieced together strips of cloth to make bedcovers. Throughout the post-bellum years and into the 20th century, Gee’s Bend women made quilts to keep themselves and their children warm in unheated shacks that lacked running water, telephones and electricity. Along the way they developed a distinctive style, noted for its lively improvisations and geometric simplicity.
The quilts have been exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and theWhitney Museum of American Art, among others. The reception of the work has been mostly positive, as Alvia Wardlaw, curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston ” wrote, “The compositions of these quilts contrast dramatically with the ordered regularity associated with many styles of Euro-American quiltmaking. There’s a brilliant, improvisational range of approaches to composition that is more often associated with the inventiveness and power of the leading 20th-century abstract painters than it is with textile-making,”. The Whitney venue, in particular, brought a great deal of art-world attention to the work, starting with Michael Kimmelman’s review in The New York Times which called the quilts ‘some of the most miraculous works of modern art American has produced’ and went on to describe them as a version of Matisse and Klee arising in the rural South.
Hear the Faithful Harmonizers, a group that performed Southern spirituals and gospel songs that motivated many African Americans to live and not just endure inequality in their lives.