PHILADELPHIA MUSEUM OF ART
By any measure, outsider art is now an established category. It boasts curators, scholars, and collectors; books and magazines (Raw Art); exhibitions (e.g., 1992's "Parallel Visions: Modern Artists and Outsider Art" at the LA County Museum of Art), expositions (the Outsider Art Fair in New York City and others in Atlanta and Baltimore); and even a museum, the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. The separate-but-sort-of-equal distinction begs the question of what makes outsider art "outsider"? Level of skill or education doesn't really seem at issue: not all "insider" artists are schooled, nor do outsider artists, because self-taught, necessarily lack skills. Carvers such as Leroy Person carve with originality; painters such as Purvis Young paint brilliantly. Many other outsiders, like their art-world counterparts, have developed their own media and formats, whether it's chicken bones fashioned into tiny thrones (Eugene von Bruenchenhein), prayer-meeting fans constructed from painted planks of cardboard (Sister Gertrude Morgan), or healing machines made of wire, aluminum foil, and Christmas tree lights (Emery Blagdon). If it seems all but impossible to define outsider art, perhaps the simplest distinction is that it advertises what is generally hidden or denied elsewhere: vision and conviction.
Coming to us by way of Jean Dubuffet's art brut formulation, appropriated by Chicago Hairy Who artists as grassroots art, rechristened, repositioned, repossessed - certainly by the 1972 publication of Roger Cardinal's Outsider Art (with a bow to Colin Wilson's 1956 novel The Outsider?) - outsider art seems to privilege alienation and isolation. But though some of the artists may be misfits, its connoisseurs have been 'insiders for some time now. If the term is still misleading, at least "outsider" gets rid of brut and its suggestions of the subhuman. If nothing else, outsider art is definitely human.
"Self-Taught Artists of the 20th Century: An American Anthology," a show of thirty-two artists curated by Elsa Longhauser and Harald Szeemann, was organized by the Museum of American Folk Art in New York but made its debut at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where it was supplemented by another exhibition of works from local collections. The exhibition travels until 1999, when it will wind up at the museum in New York. Despite a deeply compromised thesis - that folk art and outsider art can unproblematically be exhibited together - "Self-Taught" is an instructive exhibition.
First, the show offers an opportunity to see some splendid work by a number of outsider masters. Martin Ramirez's intense, large-scale collaged drawings on scraps of paper contain vertiginous patterning that creates hallucinatory perspectives as settings for horsemen, trains, and various isolated figures. Henry Darger, the subject of a celebrated retrospective last year at the Museum of American Folk Art, got away with murder, at least in his imagination. His bloody, byzantine adventures of the Vivian Girls still manage to shock, possibly because of the incongruously sweet collage/watercolor technique used to depict the sadistic mayhem performed against little girls sporting tiny penises. Joseph Yoakum was a Chicago favorite who produced landscapes that look like the convoluted surfaces of a cerebral cortex. Purvis Young simply can't stop painting and drawing. First he defaced discarded books, then he began making his own notebooks, and now he creates wildly expressive paintings on found surfaces - sainted jazz musicians, workers, and cityscapes. Everything Young touches seems to become covered with gyrating figures reaching for glory; his talent for paint-handling and surface inscription is breathtaking.
New discoveries or artists not previously seen in such depth energize the exhibition. In addition to his chicken-bone masterpieces, von Bruenchenhein (1910-83) produced mesmerizing paintings, initially inspired by H-bomb explosions; ceramic crowns made from the clay that he scavanged out of the troughed earth left in the wake of bulldozers; and naive erotic photographs that turned his beloved wife into a larger-than-life sex goddess. …