Outsider art is the folk art alternative

NEW YORK CITY — The Outsider Art Fair began as a small offbeat show on the edge of SoHo just 14 years ago. This year’s event Jan. 27-29 proved that it has blossomed into a full-fledged destination, complete with celebrities (Jason Schwartsman, star of “Shopgirl,” among them), politician’s wives (Lynn Cheney) and more than 7,000 visitors paying $15 ($35 for three days) for the opportunity to acquire works by self-taught artists. The preview benefited the American Folk Art Museum.

Sanford Smith, principal in Sanford L. Smith & Associates, the show’s producer, was not surprised by the turnout. “Outsider art” he said, “is replacing the market for American folk art, whose prices have escalated beyond most people’s budgets.”

Outsider artists, “free of external input,” said French dealer Jean Pierre Ritsch-Fisch, often have remarkable backgrounds. Some spent their lives in institutions, others lived on the fringes of society. Many were compelled by a spiritual need to create. In many cases, very little is known about the artists beyond their body of work. The offerings that make it to market, particularly to the Outsider Art Fair, have an intrinsic quality that places them squarely in the world of desirable acquisitions.

With only a handful of “established” outsiders and a seemingly steady stream of newcomers, entry-level collectors at the Fair were able to purchase quality works for less than $1,000. Seasoned collectors, however, seeking to improve their collections pushed the top end upwards of $100,000.

Carl Hammer Gallery, Chicago, drew crowds with a black men’s suit that was covered with buttons sewn on by Hilda Anderson. One picture of the artist provided all the historical background there is. Nearby, a suite of 18 finely carved figurines just inches high, bare and in provocative postures, by “Anonymous,” was displayed a few feet away from a 21-inch tall wooden “Rabbi’s Head, 1977” carved by Albert Hoffman. The sculpture sold for an undisclosed amount early in the show. Several Henry Darger pencil drawings on pieced-together paper painted over with watercolor went to knowledgeable collectors.

Nearby, Ricco/Maresca Gallery of New York featured an entire wall hung with vintage African-American quilts gathered from all over the United States. In contrast, a facing wall was done up with several paintings that had a more or less spiritual theme. There was Elliott Kimball’s painting, “Eve with Apple and Snake,” a tin cutout called “Devil Shooting Mask,” and Joseph Garlock’s 1952 “Madonna and Child.” Setting this off, was Morton Bartlett’s half-life-size-to-scale sculpture of a barefoot, pony-tailed adolescent outfitted in crop-top and pleated skirt. (It was tagged at $65,000.)

“We sold quite a few quilts.” Frank Maresca said. “In fact we sold a lot of things, right across the board.” Among them were “older classics,” like Henry Darger and David Butler.

Even older — but still considered “outsider” — were works by Native American Plains artists who interpreted what they saw on ledger books. One graphite colored pencil, paper and cotton creation entitled “Ledger Book Ends, circa 1890” was tagged $15,000 as was another entitled “Counting Coup from his Pinto,” circa 1890. These were offered by Dean Jenson Gallery, Milwaukee, as was a remarkable sculpture made of wood, tar, paint and mop fibers. Created in the 1980s by Dr. Charles Smith, “Angel” is on her knees, with her praying hands lifted heavenward.

The Rev. Howard Finster’s works dominated the walls of the Barbara Archer Gallery, Atlanta. Included was the sign from Finster’s office in Paradise Garden, pre-1976, and a large painting of the Presidents. Archer also displayed Nellie May Rowe’s “Black Dog,” 1982, which was featured on the cover of the Fair’s brochure. Crapas, crayon and graphite on paper, it sold for $14,000.

Ames Gallery, Berkley, Calif., attracted collectors with Jim Bauer’s whimsical illuminated sculptures made from kitchen items and hardware. On the wall were A. G. Rizzoli’s obsessively intricate architectural creations designed for an imaginary city. Meanwhile, Ted Gordon’s tightly lined works commanded others’ attention.

The broad strokes of Clementine Hunter’s paintings, shown by Gilley’s Gallery, Baton Rouge, La., sold well. “Maw Maw,” oil on artist board, brought $16,500. A Hunter quilt, called “The Melrose Plantation Quilt,” circa 1960, made of silk, in African stripes and bands, was tagged $35,000. Another Louisiana outsider of note is David Butler. His metal whirly gigs, created the hard way with mallet and meat cleaver, were given prominence. “Flying Elephant Whirligig” caught the eye of the media and landed Gilley’s unexpected attention.

Andrew Edlin Gallery of New York City showed works by Tom Duncan, Vahakn Arslanian, Michael Ryan and Albert Hoffman among others.

The detailed “weather maps” of Czech artist Zdenek Kosek — which convey both physical and emotional factors — enlivened the booth of Cavin-Morris Gallery, New York City. Among other artists represented in the booth were the mixed-media works of Emery Blagdon. Fashioned of wire, copper and plastic, even Popsicle sticks, tin foil and paper tape, the constructions are delightfully appealing.

American Primitive Gallery, New York City, brought the abstracts of Eugene Andolsek to the public. Elaborate pictures with layered patterns that can be kaleidoscopic, the Rhode Island Railroad stenographer thought them useless and ferreted them away.

Grey Carter-Objects of Art, McLean, Va., featured the primitive renditions of J.M. Savitsky, a miner who was known to trade art for booze. “Blue Breaker,” 1978, oil on masonite, captures a worker in overalls and light deep in the mine. A more complex rendering, “Glen Oak Falls,” 1976, catapulted the viewer from mine into a brighter space.

Among the foreign dealers, Yukiko Koide Presents of Tokyo, a first-time exhibitor, showcased the two-dimensional designs of Junko Yamamoto. By the Fair’s end, they had all been scooped up by interested collectors. Candidly — and touchingly — Koide expressed the dilemma faced by dealers of outsider art. Referring to a suite of small works by Seiji Yamasawa, and remarked, “I cannot find him anymore. I am afraid he has become institutionalized.”

Another international dealer, Wasserwerk Galerie Lange of Seigburg, Germany, introduced the bold chromatic images of Joseph Wittlich. A pumice factory laborer, who liked to paint people in fancy dress. The appeal of such paintings as “Model in Fancy Hat” did not go unnoticed. A spokesman for the gallery said near the close of show, “We sold six in the last three hours.”