What is American about American Outsider Art?

“Outsider art” originated in Europe. From psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn’s seminal 1922 book Artistry of the Mentally Ill, which considered the output of institutionalized persons in aesthetic ways, to French artist Jean Dubuffet’s 1940s definition of art brut as art created outside academic circles, discussion about untrained artists as a distinct section of the art world began outside the United States.

American outsider art and artists are now very much part of the outsider art world and conversation, but the individualistic and diverse self-taught artists from America are quite distinct from their European counterparts. This online exhibition pinpoints some of the interesting ways that American outsider artists are, first and foremost, American artists, drawing on aspects of American experience, landscape, and history. While the artists addressed here certainly belong in discussions of self-taught artists around the globe, they must also be considered products of their time, place, and location, making them distinct and unique figures within outsider art conversation.



Materials of America

Artists Bessie Harvey, Miles Carpenter, and William Edmondson relied on locally-found materials to create their art. Harvey and Carpenter used the natural lines and shapes of tree roots and branches to create anthropomorphic forms, while Edmondson took advantage of discarded Tennessee limestone blocks in the creation of his tombstones and figures.

Bessie Harvey Faces of Africa II

Bessie Harvey Faces of Africa II / 1994 / Alcoa Tennessee / Painted wood, wood putty, glitter and found objects / 31 x 34 x 12 inches / American Folk Art Museum

Bessie Harvey Black Rider of Revelation

Bessie Harvey Black Rider of Revelation / 1985 / Alcoa, Tennessee / Paint and mixed media on wood / American Folk Art MuseumMiles Carpenter / Beast, After 1966 / Waverly, Virginia / Painted wood with rubber ears / 26 x 39 1/2 x 33 inches / American Folk Art Museum


Miles Carpenter / Beast, After 1966 / Waverly, Virginia / Painted wood with rubber ears / 26 x 39 1/2 x 33 inches / American Folk Art Museum

Squirrel, c. 1932-40

William Edmondson / Squirrel, c. 1932-40 / Tennessee limestone Collection of Philadelphia Museum of Art / Photo by PMA Department of Photography and Graydon Wood

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The American Landscape:

While the artists in the previous section created objects from materials found within the landscape, artists James Castle, Lonnie Holley, and Simon Rodia created works that both depict and create the landscape. Castle’s soot-and-spit drawings evoke the Idaho farms on which he lived. Works by Holley and Rodia actually alter the American landscape, as their works are physically and conceptually site-specific.

Farmscape with house, totems, and "tumbleweed" bushes, n.d.

James Castle / Farmscape with house, totems, and "tumbleweed" bushes, n.d. / Idaho / Soot-and-spit drawing with stick-applied lines and wiped soot wash on found paper / 3 3/4 x 6 1/2 inches / Philadelphia Museum of Art

Last Door Left

Lonnie Holley / Last Door Left / near Birmingham, AL / 2000 Photo Souls Grown Deep Foundation

Drawing on the Southern African American yard art tradition, Holley continues to create environments in the landscape around his studio and home in Alabama.

Watts Towers

Simon Rodia / Watts Towers / Los Angeles, California, 1921-55 / Photos: Seymour Rosen estate, Courtesy SPACES

Rodia created his Watts Towers in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. They remain a presence in the landscape and the skyline, and have been preserved due to community support.

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Popular Culture and Mass Media

While scholars and collectors of outsider art have long acknowledged the influence of print media and television on artists, incorporation of American popular imagery in the works of Martín Ramírez, William Hawkins, and Henry Darger reveal not only the artists’ sources, but also the ideals and ideas within American popular culture during the 20th century. While the three artists worked in different parts of the country (California, Ohio, and Chicago, respectively), each included images that reference national identity and the circulation of print media.

Untitled (collage), c. 1953

Martín Ramírez / Untitled (collage), c. 1953 / mixed media on paper / 36 1/4 x 18 1/2 inches / Courtesy Phyllis Kind Gallery, New York

While many of Ramírez’s works draw on his memories of his homeland of Mexico, he often incorporated images from popular American magazines (such as Life) for collaged elements in his work. The horse and rider, train, and buildings in this work reveal mid-century American visual culture.

Elk with Collaged Human Eyes, 1988

William Hawkins / Elk with Collaged Human Eyes, 1988 / Columbus, Ohio / Enamel, mixed media on Masonite / 48 x 48 inches / Courtesy Phyllis Kind Gallery

Flag and Firecrackers, 1980s

William Hawkins / Flag and Firecrackers, 1980s / Columbus, Ohio / Enamel, mixed media on Masonite / Photo Dallas Brennan

Neil House with Chimney, 1986

William L. Hawkins / Neil House with Chimney, 1986 / Columbus, Ohio / Enamel and composition material on Masonite / 72 x 48 x ¾ inches / American Folk Art Museum

Hawkins relied on magazine images, fine art images, and photographs, as well as buildings he encountered in Columbus, Ohio, as inspiration for his body of work that reveals his sense of America.

Ephemera from Henry Darger Archives next to sketch by the Artist

Henry Darger / Ephemera from Henry Darger Archives next to sketch by the Artist / Chicago, Illinois / Ink and graphite on paper / American Folk Art Museum / Gift of Kiyoko Lerner © Kiyoko Lerner

These Little Children

Henry Darger / Untitled ("These Little Children...") / mid-twentieth century / Chicago, Illinois / Colored photo on board / 7 x 9 inches /American Folk Art Museum / Gift of Kiyoko Lerner © Kiyoko Lerner

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Experiences of America

Artists working in the United States also reveal their experiences by depicting personal narratives and choosing provocative titles. Thornton Dial’s often abstract constructions consider his experience as a Southern African American man, and his poetic titles provide his viewers with a starting point through which to enter each work. Purvis Young, Clementine Hunter, and Herbert Singleton also depict race relations, though their works tend to be more overtly legible without the aid of text. The personal stories relayed in these artworks speak not only to the artists’ lives but to the country’s complicated history of racism and civil rights.

selma bridge

Thornton Dial / Graveyard Traveler/Selma Bridge /1992 / Mixed Media / 85 1/2 x 146 x 6 inches / Photo by Steve Pitkin/Pitkin Studio, courtesy Souls Grown Deep Foundation

This work commemorates the historic 1965 civil rights marches that emerged from the Voting Rights Movement in Selma, Alabama. Images of the police brutality that occurred during the first of the three marches were widely circulated, and enabled the public to see, firsthand, disturbing depictions of institutionalized brutality.

Young Football

Purvis Young / Untitled (Football), c. 1980s / housepaint on wood / 48 1/2 x 52 1/2 x 3 inches / Collection Gordon W. Bailey

Hunter documented scenes from her life on the Melrose Plantation, Louisiana. Her images range from those of domestic chores (seen here) to religious rites such as funeral processions.

Dr. Kilikey

Herbert Singleton / Dr. Kilikey, 1980s / carved and painted bas-relief wood carving / 41 x 20.5 inches / Collection of Gordon W. Bailey

Singleton’s works are often autobiographical, and reference his trouble with drug addiction, as well as his religious beliefs and community ties.

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