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.
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.
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.
Drawing on the Southern African American yard art tradition, Holley continues to create environments in the landscape around his studio and home in Alabama.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Singleton’s works are often autobiographical, and reference his trouble with drug addiction, as well as his religious beliefs and community ties.