After Master Drawings New York, in which we participated and before we left New York for Santa Fe, I attended the Outsider Art Fair on its last day. A fellow exhibitor of drawings had complained to me that Roberta Smith, art critic, for the New York Times, had reviewed that instead of our exhibitions. While I sympathized, if she could only do one, I was in total agreement with Roberta Smith.
This past year the Outsider Fair was bought by Andrew Edlin, a contemporary art dealer, from Sanford Smith, the fair organizer who founded the Outsider Art Fair some 20 years earlier. Edlin had wanted the fair to move from mid-town to 22nd street and the Hudson River for some time and he also wanted a number of his contemporary art colleagues from Chelsea to be brought in. When he bought the fair he could achieve these goals. For those of us for whom it is the exception not the rule, to go to Chelsea for our art fix,
I found it far less convenient, a real
schlep! The fair used to be one bus ride
away but I had enjoyed the fair in the past so I made the effort of two longer
Edlin has not disturbed the spirit of the fair though he has changed the dynamic. Instead of all being on one level it is now on four floors, plus one for food, with 44 booths in all. For the last few weeks I have given a lot of thought to how we define a Surrealist or Outsider artist. I keep coming up with artists who blur the lines. The definitions remain vague for me and I find that intriguing and something to chew on. In many respects, it is the “art world” and most particularly the individual art dealers who are the deciders of what Surrealist and Outsider Art is, and what is acceptable in each category. The usual definition is an “outsider artist is one who is not academically trained”, but I found there to be many exceptions.
In this vein, I first happened on the Chris Byrne Gallery showing sculpted heads the likes of which have been made since classical times. So, of course, I went into the booth and asked what makes this Outsider Art. The response surprised me. “They were made for forensic purposes” to assist the police in identifying bodies that had no identification. Wow! As I looked I saw that the gallery had intelligently placed under the sculptures any paper work that they could find showing newspaper articles and other explanations of what and whom the images represented and their stories. The artist, Frank Bender, was known. He had started out as an art student and then his talent for being able to use the size and head of a skull and recreate an image was discovered. He had been interested like Leonardo before him to learn more about anatomy and happened to have a friend who worked in a morgue. I guess he might have become a cosmetic surgeon instead!
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Gallery Laurel Gitlen showed an artist by the name of Michael Patterson-Carver. His naïve drawings and watercolors include images of individuals of various ethnicities holding protest signs. This seems to be a big theme for the Outsider artists. I love galleries that have given themselves amusing names and Laurel Gitlen was sharing their space with a Brussels Gallery called “Sorry We’re Closed”.
Although they were not selling, The Folk Art Museum was exhibiting, so again I went and asked why. The response was simple, the woman there explained that half their collection was Outsider Art, in other words artists who were self taught which was especially true in the early days of settling on these shores and particularly later on if you were not situated on the east coast.
There were also a series of lectures during the fair and one of them was by Dr. Thomas Röske, director of the Prinzhorn Museum. If you remember, this was the Missive on the works by psychiatric
patients from the clinic in Heidelberg, Germany
as well as psychiatric patients from around the world. Their art was one of several genres that could easily be defined as Outsider Art. I was particularly sorry to have missed that
I found the different floors with the many galleries and the continuous bombardment of images and ideas rather exhausting but I felt it was definitely worth it leaving the questions swirling in my mind.