Sunday, October 2, 2022

The Outsider Art Fair at 30

Even though the first Outsider Art Fair (OAF) in New York (there is also one in Paris) was 30 years ago. I first wrote about it in 2011, and returned to the subject three times*. The last time in 2017 the title was “25 years of the Outsider Art Fair”. Antiques and the Arts Weekly’s at the time of the fair, last march, headline was “Outsider Art Fair Celebrating 30 Years is Back Better than Ever. (2020 the show was virtual). Reading some reports I became curious how attitudes had changed over the years. For one thing it no longer caters to a niche audience.

In my first Missive on this subject i wrote that my father pulled out a book from our library called, “Bildnerei de Geisteskanken” (Artistry of the mentally ill) published in Germany in 1922 by Dr. Hans Prinzhorn. In France it was named Art Brut or raw art by the artist Jean Dubuffet in the 1940’s. The term Outsider Art was first coined in the United States in 1972 as the title of a book by art critic Roger Cardinal. The main credential of an outsider artist is one who is self taught and has had no formal training.

Some Outsider Art is made from discarded pieces of trash, none of it is in the traditional vernacular of art. Still, it is extremely creative, and though it used to be put down by the cognoscenti, you can now even find it in some of the big name galleries. It was reported that at this year’s OAF some universally accepted artists showed up to see what was going on and possibly be inspired. Over the years there have been dealers who have specialized in the field and according to the current owner of the Outsider Art Fair, Andrew Edlin, these dealers “stuck with it through thick and thin.” Here is a work I love from this year’s show.

It is no wonder that a number of art dealers do not care for the term Outsider Art because it makes it sound like it is not to be considered seriously. Mr. Edlin even pointed out that there were curated exhibitions within the fair. One such exhibition was ccurated by Paul Laster an artist, critic, curator, editor and lecturer. He borrowed from a number of galleries and called the exhibition space, “Beyond Genres: Self-Taught Artists Making Contemporary Art” In my opinion, that demonstrates how seriously this art is considered.

Acceptance has grown in a major way, and it is safe to say that Outsider Art is definitely IN! This can be demonstrated by the museums that have done exhibitions related to the subject such as the Smithsonian, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum… bastions of respectability! More museum curators are attending the show, another sign of acceptance.

While the vast majority of exhibitors were from around the States (55) there were two from France, one from Great Britain and even one from Japan. This year eight nonprofit art studios and galleries who work with, or showcase, disabled artists participated. The addition of these centers provides a fresh, accessible and important counterbalance alongside the legends of Outsider art like Bill Traylor (1854-1949), James Castle and others. The latter (1899, Garden Valley, Idaho; died 1977, Boise, Idaho) was born deaf and found art his way of communicating. He would use paper, materials like packing tape and cardboard supplied by his parents, who were postmasters. He cut out images from packages, magazines and other printed material. His works can be found in 19 museums including a number of major ones such as The National Gallery, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and The Art Institute of Chicago. Here is an illustration of his use of deleterious materials in his model of a baby carriage.

Prices, of course, follow more notable and recognized artists so even though you might find some work at a fair like this in the thousands or even hundreds of dollars, these days some of the work can be priced well into the tens of thousands of dollars and one report said even into 6 figures. A work by Bill Traylor whose art carreer spanned the last decade of his life brought $507,000 at Christies in 2020.

As with any art fair, galleries that may not have been accepted into the fair or just decided it was not worth the effort and expense kept their galleries open during the run of the fair and advertised the fact . So, for those willing to spend some shoe leather, there was an awful lot to see. Like in any field of art you need to educate your eye, not for what is best because who can tell you what that is, but what, as one art dealer used to say, “races your motor”. Here is one that raced mine!

*My earlier Missives on Outsider art can be found by going to and putting Outsider Art Fair in the search engine and scroll down through them. If you wish to copy one, first click on the title to bring up the correct URL.

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