Come Inside, We Have Coffee

The Outsider Art Fair comes to Manhattan's Center 548 in late January, a time when few have any desire to be out in the cold. Inside, though, it’s all rather welcoming. Gluckman Mayner Architects supplied the loft-like space with exposed brick interiors, fifty-three galleries from across the world supplied the art, and, of course, there’s full catering service. Temporary walls divide the three floors into microgalleries, where dealers hawk their wares as in a flea-market. It’s comfortingly familiar to anyone who’s been to just about any art fair in New York City, really, which immediately raises the dominant question of the whole ordeal: What exactly are we outside of? Asphyxiating culture, presumably, if the movement's founder, Jean Dubuffet, can still be believed, but we’re only steps away from exhibitions of Pablo Picasso, Richard Poussette-Dart, Max Neumann, David Hockney, and Takashi Marakami. Everything around just feels, well, so asphyxiatingly cultural.

As is so often the case, the once-subversive nature of Dubuffet’s work has been accounted for by academic formalists and modernists. In fact, it’s almost tragic how neatly someone who tried so actively to distance his work from the Matisse’s and Picasso’s of his contemporary France fits into the grand modernist narrative of righting the moral wrongs of an industrialized society. His fascination with the Prinzhorn collection, art of the insane, hermetic art, and other works by persona non grata shows a similar alignment with a larger modernism characterized by Wallace Stevens as the “search for new gods in unorthodox places.” Hal Foster neatly summarizes the art brut movement—which through some rebranding by Roger Cardinal became Outsider Art: “the art of the insane might not point to pure expression, originary vision, or vanguard transgression so much as to a given crisis in the symbolic order.” According to Foster, art brut isn’t categorically formalist or surrealist, but nonetheless it participates in the search for a different kind of order or constructed meaning. So what we’re outside of, apparently, is the symbolic objectivity of pre-modern art movements—more specifically, we’re seated somewhere in the gap between individual identification and the semiotic generation of cultural machinery. This rejection of mainstream identity is surely not unique to Dubuffet and art brut, but still was still quite radical in the twentieth century. But is the subversion still there, or has it been accounted for? Well, look around. We’re at the Outsider Art Fair, aren’t we?

It’s telling that the Outsider Art Fair aligns with a simultaneous Dubuffet exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. The curators of the MoMA show protested any intentionality here when I asked, but we can at least infer renewed acceptance of anti-institutional works by now. That’s not to decry the art world’s bastardizing touch, but only to ask: how have the various movements of outsider art changed? How have their aims been accounted for (if it can be said there were any to begin with)? Is it even justifiable to compare "Outsider Art" to Dubuffet's original vision anymore? Some free literature from the fair might shed some light here:

What is Outsider Art? … [Dubuffet and Cardinal] have caused the common misconception that Outsider Art is essentially pathological, when in fact the central characteristic shared by Outsiders is simply their lack of conditioning by art history or art world trends. Over the years, the parameters of Outsider Art have expanded dramatically to include art made by a wide variety of art-makers who share this common denominator of raw creativity.

Note that “raw” harkens back to the French term: art brut. But one doesn’t even need to read the pamphlet to understand all this, only listen to the myriad curators, who at every opportunity are telling tales of their representative artists. What constitutes outsider art at the Outsider Art Fair? Art school no-shows, works collected from art therapy centers, artists already famous in the Eastern Hemisphere, artisans plying trinkets, and, of course, Adolf Wölfli and Martín Ramírez. Wölfli, the psychotic poster child of art brut, is shown at no less than three booths. His current resurgence in popularity is in part due to the movement’s reinforcement of the myth that madness is a resistance to the status quo rather than a pathologic disorder, and the cliché of the Tortured Genius. It’s important to clarify, though, that Dubuffet didn’t really see it that way. For him, art brut was a movement away from art as a collection of objects to be gazed upon, toward something deeply individual to be lived within; and on these terms, Wölfli's complicated work speaks for itself. The halls, though, are filled with this mythologizing, where works are bought for their backstory and presumably the illusions of cultural learnedness and liberal empathy. It seems that all it takes anymore to fall under the category “Outsider Art” is to drop out of Pratt before your second-year electives, but that doesn’t stop the dealers from spinning stories of an apparent avant-garde. What makes this artist an outsider, one might ask. Oh, she’s self-taught. Him? He’s Indian. The most common response is that the art is lifted from a therapy center—sometimes without the artist’s direct consent.

The whole fair becomes an exercise in taste. How well can you distinguish between the merit of the work itself and the aggrandizement of an artist’s background? Which one moves you: objet d’art or artistic mythology? Of course, one isn’t necessarily better than the other, but this show in particular seems to call the distinction into question. One’s not forced to ask, what are you looking at? but, what are you looking for? (Intentional fallacy be damned.)

“Art brut was a movement away from art as a collection of objects to be gazed upon, toward something deeply individual to be lived within.”

This is where I assure you that there are many excellent artists at the Outsider Art Fair. For one, it’s the best place in New York to see paintings by Wölfli and Ramírez outside of the American Folk Art Museum. One also shouldn’t be surprised to find interesting play with materials at a show dominated by people with limited access to paint and cameras. James Edward Deeds, Jr., for example, makes his works with graphite and crayon on the bills issued by his state hospital. Mark Lombardi, who can also be found in the Whitney’s permanent collection, creates intricate diagrams of financial kinetics. The photographer John Brill appears at first a neo-Pictorialist, but holds the uncanny air of spirit photography.

The painter Andrew Frieder is a particularly illustrative example of both what outsider art could be and where the current emphasis of the movement lies: a little-known artist produces moving works, but the conversation revolves around his mental disabilities. The selected paintings began as a sort of all-over drip or crayon scribble, from which the artists excavates figures, similar to Dubuffet’s layering and carving of gravel. A particular orography gives way to polemic figures, often depicted wrestling beasts from greater cultural stories. In Untitled (Motorcycle Warrior), a pastel figure wearing what could be a Roman legionnaire’s helmet writhes against the very space around it. Elsewhere, chimerical figures fight Biblical serpents, or seem caught in the midst of a transfiguration.

There’s a whole building in Chelsea filled with artists attempting to embrace their subjectivity in various ways, but one has to wonder if we do their work justice there. The institutional fabric of a show comprised of works with a supposedly inherent anti-institutional bias forces you to constantly consider just what it is that you’re doing there, how exactly you’re patronizing the arts. It can be hard within the halls to believe there’s much genuine empathy among the selfie-stick-wielding tour groups (although it is there, we need to believe, if hidden), where most sales seem to be of a picturesque suffering for the privileged collector’s wall. But this is not really the crux of the Outsider Art paradox. The problem is mostly in the distinction of an individual as an “outsider,” because back outside, remember, we’re only a stone’s throw from Picasso.