Exhibit of the week
Outliers and American Vanguard Art
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., through May 13
“Art is art. It really is that simple,” said Clayton Press in Forbes.com. But that has never stopped curators and historians from trying to sort the work into categories, which is why a new term has been coined for this season’s major exhibition at the National Gallery of Art. Rejecting the phrase “outsider art,” a label often slapped on work created by the poor, the nonwhite, or the mentally ill, curator Lynne Cooke is positing “outlier art” as a better catchall, and then calling attention to three periods in the last century when the establishment artists and untrained outliers were engaged in particularly fruitful cross-fertilization. With more than 250 works by 80 creators, the show is a marathon. But “it successfully quilts together diverse traditions from the 1920s forward,” treating outliers and insiders as true equals.
As well they should be, said EvenMagazine.com. James Castle, a deaf mute from Idaho who drew with soot on found paper, created images that in their collision of every day objects and signs untied from meaning “prefigured the work of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.” Janet Sobel, a Brooklyn housewife, was meanwhile “making all-over drip paintings before Jackson Pollock.” Because the so-called insiders have often been smart enough to notice such indigenous innovations, this exhibition “casts even well-known artworks in a new light,” said Susan Delson in The Wall Street Journal. “A robust visual dialogue unfolds,” for example, “among the abstract canvases of Mary Heilmann and Howardena Pindell and the abstract quilts by self-taught artists Annie Mae Young and Mary Lee Bendolph.” Similarly, Cindy Sherman’s intentionally racy Untitled Film Stills gain new resonance when seen beside the “sweetly erotic” photos that Milwaukee amateur Eugene von Bruenchenhein took of his wife years earlier.
“But this show raises deeper questions, and some of them are unsettling,” said Philip Kennicott in The Washington Post. It asks what “we”—meaning some establishment center—can learn from the outliers, as if the insiders’ needs are what matter. A more useful question is what the outlier art tells us about the ways institutional art has failed viewers. Passionate expressions of faith are legion in the outlier work, for example, suggesting that when mainstream artists stopped engaging with religion as believers, “people found ways to remedy the omission.” But institutional art is also clearly guilty of a larger failure: As its practitioners were drifting into formal and conceptual abstraction, the outsiders were advancing a different idea of what art should be about. In this show, “much of the best of the outlier art, and most of the works that give the greatest pleasure, are distinctly about things in the world”—not theoretical abstractions. ■