An increasingly popular movement in the visual arts prides itself on picturing everything that is the raw, untutored, and irrational.
“How to Look at Ousider Art” by Lyle Rexer. (Harry N. Abrams, Inc)
By Harvey Blume
What is outsider art? According to Lyle Rexer in his stimulating new book, it’s hard to come up with a capsule definition, since the term “has become a catchall phrase for everything that is ostensibly raw, untutored, and irrational in art.” Instead, Rexer tells us what outsider artists have in common, namely that they are “unaffiliated and idiosyncratic” — much more likely to be familiar with mental institutions than with art schools. Accordingly, their art, contains “few references to other art,” and betrays “little or no sense of an artistic past or heritage.” Beyond that, he says: “Warning: outsider art can be aggressive, explicit, and dangerous to your concept of beauty.”
For a direct way of finding out why there’s such a big to-do about outsider art these days — why, for example, New York City’s Outsider Art Fair, held every January, is a high point on that city’s art calendar — just thumb though the reproductions in Rexer’s book. The images are small but their wild energy and originality still burst out at you. This is art that can turn an initial “Whaa?” into a sudden, “Wow!” In fact, after giving outsiders like Henry Darger, Jonathan Lerman, and Bill Traylor their due, you may find you can no longer be contented with most of what’s on view at art galleries.
Rexer, who has written widely on outsider art, wants his book to be the indispensable, one stop guide to the subject. He comes close to achieving that goal when he writes about the history of outsider art, the various meanings that have attached to the term, and the mysterious ways in which outsider artists not only depart from but merge with or anticipate more mainstream developments. But, alas, he also aims his book at a market hungry for outsider art, and anxious to find some bankable way of rating the wild and woolly stuff. According to Rexer, pieces “by the best-known artists increasingly command upward of six-figure investments.” With so much at stake, dealers and buyers want something more solid than “instinct and taste” to go on. They want reliable “critical judgment.” They want Lyle Rexer.
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Ironically, the least appealing passages of this book are the ones in which the author positions himself as the all-knowing guru/evaluator of the outsider art market. A hundred years ago, august art connoisseur Bernard Berenson’s opinions about Renaissance art were the gold standard for collectors. Rexer seems eager to assume the same cachet vis a vis outsider art.
But when Rexer picks individual pieces to spotlight in ways the art market knows and trusts, his writing becomes pretentious. One work, for example, that he singles out for special treatment is Ken Grimes’s, “Throw the Switch? On. Off.” According to Rexer, Grimes tends to “alternate between ominous questions, urgent warnings, and obscure explanations” in his art. Furthermore, Grimes achieves “brilliance . . .in finding just the right vehicle for his paranoia.” That’s some high and mighty language for a piece that is, on the face of it, a monochrome rendering of a circuit diagram. Could it be that Grimes, like many artists, outsider or not, is intrigued by the workings of electricity? Does he see the human body as a kind of dynamo? Rexer skips all that. Instead he bids up Grimes’s work with flourishes like “ominous,” “urgent,” and “obscure.”
Luckily, most of the time Rexer does not contort his prose to fit the market. Mostly, he is insightful and concise. His account of the history of outsider art, for example, turns up the usual suspects, including Hans Prinzhorn and Jean Dubuffet. But he puts them in a broader context. Prinzhorn’s 1922 study, “Artistry of the Mentally Ill,” made the public aware of the the art made by inmates in the Heidelberg mental hospital where Prinzhorn was a psychiatrist. That book, and Prinzhorn’s subsequent collection of the work, profoundly impressed surrealist Andre Breton and artist Jean Dubuffet, among others.
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Dubuffet’s response was to found the movement known as Art Brut, which scorned what he called “cultural art,” and its imitative, “parrot-like processes,” while lauding the “pure invention” he saw in the art of the insane. Dubuffet’s radicalism remains influential to this day. It shows up, for example, in the language prominent contemporary art critic Arthur Danto uses to praise the outsider artists he most admires: Danto stresses that “the art world does not enter into any explanation of their work,” and he adds that “each was an art world unto himself.”
Of course, innovation and tradition were at loggerheads in Western art long before Prinzhorn or Art Brut came on the scene. Rexer reminds us that: “The very name of the famous Salon des Refuses of 1863,” which dared to exhibit the work of Cezanne and others excluded from the official Salon, “announced a self-conscious break with artistic tradition.” It helped foster an avant-garde whose members, “conceived of their practice as opposed to traditional norms . . . and as pointing the way toward possibilities not yet born.”
Rexer returns again and again to the question of whether the art of outsiders is really in utter conflict with mainstream art, especially when the latter, these days, is more notable for its variety than for its uniformity. Great art has always, he writes, “issued out of deep necessity and embodied the full formal capacities of a distinctive visual imagination.” Doesn’t that indicate a far greater commonality between outsider and mainstream art than Dubuffet’s radicalism would allow?
Rexer never resolves this important conflict, but his ambivalence turns out to be a virtue. He winds up arguing intensely and intelligently for both sides. Thankfully, the writer’s love for outsider art and his deep engagement with the aesthetic questions it raises, push his desire to work the market aside.