People would have thought it crazy, 25 years ago, to imagine the sort of frenzy that’s now driving the creation of the first new art museum in New York in more than three decades. Back then, art dealers couldn’t unload paintings by such self-taught artists as Bill Traylor, a former slave who didn’t start drawing until his 80s, for $300.
One of his paintings recently sold at a Sotheby’s auction for a record $303,750. Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio scramble to score the work of Joe Coleman, whose visionary paintings depict everything from sideshow freaks to serial killers. “He’s a big cult figure,” says Ann Nathan, Coleman’s Chicago dealer, who says there is a long waiting list for his work.
Clearly, outsider is in. Just how mainstream is apparent in the new $22 million building for the Museum of American Folk Art that opened a couple of years ago, the first major art museum in New York since the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1966. Its centerpiece is the Contemporary Center, devoted to the exhibition and research of contemporary self-taught artists, and the inaugural exhibition will feature the work of Henry Darger, a Chicago recluse who created disturbing mural-sized watercolors of epic battles between little girls and soldiers. Darger is one of the genre’s most marketable stars; his work is on the list of every serious collector and sells for the upside of $90,000.
Also known as self-taught or visionary art, outsider art started as psychiatric art, when in 1945, French artist Jean Dubuffet recognized artistic genius in the works of mental patients. He called his collection art brut, or raw art, and branched out to collect the works of self-taught artists outside the normal influences of culture: recluses, prison inmates, psychiatric patients, the maladjusted people whose art stemmed from compulsion as much as unfettered creativity.
By 1972, when British scholar Roger Cardinal first coined the term “outsider art” as the English equivalent of art brut, a few trained American artists were already scouting Appalachian backwoods and Mississippi back roads in search of paintings, carvings, and sculptures of self-taught artists. “People were driving around finding these pieces that were inexpensive,” recalls Berkeley, Calif., art dealer Bonnie Grossman.
Unlike traditional folk art, with its homey domesticity, outsider art mirrors the fragmentation of society: sex, drugs, violence, poverty. “This is very much the work of our time because it addresses the issues of our time-social, political, economic,” says Brooke Anderson, director of the Contemporary Center. “It’s made by people who are experiencing the same things you and I are experiencing, but through a different lens, like a different income level or state of mind.”
Soon hipster musicians and filmmakers pumped it into pop culture. Jonathan Demme and David Byrne were early collectors. Demme featured the yard-art home of Texas outsider artist Willard Watson in his movie True Stories, which brought national attention to visionary environments. Byrne decorated a Talking Heads album with the art of the Rev. Howard Finster, a Baptist minister whose religious paintings are covered with biblical quotations. Finster is now one of the most famous names in the outsider pantheon, having created album covers for R.E.M. and a poster for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. He has launched a marketing machine that includes an outsider art fair, a Website, and mail orders.
Congress even climbed on the bandwagon, proclaiming outsider art “a rare and valuable treasure” and designating the American Visionary Art Museum that opened in 1995 in Baltimore as “the official national museum for American visionary outsider art.”