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THE OUTSIDERS : With Its Exhibit ‘Parallel Visions,’ the County Museum Validates a Controversial Genre--the Art of the Insane

Tessa DeCarlo and Susan Subtle Dintenfass are Northern California free-lance writers currently working on a book about outsider art

Last spring, two different groups of artists faced each other across Maurice Tuchman’s office at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, separated not only by the senior curator of 20th-Century art’s expanse of organized clutter but also by a long and contentious history.

Pinned to the wall to the left of Tuchman’s desk were scores of neatly labeled photocopies of masterworks by some of the best-known names in the 20th-Century pantheon, from Dali and Dubuffet to Oldenburg and Schnabel. Staring back from the opposite wall was another crazy quilt of reproduction artworks, but here the names were unfamiliar, the images more troubling--the works of eccentrics and lunatics, illiterates and prophets. They too were masterpieces, but of the mysterious category known as “outsider” art.

The two walls represented work in progress on “Parallel Visions: Modern Artists and Outsider Art,” a show of 74 artists and 235 works that begins its 2 1/2-month run at LACMA next Sunday. It is a groundbreaking, provocative exhibition. “This is the first comprehensive show to include both outsiders and modern artists,” says Tuchman, “and the first major museum showing of most of these outsiders.” The show’s controversial theme is not only the profound influence outsider artists have had on the development of modern art but also the aesthetic power of these works in their own right.

Depending on whose definition you accept, outsider art means the work of the insane or of the socially outcast or of any self-taught artist outside the big-city professional art world. Right now, outsider art’s popularity among hip artists and well-heeled collectors is booming, and that boom has fueled debate about the outsider label. Is this work of more than merely clinical interest? Is categorizing artists as outsiders valid either morally or aesthetically? What, exactly, does “outsider” mean? By mounting “Parallel Visions,” LACMA is both legitimizing the outsider genre and intensifying the controversy surrounding it.

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Tuchman, a dapper man with a fin-de-siecle mustache, is unabashedly proud of the exhibit and believes it is bound to have a significant effect on the field. But he also realizes that the show puts him, and the museum, way out in front of the rest of the U.S. art establishment. Like most big museum shows, “Parallel Visions” will travel; it has been booked by museums in Spain, Switzerland and Japan. But in America, it will only be on view at the County.

“We offered this to every American museum,” Tuchman says, “and not one came through. No one said, ‘The subject is too far out for our audience.’ They just clearly were not interested in something fresh, something that wasn’t the ‘Golden Age of Impressionism’ or the ‘Golden Helmets of Rembrandt.’ It doesn’t say much about American culture, that no institution wanted to play this game.”

New York artist Red Grooms is one of the “insiders” included in “Parallel Visions.” He shares Tuchman’s disappointment at U.S. museums’ response to the show. “It reflects a coolness in the art world,” he says. “This work is probably too hot for them.”

PROFESSIONAL--INSIDER--ARTISTS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN IN the vanguard of outsider-art appreciation. In the 1940s, French painter Jean Dubuffet, searching for an art unsullied by society, found what he was looking for in Switzerland’s insane asylums. He began collecting pictures by asylum inmates, seeing in them a liberating alternative to what he called “official art,” society’s “art machine.”

“They are totally free of cultural influence,” he said of these mad artists. “They invent everything themselves, their subjects and their methods, out of their own depths.” He christened their work art brut --"raw art"--and declared it vastly superior to the productions of the merely sane.

Two of the artists Dubuffet collected were Adolf Wolfli and Aloise Corbaz, both Swiss psychiatric patients, both spontaneously driven to produce music, poetry and elaborate, intensely patterned, beautifully composed drawings and paintings that were simultaneously hallucinatory and autobiographical. “As I see it, people like Wolfli or Aloise were locked up simply because they were artists,” Dubuffet declared. “They pushed their art as far as possible, they lived their art! L’Art Brut is artistic creation pushed as far as it can go.”

In fact, both Wolfli and Aloise apparently did not begin making art until after they were institutionalized, Aloise as the result of delusions that she was the beloved of Kaiser Wilhelm, Wolfli after assaulting several young girls.

The term “outsider art” arose in 1972, when British scholar Roger Cardinal published a book about Dubuffet and art brut . “My London publisher felt uncomfortable with the French coinage,” Cardinal later wrote, “and proposed ‘outsider art’ as being easier on the Anglo-Saxon ear.” The term was soon taken up and applied far more broadly than Dubuffet or Cardinal had foreseen.

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While Dubuffet and other European artists were peeking into madhouses, some of their American counterparts were hunting the same virtues of authenticity and purity in the countryside, finding them in handicrafts and the naive works of rural “primitives.” In the years after Cardinal’s book appeared, the booming U.S. folk-art market seized on “outsider” as a convenient moniker for anyone who wasn’t part of the standard art scene, from illiterate sharecroppers who carved wooden toys to the mentally retarded who painted childlike watercolors or retired laborers who built cement sculptures in their back yards.

By the end of the last decade, outsider art, in all its meanings, had grown into a recognized and active part of the art market. It now has its own journal, Raw Visions, published in London, and several different groups of collectors and scholars are working on plans for outsider museums. Dealers trumpet outsider discoveries, and collectors are paying six-figure prices for pieces by art brut masters that once cost only a few hundred dollars. But the more fervently outsider art is embraced by dealers, collectors, journals and museums, the more uncomfortable the inside-outside distinction becomes. Randall Morris, whose Cavin-Morris Gallery in New York’s SoHo was one of the first to use the term “outsider,” now feels it is morally bankrupt. “We realized that to separate it as outsider art was a crime against the artists,” he says. Cavin-Morris now calls the work it deals in “contemporary, self-taught and tribal art.”

“I hate the term ‘outsider,’ ” agrees Seymour Rosen, founder of SPACES, a Los Angeles-based foundation dedicated to preserving what some call outsider art on a grand scale--Simon Rodia’s towers in Watts, for example. “It’s elitism. It’s class. When you talk about being outside the American art mainstream, that’s more than 249 million people.”

But Dr. John MacGregor, author of “The Discovery of the Art of the Insane” and one of the field’s leading authorities, insists there is a real difference between other artists, even those with mental problems, and true outsiders. “The real outsider is recording his experiences on Mars or his conversations with dead spirits, but he is not making art,” MacGregor says. Outsider art reflects not just a tormented spirit but “a massively altered state of consciousness, radically different from the norm.”

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Roger Cardinal likewise wants the term “outsider” applied with more care: “I fear that the clarity of the definition will lapse if every stray scribble from the art-therapy trash can and every whirligig made by a senior citizen are automatically hailed as authentic outsider art,” he wrote recently. He described the real thing as “individual expression (blazing) its own trail, striking obliquely away from the collective and investing in secrecy, eccentricity, extreme individualism.”

“Parallel Visions” tends toward the narrow form of the definition, but the decision was not made easily. The show was originally planned as a conceptual sequel to the museum’s much-talked-about 1986 show, “The Spiritual in Art,” which illustrated the links between the rise of abstraction and artists’ explorations of mysticism and the occult. “I had been searching for another theme,” Tuchman says, “and in January, 1987, it occurred to me to test out the idea of ‘Art and the Other,’ including Haitian art, children’s art, aborigine art, the art of the insane, tribal art, but that became too uncomfortably chic and amorphous.”

Eventually, Tuchman and Carol Eliel, the museum’s associate curator for 20th-Century art, narrowed down the “other” to a fairly strict definition of outsider art. And they adopted the term because there seemed no reasonable alternative.

Outsider is the only word that has been viable since 1972,” Tuchman says. “We couldn’t come up with a better one. But we qualified it with three adjectives--compulsive, untaught and visionary--that defined the kind of outsiderness that has affected the insider artists we’re working with.”

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THERE IS NO DENYING THAT MUCH OF THE APPEAL OF OUTSIDer art lies in the strange and sometimes tragic stories of the artists. Their eccentricities and their compulsion to create speak to our society’s fascination with the irrational and the unconscious and validate its uneasy belief in the links between creativity and madness. And a spicy biography is much easier to understand and to sell than are such subjective aesthetic elements as composition and form.

“When I speak to audiences, if I talk about the surface tension, or even say that the artist can paint, I lose them,” says dealer Morris. “If I talk about how strange the artist is, they love me. The stranger the human being, the more they like it. We don’t use that as a selling point anymore, and we’ve lost a lot of clientele as a result.”

The importance of the outsiders’ life stories is evident in the “Parallel Visions” catalogue, which includes brief biographies of the show’s 34 outsiders but not of the other artists. However, the curators decided not to include photographs of the outsiders. “A lot of these people, to be honest, looked strange,” Eliel says. “We didn’t want people to focus on what they looked like, and their strangeness, instead of on the work.”

“Parallel Visions” deliberately avoids use of words such as mad and insane to describe the show’s outsiders. “One problem with the terminology is that the very basis of it is changing,” Tuchman explains. “Many artists in this show were labeled insane and put away for years and years, and yet they clearly weren’t insane. We don’t know what insane is anymore--no one does.”

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Yet most of us would probably regard the outsiders in the show as more than a little crazy. In addition to Wolfli and Aloise, two inmates of the “artists’ house” at Gugging, an Austrian psychiatric hospital, are represented. So is Martin Ramirez, a Mexican-born patient in a California mental institution who made rhythmic, fantastically detailed drawings on scavenged scraps of paper glued together with mashed potatoes. So is Henry J. Darger, a Chicago recluse who collected pictures of little girls and used them to make huge two-sided collages illustrating his 13-volume saga about a ferocious war between innocent girl-children with penises and men who sought to enslave and murder them. So is J. B. Murry, a tenant farmer in Georgia who in his late 60s began producing strange “spirit script,” often illustrated with semiabstract human figures, which he claimed was dictated by God and could be deciphered by looking through a glass of water from his well.

On the other hand, the case of the Rev. Howard Finster, the show’s only living American outsider, illustrates the problematic etiquette of the outsider label.

Finster, a preacher and bicycle repairman living in rural Georgia, has experienced visions since the age of 3, and when he was 60, he received a divine command to “paint sacred art.” He obliged with illustrations of Bible verses, portraits of American heroes such as Eli Whitney, Elvis Presley and Hubert Humphrey and with pictures of his visions of heaven, hell and other worlds, all covered with evangelical messages.

Within a few years, Finster’s work was discovered by big-city artists and collectors, for whom Finster’s backwoods theology had an ironic charm the artist himself probably did not intend. He was commissioned to do an album cover for the Talking Heads, and now the 75-year-old’s clients include Absolut vodka and MTV.

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“Howard Finster is a visionary, but he isn’t crazy,” says John Turner, author of a Finster biography. “He’s crazy like a fox.”

As prices for Finster’s work have soared, he has stepped up production, recruiting his relatives to help out and making duplicates of whatever proves popular, a la Andy Warhol. “I did a Marilyn Monroe that sold for $9,000,” he says during a phone interview. “I’ve made three or four since then. They sell real good and bring a good price.” He numbers every piece and boasts that he is now in the 24,800s, adding, “I’m preaching all over the world with my art.”

Finster appears to sincerely believe that he can foretell the future, that he has traveled in space, that he designed the bombs used against Iraq during the Gulf War and that he is “computerized direct from God.” Nevertheless, he doesn’t fancy being called an outsider.

“As far as I’m concerned, there ain’t no outsiders of anything,” he says. “If you’re an artist, you’re an artist. If you’re a mechanic, you’re a mechanic. If you’re a farmer, you’re a farmer. Ain’t no outsider farmers, ain’t no outsider mechanics. That’s just something that someone’s got up to class things. I ignore it.”

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Even those who in one sense have the purest interest in the art of outsiders--namely, established artists who are deeply inspired by it--seem to draw at least some of that inspiration from who the outsiders are as well as from the work on the wall. As Eliel’s essay in the “Parallel Visions” catalogue observes, what many artists seek to emulate is not outsider art’s forms or technique or style but the outsider artist’s way of creating, “what artist Gregory Amenoff has called the ‘moral influence’ of outsider artists on 20th-Century art.”

“This work is artists’ food, and it’s also a truth serum,” explains New York dealer Phyllis Kind, a leading figure in the outsider-art scene who has contributed several pieces to the LACMA show. “These artists couldn’t cheat, they couldn’t copy from anybody. They didn’t get reinforcement from prizes or group shows. They give us a rule to measure ourselves by.”

IF THE INTRIGUING BIOGRAPHIES AND THE ENTERTAINING DISputes over terminology are set aside, does outsider art succeed as art? LACMA’s Eliel says yes, emphatically. “The power of the work is overwhelming,” she says. “It’s beautiful, extraordinary. You see it, and it doesn’t matter who made it or what condition they were in.”

Sam Farber is a New York kitchenware manufacturer who has amassed a large collection of outsider art and is lending several pieces for the Los Angeles show, including works by Darger and Aloise. “There’s nothing wrong with an interest in the people,” he said. “They are fascinating, as a sociological and psychological study. But it is the work that has to move you. This is art that is expressive and touches something in me. You cry when you look at Darger, and you laugh when you look at Darger.”

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At a time when so much contemporary art seems to be part of some derisive inside joke, the heartfelt efforts of the outsiders have undeniable force. Their work, says Kenneth Baker, art critic at the San Francisco Chronicle, “is about the only thing left that can be represented as uncontrived, uncynical, arising from the artist’s need, however twisted, and not manipulated by market strategy or a dealer or curator or critic whispering in the artist’s ear.”

Kirk Varnedoe, curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, takes a more critical view. His institution isn’t taking the LACMA show because “I would have wanted to do it from our own perspective,” he says, rather than because of objections to outsider art per se. But he questions how much long-term value outsider art really has. “The romance is that this stuff is wilder, is liberated from constraints,” he says. “In fact, one of the frequent manifestations (of such works) is insane academicism and insane regulation, manic fussy detailing. I find it deeply fatiguing, and it’s not the kind of thing I want to come back and look at again.”

Asked whether he thinks artists such as Wolfli will ever find a permanent place on major museums’ walls, Varnedoe answers, “That’s not going to happen until enough people agree that, when you go back to this art again and again, there’s a broad spectrum of human experience in it that gives back to you what we go to art for. If enough people feel the work provides that powerful experience, then Wolfli will be in museums.”

To many, however, the LACMA show signals that outsider art is coming in from the cold. “If we added up all the venues this work has been in over the last decade,” says dealer Kind, “all the galleries, the smaller museums, what we’d see is a really rather astonishing amount of acceptance and interest in this genre.” Richard Siegesmund, deputy director for curatorial affairs at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, believes that outsider art is definitely moving into the mainstream. “The show in Los Angeles,” he says, “should be seen as part of a continuing process by which this work is seen as art, just art.”

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Gladys Nilsson, a Chicago painter who contributed her own work and pieces from her outsider-art collection to the show, hopes he is right. “Outsider art gets pulled out of the closet only when a show like this comes along, or it’s put off in a special room somewhere,” she says. “If it is really strong and really great, it should be hanging in the museum next to the big boys.”

That is what is happening in Los Angeles. The insiders and the outsiders who were on opposite walls in Tuchman’s office a few months back are now hanging side by side on the walls of the L.A. County Museum--at least for the run of “Parallel Visions.”


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