Focus on Outsider Art
2 October 2019
Outsider art (also called self-taught art, art brut, or visionary art) is the cousin to folk art - more weird and challenging than pleasant and pretty. Outsider artists are often, though not always, other-minded. Many are socially incompatible or alienated, visionary, obsessive, religious or spiritual, and generally unconcerned with what's appropriate; and the work reflects this. Many are (were) unworldly, rooted in small communities. Much of the work finds its subject in memories, folklore, or complex altered realities.
"Outsider & Fine Art. Curious Objects." is Rago's finest sale focusing on outsider art to date, with 207 lots on offer. The auction features stunning examples by masters in the category including Carlo Zinelli, James Castle, Morton Bartlett, Purvis Young, Hawkins Bolden, Howard Finster, Mattie Lou O'Kelley, Edgar Tolson, and Gustav Klumpp in addition to the artists featured below. Many have provenance directly to the artists and/or celebrated collectors.
The Swiss artist Adolf Wölfli (Swiss, 1864-1930) is considered among the greatest exemplars of Art Brut. A diagnosed schizophrenic, he was sent to Waldau Clinic in Bern, Switzerland in 1895 and remained there until his death, filling 46 books with a narrative composed of prose, poetry, musical compositions, and 1600 drawings and collages. He also produced what he called Brotkunst (“bread art”), single-sheet drawings he would sell for income. His composition is wildly inventive and complex, morphing from people to landscapes to animals to letters and numbers to musical notation to text and, invariably, to birds. When Jean Dubuffet first encountered Wölfli's work he designated him "le grand Wölfli“. Wölfli's work is held in every major public and private collection of outsider art worldwide.
Alex Grey (American, b. 1953) was a visionary artist, author, and teacher. Holland Cotter, art critic for the New York Times, wrote in 2002, "Alex Grey's art, with its New Age symbolism and medical illustration finesse, might be described as psychedelic realism, a kind of clinical approach to cosmic consciousness." Grey's paintings, as detailed and anatomically accurate as medical illustrations, have been exhibited worldwide; featured as album art for The Beastie Boys, David Byrne and Nirvana; and appropriated for rave flyers and sheets of blotter acid.
Clementine Hunter (American 1886 – 1988), the descendant of enslaved people, is a self-taught artist and one of the field’s best-known. A plantation worker, she recorded everyday life from memory in a bright palette, disregarding perspective and scale. Hunter did not garner public attention until the 1970s when both the Museum of American Folk Art in New York and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibited her work. Even with success, Hunter chose to stay in Louisiana, working at Melrose Plantation. Her African House Murals, painted in 1955, were preserved and can be seen at the African House at Melrose Plantation, now a named National Historical Landmark.
Born into poverty, Minnie Evans (American, 1892 – 1987) became a domestic worker at an elegant estate in 1918. The beauty she saw there inspired her first wax crayon paintings in 1935 (now at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art). By the 1940s she was producing hundreds of works at the gatehouse of the estate and selling them to tourists. Most of Evans' paintings and drawings are similar, yet no two are identical. They represent a cosmos in which God, man, and nature are inextricable. Evans produced about one thousand visionary paintings and drawings in her lifetime. Her work has been collected and shown by museums including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
Thornton “Buck” Dial (American, 1928 – 2016) was a pioneering African American artist who produced exuberant drawings and paintings and large-scale allegorical assemblages and sculptures using oil paint and the found material he collected. Dial rightfully credited Bill Arnett, founder of the Souls Run Deep Foundation, as the person who recognized and championed his artistry. His work is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.; High Museum, Atlanta, GA; and the American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore, MD; among many others.
Anthropomorphic taxidermy was a craze of the Victorian and Edwardian periods in England, the love child of a fascination with natural history and death. Its morbid and comical charm, first displayed at London’s Great Exhibition in 1851, enraptured Victoria and Albert, as well as Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, Lewis Carroll, and Charlotte Bronte. Edward Hart was among its best-known practitioners. We are delighted to have this lot composed of three sequential display boxes showing two taxidermied squirrels posed as Victorian/Edwardian boxers. In the first, the boxers meet; in the second, they fight; in the third, we see the champion. These boxes are from Hart’s “The Prize Fight” series. The series was originally a set of five, but these three tell the story.
The auction also features some exceptional works of fine art, including paintings, works on paper, and sculpture by Bo Bartlett, James Havard, Wadsworth Jarrell, and Lester Johnson, among others. As in years past, trade figures, articulated artist mannequins, and devotional figures are among the offerings, as is vernacular photography, carnival knock downs and vaudeville dummies, signage, canes and erotica.