Outside, Moving In ''self-taught Artists Of The 20th Century,'' At The Art Museum Till May 17, Confers Mainstream Recognition On 31 Artists Neither Formally Trained Nor Conversant With The Customs Of Art Tradition.

Posted: March 15, 1998

In the beginning, all art was ``self-taught.'' Then, centuries later, things got complicated. Categories and hierarchies of art were established. Art made by people who had been formally trained became the most highly valued. ``Self-taught'' art came to be regarded as an inferior genre.

This value system still applies in most museums, in university art-history programs, and among art dealers and auction houses. But it doesn't always do justice to art itself.

The latest demonstration of this truth is the exhibition ``Self-Taught Artists of the 20th Century,'' which opened Tuesday at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Organized by the Museum of American Folk Art in New York, it's described as an ``anthology'' of work created by artists neither formally trained nor conversant with the customs of art tradition.

The term ``anthology,'' usually applied to collections of literature, implies that this show of work by 31 artists isn't nearly comprehensive enough to be a survey. Nor could it be, according to Elsa Longhauser, director of the galleries at Moore College of Art and Design and one of the show's two curators.

There have been in America so many self-taught artists of such diverse backgrounds that a true survey would pose a herculean task. ``What we tried to do,'' Longhauser said, speaking of herself and Harald Szeemann, her fellow curator, ``was to create a powerful cross-section, to choose artists who produced significant bodies of work that has staying power.''

Before looking at that work, however, we should consider what ``self-taught'' means. As Longhauser concedes, ``Self-taught is an imprecise term. It does not define a movement or style.'' However, it was the best rubric available to characterize the variety of artistic experience that the exhibition brings together.

Until about the mid-1960s, the favored description was ``folk art,'' a term that in European practice signified art that expressed longstanding cultural ideals identified with particular communities.

In America, however, ``folk art'' came to mean work by people who lacked formal art training - people such as painter Grandma Moses, one of the 31 artists in the exhibition. True folk artists were often anonymous, but Americans applied the term to known individuals such as Moses and Horace Pippin who practiced a folksy, untutored style.

Over the last 30 years or so, ``folk art'' has been subdivided into more specific categories. One of the more common is ``outsider,'' signifying an artist who works in a personal style ``outside'' folk and formal art traditions.

``Isolates,'' in turn, are outsiders, such as convicts and the mentally ill who are physically or psychologically isolated from society. Martin Ramirez and Henry Darger, both in the exhibition, exemplify this type.

``Visionary'' is another term coined to describe people such as Howard Finster, Ken Grimes and Emery Blagdon whose art is based on dreams, visions or a fanciful imagination. Visionary art is frequently religious, and the artists who make it are often driven by obsessive creative energy.

The centerpiece of the Art Museum exhibition is an installation that re-creates a farm shed into which Blagdon packed more than 600 paintings and metal constructions he called ``healing machines.''

Blagdon, who died in 1986, was a former hobo who inherited a farm in central Nebraska when he was 48. He leased his land for income, and began to make abstract paintings and sculptures of wire, metal foil, beads and other materials.

Over 30 years, he packed these ``healing machines'' into an 800-square-foot shed and illuminated the assemblage with Christmas lights. He believed that his ``machines'' generated a complex electromagnetic field that could cure disease.

Nonsense, certainly, but when you see the reconstructed shed in the museum it seems like charming nonsense. And one has to admire Blagdon's constancy, which produced an artwork whose particular parts, especially the paintings, are more interesting than the dense and tangled mass of the whole.

As the exhibition makes clear, terminology applied to self-taught artists can be imprecise and confusing. Many artists seem to fit in more than one category. Even ``self-taught'' is misleading, because the artists in this exhibition didn't acquire conventional art-making skills. If they need to be labeled, they might be called ``non-academic'' artists.

But why should ``self-taught'' art be segregated from the mainstream and assigned lesser value? This, it seems to me, is the exhibition's essential message, even though it's not specifically stated.

Although the show was organized by a major folk-art museum, its appearance at the Philadelphia Museum of Art indicates that comprehensive museums are ready to acknowledge this message.

The exhibition includes about 300 works by 31 artists, which makes it a large show in numbers but not so large considering the number of artists in the non-academic pool. Thirty-one artists is, indeed, too few to constitute a survey, but is enough to represent the principal artist types.

Grandma Moses represents the memory painters, who evoke life in a bygone period. Finster and Elijah Pierce are artists motivated by religious visions (Finster) or faith (Pierce). William Edmondson said he was divinely inspired to become a sculptor, but not all his sculptures are religious.

Martin Ramirez, confined in a California mental institution for the last 33 years of his life, is the quintessential ``isolate.'' He didn't speak, but he made more than 300 drawings, many very large, that are mysterious, powerful and sometimes frightening in the way they communicate his isolation.

Through their choices, the curators represent the broad spectrum of non-academic art, which includes blacks and whites from urban and rural backgrounds. Some of these artists worked for only a few years, while others made art a life's work.

There are even a few artists who were not deluded or obsessive, who led relatively normal lives and who painted the world in which they lived. We recognize it as our world, too. They include John Kane, creator of the most iconic self-portrait in American art, and Pippin, who lived in West Chester.

Longhauser and Szeemann, a Swiss independent curator, put in many canonical figures - most of the artists mentioned so far qualify - but also added some who haven't gotten much attention, such as Perley Wentworth, Steve Ashby, Justin McCarthy and Edgar McKillop.

The checklist invites challenges, not only for people included but for those left out. I wish they had found room for Bessie Harvey and also for at least one other Hispanic artist besides Ramirez - perhaps Felipe Archuleta, a New Mexican carver of animal sculptures.

Some of the omissions - Harvey, for instance - are compensated for in a complementary exhibition organized by Jack L. Lindsay, the Art Museum's curator of American decorative arts.

This show of 64 works, in galleries 108 and 119 of the American wing, is drawn from private collections in Philadelphia, the Delaware Valley and New York, augmented by pieces from the museum. It acknowledges the strong interest in non-academic art among collectors in the region for many years.

Many of the more important artists are represented by first-rate examples of their work. In addition, Lindsay's show recognizes a few major artists - such as Harvey, James Castle, David Butler and Minnie Evans - who are not included in the traveling show.

This show has a major centerpiece, too, a metal bed painted by Finster and covered with a quilt made by Mirilana Simone Diaz, a native Puerto Rican who lived in Brooklyn and died in 1971. Another huge (11-foot-long) Diaz quilt hangs on the wall behind the bed.

Diaz, a seamstress in the New York garment industry from 1924 to 1968, is a discovery. She made about 40 brightly colored, intricately pieced quilts in narrow strip patterns, of which only these two and four others have survived.

Lindsay has installed his show salon-style, with the work mixed together as it might be in a collector's house. This encourages the viewer to look for interactions and relationships among artists, which is harder to do in ``Self-Taught Artists.''

Together, the two exhibitions provide a generous helping of a kind of art that oozes appeal. Much of this derives from the fact that most non-academic artists are demonstrably impassioned. Many also present colorful and compelling life stories.

Take Bill Traylor, for instance. In just three years, the former slave created about 1,500 spare but powerful drawings while seated on a sidewalk in Montgomery, Ala. Ten of those drawings are shown here.

Reclusive Chicagoan Henry Darger lived alone in several rented rooms, worked at menial jobs, and attended Catholic Mass daily. In nearly a half-century of labor, he created a monumental, apocalyptic narrative that runs to 19,000 manuscript pages illustrated by several hundred watercolor drawings.

The life stories told by non-academic artists are almost always engaging, and sometimes heartbreaking. They can be so seductive that they tend to inflate the value of the art. It becomes easy to think of non-academic artists as geniuses when, in fact, they might be just eccentrics.

The trick with these two exhibitions is to keep the art in perspective. Non-academic artists can be admired for their passion and their persistence, which occasionally seems to reach superhuman levels. But as communicators they sometimes fall short of meaningful discourse.

Consider as a prime example Connecticut artist Ken Grimes. He makes white-on-black text paintings that invite comparison with mainstream artists such as Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer. One Grimes painting resembles a schematic of a circuit board, another bit of evidence suggesting that non-academic and mainstream artists may share interests.

However, Grimes' texts reveal an obsession with alien visitors to earth. The more one reads, the more one realizes that Grimes is essentially an amusing but misguided crackpot.

If we're going to admit the non-academic artists to the larger fraternity of just plain artists, then we have to recognize that they aren't sainted. They can make bad art. Some of the more obsessive - Finster is a prime example - easily become tiresome when seen in depth. Fortunately, these shows don't present enough work by any individual to produce that result.

Most of the artists in these exhibitions hold up well, and some, such as Edmondson and Darger, can be brilliant. Their work adds immeasurable variety and richness to the American artistic experience, as long as one remembers to keep at least one skeptical eye open.

IF YOU GO * ``Self-Taught Artists of the 20th Century'' and its complementary exhibition continue at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through May 17. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays and Wednesdays to 8:45 p.m. Admission is $8 general, and $5 for students, senior citizens and children between 5 and 18. Free Sundays until 1 p.m. Telephone: 763-8100 or 684-7500 (recorded information).

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