Essential Books: 7 Noteworthy Surveys of Outsider Art

If you purchase an independently reviewed product or service through a link on our website, we may receive an affiliate commission Call it what you will—outsider art, folk art, visionary art, outlier art—but the artists associated with these overlapping and sometimes conflicting rubrics have two things in common: They are […]

If you purchase an independently reviewed product or service through a link on our website, we may receive an affiliate commission

Call it what you will—outsider art, folk art, visionary art, outlier art—but the artists associated with these overlapping and sometimes conflicting rubrics have two things in common: They are all visual autodidacts—self-taught, if you prefer—compelled for one reason or the next to create works of often astonishing impact. They also usually occupy a marginal place in society (sharecroppers, inmates, the developmentally disabled, self-proclaimed alien abductees, and so on). But this lack of education and fringe status are precisely the reasons why a certain aura has been conferred upon self-taught art as something unmediated by conventions, a direct expression of artistic insight free of cultural constraints. An overly romanticized bromide? Perhaps. But like all clichés, it possesses a kernel of truth that overrides whatever label you choose to use for a category of art whose many manifestations are explored in these books. (Price and availability current at time of publication.)

1. “Sublime Spaces and Visionary Worlds: Built Environments of Vernacular Artists”
Built environments arguably constitute the most fantastical expressions of outsider art because they transform imagination into a space that can be literally entered. That’s the premise, anyway, of this richly illustrated 2007 coffee-table volume edited by Leslie Umberger, which spotlights the work of 20 self-taught practitioners. One of the best known among them is Simon Rodia, creator of the mosaic-covered Watts Towers in Los Angeles. The book also includes Loy Allen Bowlin, a Mississippian who studded his possessions—including his dentures(!)—with rhinestones; David Butler, whose hammered-tin assemblages were inspired by dreams; Mary Nohl, who transformed her Milwaukee home into a sculpture park for her monumental figures; and Emery Blagdon, a Nebraska farmer who filled a building with a rotating installation of chandelier-like objects he called “healing machines” for their supposedly restorative properties. The works are nothing short of astounding and persuasively argue that when it comes to outsider art, three dimensions may be better than two.
Purchase: “Sublime Spaces and Visionary Worlds: Built Environments of Vernacular Artists”  from $142.46 (new) on Amazon

2. “Photo / Brut”
Photography isn’t usually associated with outsider art, a misconception that Photo / Brut, which accompanied the groundbreaking exhibition of the same name, attempts to correct. Like the show, drawn from the collection of Bruno Decharme, the book features 40 self-taught artists pursuing unconventional approaches to the photographic medium, creating images transmitted from the edge. Photo-collage, photomontage, and decoupage are some of the techniques that distinguish the work here, as is an obsessional sensibility evinced, for example, by Miroslav Tichy’s furtive snapshots of women taken with a handmade camera and telephoto lens; photo-booth self-portraits by Lee Godie, a frequently homeless Chicago woman; Morton Bartlett’s photos of uncannily lifelike girl dolls he made himself; and Ichiwo Sugino’s Instagram selfies in which he transforms himself into Andy Warhol, Che Guevara, and other famous names by contorting his face with tape. Taken as a whole, Photo / Brut reveals a form of photography that is as raw as it is untamable.
Purchase: “Photo / Brut” $45.27 (new) on Amazon

3. “Outsider Art: Visionary Worlds and Trauma”
Art historians typically ignore the idea that biographical or psychological factors shape the work of artists. Questions like “Was Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa really an expression of homosexual tendencies through his likeness in drag?” are immediately dismissed as baseless, with comments to the effect that, in any case, La Gioconda is a masterpiece no matter what. In contrast, considerations of a work of outsider art usually start with whatever trauma afflicted its creator, a reductive take that ultimately supposes that absent some kind of emotional or psychic damage, there would be no Henry Darger or Martín Ramírez. That may well be the case, but Daniel Wojcik tackles the issue by allowing that while outsider artists may have been institutionalized, ostracized, or otherwise marginalized, their work just as decidedly emerged from the larger cultures whence they came (e.g., Ramírez’s Mexican heritage), and that these influences should be considered when appraising their work. This is obvious on its face, perhaps, but increasingly pertinent at a time when outsider artists are gaining wide recognition.
Purchase: “Outsider Art: Visionary Worlds and Trauma” $45.00 (new) on Amazon

4. “Body: Art Brut/The Collection”
Would outsider art have become as well known as it has without Jean Dubuffet (1901–1985)? It’s hard to know, but there’s no doubt that the postwar French painter and sculptor got the ball rolling by championing artists “estranged from mainstream artistic milieus.” Art Brut was the name Dubuffet gave it, and his interest stemmed from what he saw as the avant-garde’s descent into academic conformity. For Dubuffet, Art Brut represented a break from all of that, though he didn’t notice the irony of founding a museum—the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland—devoted to the genre. This volume is the third in a series surveying its holdings (built around Dubuffet’s personal cache of objects) by subject, in this case the human figure. Examples range from Aloïse Corbaz’s voluptuous females to Guo Fengyi’s cosmic deconstructions of the same. Like the other books in the series, Body is an excellent entry to the sui generis nature of outsider art.
Purchase: “Body: Art Brut/The Collection” $22.00 (new) on Amazon

5. “Groundwaters: A Century of Art by Self-Taught and Outsider Artists”
Looking for a book on self-taught artists that is both a deeply sourced reference text and an elegant addition to your coffee table? Look no further than Groundwaters, which offers a comprehensive, Outsider Art 101–type survey of the genre’s transformation from minor curiosity to serious field of study over the course of the 20th century. Author Charles Russell concedes that no single label can adequately contain the wide spectrum of expression found in the work of self-taught artists, though he insists that naive—a term that belies the sophistication of their respective practices—isn’t one of them. Russell notes how appreciation for outsider artists evolved differently in Europe and the United States, with the former focusing on the art of institutionalized individuals and the latter drawing on 19th-century folk traditions. Full-color plates accompany the author’s writing, making Groundwaters a treat for the eyes as well as the mind.
Purchase: “Groundwaters: A Century of Art by Self-Taught and Outsider Artists” $89.89 (new) on Amazon

6. “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration”
Institutions have long been breeding grounds for self-taught artists, and indeed, Art Brut was coined to meant work by individuals like Adolf Wölfli, who’d been committed to a mental asylum for molesting children. Conventional prisons have similarly fostered self-taught artists, but today, with mass incarceration disproportionately affecting people of color, their work has become bound up with the history of racism. According to author Nicole R. Fleetwood, such artist-inmates are forced to operate under a “carceral aesthetics” defined by the duress of administrative censorship, limited art supplies, and hobbled rehabilitative art programs stemming from racialized budget cuts. As Fleetwood notes, art created by inmates was once encouraged by authorities as a kind of therapy (as it was for Wölfli), but the racial dynamics of mass incarceration have detached the practice from its remedial function, recasting it as an act of resistance against institutionalized injustice.
Purchase: “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration” $27.95 (new) on Amazon

7. “Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art,” Volumes 1 & 2
This two-volume set offers an authoritative look at the evolution of African American vernacular art in the Deep South during the 20th century. It starts by putting the region’s self-taught, folk, outsider, and visionary artists on par with Black musicians who seismically reshaped American culture through blues, jazz, gospel, soul, and rock ’n’ roll. Like that music, African American art ultimately traces back to traditional skill sets from Africa that survived the Middle Passage, including weaving, woodcarving, and metalwork—practical handicrafts that were eventually joined by mediums of pure expression such as painting, sculpture, works on paper, and outdoor environments. As a consequence, an entirely new category of American art emerged, and in due course it attracted the attention of collectors, gallerists, and institutions like the Museum of Modern Art—sparking a market that in many cases merged with the one for contemporary art. Souls Grown Deep tells the story in detail, revisiting a remarkable chapter in both art and U.S. history.
Purchase: “Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art,” Volume 1 $69.38 (new) on Amazon and Volume 2 $81.12 (new) on Amazon

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