Outsider Art

by A.C. Surga


What can wood-carved animals, a healing machine, tombstones, and chicken bones structures have in common? At the Philadelphia Museum, the visitor can find all of these under the Outsider Art Exhibition on view until the 9th of June.

Outsider Art comprises all artworks made by people without formal artistic training, from Sunday afternoon painters, to children drawings, and art from insane persons. This art category embraces all medium, subjects, and styles. Outsider artists do not seek to sell their work on the art market; they have not connection to it and do not even consider themselves as artists: outsider art represents the human’s drive to create in its most authentic form.

The term Art Brut (Raw Art) first appeared in 1945, and was created by Jean Dubuffet to designate a form of creation that was spontaneous and not conformed to the formal aesthetic of his time. In order to find the roots of this free will of creation, Dubuffet began to research art made by patients of psychiatric asylums. There, he discovered psychiatrists have been interested in this specific art since the end of the 19th century, with the development of psychoanalysis by Freud.

After WWII, art of insane people gained support from European artists as a reaction against the Nazi Degenerate Art Exhibition of 1937. Dubuffet continued his research and began to look at artworks from prison inmates, psychics, and autodidacts, which had a direct influence on the development of his art. In the 1950s-60s, Dubuffet stayed in the United-States with some of the artworks from his Art Brut Collection, thus developing the American interest in this specific art form.

While Outsider Art in Europe was deeply linked to art from psychiatric asylums, American Outsider Art defines itself as linked to Folk Art, which was very looked after in the 1930s as well. This Folk Art carried within itself socio-economical and racial tensions, thus American Outsider Art is much more influenced by Christianity, violence, and the depiction of the ghetto. Herbert Singleton is a great representative of American outsider art. Born in the New Orleans’ African American community in 1947, Herbert had to face the socio-economic limitation of the area he was living in, as well as the racial divide of his time. His life was marked by drug addiction, shooting, and almost 14years in prison, all of these can be found in his work. Herbert specialized in wood-carving, and made numerous bas-relief panels.

Bill Traylor, another artist whose works are displayed in the exhibition, was born a slave. He lived on the property where he was born until his 85 birthday, where he moved and lived in the streets of Montgomery. That is when he began to draw household scenes and objects, animals and people that are most sought after by Outsider Collectors nowadays.  

What is interesting with the Bonovitz’s Collection, is the broad range of background of the artists. For example, George Widener is a recognized numerical savant with an extraordinary mathematical/calculating capability which he uses to create artworks. Before embracing his creative life, George was audio-visual technician in the Air Force before suffering a mental breakdown that would lead him in and out of mental health facilities for a few years.

From a different background is artist Emery Blagdon, who was born in Nebraska in 1907 and stayed there all his life. Emery inherited his uncle’s farm in 1955 and began to construct a machine to heal the sick, which supposedly follows the death of his parents and of 3 of his 5 younger siblings to cancer. The idea behind the machine was to capture the electromagnetic power from the atmosphere through a series of kinetic mobiles and freestanding sculpture, and then to release these forces to combat physical and psychic pain.

How does one end up collecting artworks from such artists? For Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz, whom collection is on display at the Philadelphia Museum, it has been a labor of love which began some 30 years ago. For the couple, a work has to speak to them, a connection has to be established with the artwork so that they can consider acquiring it. This is a pretty compulsive way of constructing a collection when compared with other collectors who search for months and sometimes years after the right piece to “complete” their collection. The Bonovitz couple prefers to be moved by the artwork in the first place and then get interest in the artist’s background; the first trigger to a new acquisition always stays the formal work. Each collection is unique, and above all it reflects the personality and values of its owner: the Bonovitz collection in all its simplicity reflects the art history of American outsider art of the 20th and 21th century, and offers a great discussion with modern and contemporary artworks on display in the Philadelphia Museum.


Book selection:

“Great and Mighty Things”: Outsider Art from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection


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