“I painted pictures in the gutter,” the African-American artist Purvis Young once remarked, “and they wind up in mansions.”
Purvis Young never attended high school and began experimenting with art when he was in jail for a breaking-and-entering charge. After his release from prison, he created and installed hundreds of colorful, dynamic paintings in a derelict stretch of abandoned, boarded-up buildings in Miami’s Overtown neighborhood, “a once-thriving African American community that had been decimated by the construction of an interstate highway in the 1960.” ¹
Young’s “gutter” to “mansion” quote beautifully captures many of the complexities surrounding outsider art—not only the racial and class dynamics, but also the fascinating “rags to riches” narrative that gives the personal story of outsider artists like Young such dramatic appeal.
Purvis Young is just one of 27 artists included in Great and Mighty Things: Outsider Art from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection, currently on view at the Philadelphia Museum through June 9th. Philadelphia residents are in luck, for the museum will become the new home of 200 outstanding artworks by these artists thanks to Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz, who have promised their stunning collection to the museum.
Great and Mighty Things is a breakaway show, not only because of its breadth and depth, but also because it showcases some of the finest works by American outsider artists.
The Bonovitzs have a remarkable eye. The works on view by legendary artists like William Edmondson, Bill Traylor, Howard Finster, Martín Ramírez, James Castle, Sister Gertrude Morgan, and Elijah Pierce, and lesser-known outsider artists like Eddie Arning, Jon Serl, Bruno Del Favero, and Ellis Ruley represent some of the strongest pieces of the genre. In short, Great and Mighty Things is the finest exhibit of outsider art I’ve seen, and surpasses even Self-Taught Artists of the 20th Century, a seminal show organized by the Museum of American Folk Art, which toured the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the High Museum of Art, the Wexner Center, and other locations in 1998 and 1999.
The 1998 show at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta left a lasting impression on me. I had just finished a year-long course at the museum, and had to be well-versed in outsider art in order to give weekly tours of Self-Taught Artists to the public. This was the first time I had encountered the work of Ramírez, Edmondson, and Traylor in person, and I soon became obsessed with the genre, these three artists in particular. I literally spent hours in front of the mesmerizing crayon and graphite drawings of Mexican-born artist Martín Ramírez. While hospitalized for manic depression and schizophrenia, Ramírez used oatmeal and spit to glue book pages, paper bags, notebook and construction paper into large drawing surfaces. (It was an early lesson overcoming severe limitations as an artist.)
Train, Cars, Tunnels, and Windows, Dragon Train, Vertical Tunnel with Cars, all in the Bonovitz collection, are three remarkable examples of the artist’s bold, highly original style. A 2007 retrospective at the American Folk Art Museum would later cement Ramírez’s reputation as one of the most important artists of the 20th century. In his review of the show, New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl declared, Ramírez “is my favorite outsider artist. Come to that, he’s one of my favorite artists, period.”
Growing up in Georgia, the concept of “outsider” or “self-taught” art was familiar to me from a young age. Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden in Pennville was not far away from the county where lived. These were also the early halcyon days of R.E.M. in nearby Athens. The video for the group’s debut single “Radio Free Europe” was filmed at Finster’s Paradise Garden, and the following year Finster and R.E.M. lead singer Michael Stipe collaborated on the album cover for Reckoning. (And then there was that infamous Talking Heads album cover by Finster that cemented the artist’s fame).
While long fascinated by Reverend Finster, I’ve never had a deep, passion for his work the way I do for Edmondson or Traylor, but the four exquisite glass shadowboxes in the Bonovitz collection, the compelling Words of Jesus, a life-sized plywood grandfather clock, and tantalizing blue and white painting of Henry Ford “inventing the horseless chariot” are rapturous and forced me to reconsider Finster. My Vision of Another World, #1,146, a painted shadowbox made of glass, plywood, and douglas fir, has so many layers of clouds, trees, and angels, I felt as though I had tumbled into some strange, ethereal afterlife.
Over his 25 year career, the Baptist preacher made some 47,000 art works, but the Bonovitz collection contains some of the best. The sheer volume of art at Finster’s Paradise Garden made it a dazzling tourist destination, but it could also make it difficult for visitors to focus on any particular piece. But the expert, intuitive collectors’ eye of Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz has given these vibrant works some much-needed breathing room, allowing Finster’s unique sense of color and composition to shine through.
It was partly my interest in the Bible-obsessed Finster that compelled me to study with the folklorist John Burrison at Georgia State University. While I loved the folk music and Meaders and Hewell pottery so familiar in my grandparent’s and great grandparents’ community in North Georgia, it was Burrison who taught me to appreciate these works both intellectually and artistically. Beauty does not discriminate. Art made outside of the academy has its own visual language and traditions. Simply because a work has been ignored in the art history canon, doesn’t mean it isn’t important or that it doesn’t have value. (The absence of these works from art history courses, etc. says more about us and our academic institutions than it does about the value of outsider art.)
The question of categorization (What to call artists outside of the academy? What constitutes “self-taught”? Who decides who is “in” or “out”? Who benefits financially? Why distinguish at all?) is a complex one. In my article on Horace Pippin I discussed the problematic nature of terms like “naive” etc., so I won’t delve into the subject here. I’ll only point out that the relationship between curators and collectors and self-taught artists has been a delicate one, and was especially loaded in the early outsider-art boom. (The marvelous film Junebug by Phil Morrison will give you a taste of the complexities, and if you haven’t seen the film, I highly recommend it.)
There is no doubt that the work of many of these artists would have remained unknown, or worse, been lost, without advocates from the larger art world. Not unlike the black recording artists in the 50s and 60s, some critics have raised questions about the balance of power and possible exploitation. (Atlanta art dealer Bill Arnett, who was responsible for bringing the Gee’s Bend Quilters to public attention, was sued by three of the Alabama quilters, but the case was settled out of court).
The most insightful essay in the lush, hardcover catalog that accompanies the Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibit is “Voices from the Black South” by Joanne Cubbs. Cubbs avoids finger-pointing, and instead, does a skillful job placing the work of these African-American artists within the larger context of black culture. Cubbs argues that this creative body of work should be allowed to stand on its own, instead of continually viewed as “the unwitting antecedents of abstract American art” and the “primitive root” of American modernism (much like “African and Oceanic art has been viewed as the ‘raw sources’ for the works of European modernists like Picasso, matisse, and the Surrealists”):
These individuals had limited opportunities for formal education, often scratching out livings as sharecroppers, tenant farmers, cooks, janitors, factory workers, barbers, domestics, handymen, and manual laborers. They produced their creations outside the system of art academies, galleries, and museums that so often arbitrates the recognition of genius, and, for the most part, their expression has yet to be fully mapped onto the official landscape of modern and contemporary culture…
Artists from the black South without formal art education, as well as other marginalized makers, have been assigned a long string of adjectives: “primitive,” “popular,” “naive,” “ethnic,” indigenous,” “folk,” “self-taught,” “visionary,” “vernacular,” and “outsider.” But art that truly finds acceptance requires no adjectives, and in the end such terms, along with their frequently disparaging connotations, have only reinscribed the sense of difference that they were designed to overcome.
Cubbs deftly shows how the art of Southern black artists like Sam Doyle, Sister Gertrude Morgan, William Edmondson, Bill Traylor, Purvis Young, David Butler and others emerged from a community that had its own traditions of religion, domestic and work life, public art, and history.
The Christian narrative of good triumphing over evil has resonated in the African-American community from the very beginning, to give one example. As Cornel West argues, “African slaves, laboring in sweltering heat on plantations owned and ruled primarily by white American Christians, tried to understand their lives and servitude in the light of biblical texts, Protestant hymns, and Christian testimonies.”
We see this convention manifested in the bold, spirited paintings of Sister Gertrude Morgan, who preached and sang the gospel in New Orleans, a city she called “the headquarters of sin.” As Cubbs points out, the revivalist sect Morgan belonged to offered women “unique opportunities to become charismatic leaders” and gave her “a public platform…to express her vision of the world,” a rare occurrence in most Christian denominations in the middle of the 20th century.
Motivation is everything, and in the Bonovitzs’ case, the motivation seems clear: a simple love and enthusaism for these works of art, regardless of what adjectives are used to describe them. In interviews included in the show’s catalog, Jill and Sheldon passionately describe how these artworks “resonate” with them, and how their “immediacy” remains compelling, even after many years of collecting. The body of work they’ve assembled is nothing less than breathtaking.
Back in March, I had the privilege of spending several hours exploring the exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (A special thanks to Martha McGeary Snider for alerting me to this show.)
The Runaway Goat Cart is an extraordinary example of Bill Traylor’s rousing vision, with its boisterous blue and playful, stylized lines. As Cubbs explains, Traylor was “a master of the quotidian” and the satirical and “possessed a special genius for snatching poignant bits of human drama from the course of the ordinary”:
The immediate setting of Traylor’s art-making was the bustling market district of Montgomery, Alabama, during the late 1930s and early 1940s. There, seated on a wooden box in the doorway of a pool hall or under the roof of a nearby fruit stand, he observed and recorded the urban characters who passed before him. In a remarkable series of drawings, he captured a fancily dressed woman scolding a one-legged man, a street preacher wildly pointing and pontificating, and countless images of other city folk scurrying along their way, brandishing canes, pipes, top hats, umbrellas, and suitcases…
Embodying the tragicomic sentiments of the blues aesthetic that so dominated the music of the black South, Traylor’s raucous characters are often humorous, sometimes sinister, and always at odds within a world of trouble and adversity.
The stone carvings by William Edmondson in the Bonovtiz collection are also first-rate. As Cubbs explains in her essay, Edmonson was born in 1874 to formers slaves, and worked in Nashville’s sewer works, as a rail worker, and after a disabling accident in the roadhouse, as a janitor and hospital orderly. When the hospital closed in 1931, Edmondson found work as a porter and stonemason’s helper before starting his own stone-carving business. Cubbs firmly places Edmondson’s abstracted sculptures within the tradition of black burial art:
The creation of funerary objects and displays was a major expressive medium for many African Americans througout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in part because black cemeteries were one of the few public spaces in which the dominant white culture did not impose its authority. In fact, Edmondson’s first works from the early 1930s were graveyard memorials and headstones commissioned by neighbors and members of his church…His sculpted figures, with their simple contours, serene countenances, and austere front poses, evoke feelings of monumentality and the eternal. These spiritual qualities often imbue the artist’s heavy stone carving with a sense of ethereality and the sublime despite their blocky shapes and weighted physicality.
Edmondson commemorated everyday heroes of the black community, as Cubbs details—nurses, preachers, lawyers, and schoolteachers—as well as public figures like boxer Jack Johnson and Eleanor Roosevelt. Biblical characters like Christ, Adam and Eve, and angels also appear, along with an entire peaceable kingdom of exquisite lions, rabbits, doves, rams, and horses.
Other highlights in the Bonovitz collection include Eddie Arning’s colorful, geometric crayon and pastel drawings. (Sunkist Lemons and Six Colored Circles are my favorite Arning pieces, though Plant with Abstracted Flowers brings to mind the visionary gift drawings of the Shakers.)
Chicago artist Lee Godie’s stylized portraits of birds also share an affinity with Shaker gift drawings, but it may be her portraits of people and Chicago landmarks that are most memorable. Godie, whose heavy makeup and colorful outfits made her a popular local character, sold her watercolor and ink drawings at Chicago bus and train stations, at the local Neiman Marcus, and on the steps of the Chicago Art Institute. Three Women with Big Yellow Hats, a large, pulsing piece made of watercolor and ballpoint ink on a window shade, is fresh and eye-popping.
Mexican-born Consuelo González Amezcua was another female artist with a talent for pen and ink. She settled in Del Rio, Texas, and lived in the family home with her sister, Zare, for the majority of her life. As the show’s catalog explains, González Amexcua’s ‘Texas filigree’ drawings, created primarily in ballpoint pen on found card or paper, are reminiscent of the intricate Mexican jewelry the artist often wore.”
James Castle’s soot-and-spit drawings and assemblages of people, clothes, and furniture cleverly constructed of found cardboard, flour paste, and string are an ingenious rift on reality. Castle was born deaf in rural Idaho, and never learned to read, speak, or write. The reclusive artist had a daily creative regimen and made thousands of drawings, constructions, and handmade books over his long life. He was in his 50s and 60s before his work was discovered and shown regionally. Castle’s Blue-Handled Pitcher and Gray Bowl are nothing less than tiny masterpieces—ingenious artworks that are mesmerizing for their novel use of found materials.
One of my favorite pieces in the exhibit is George Widener’s 2010 ballpoint pen and pencil drawing Blue Monday (Reversal), which catalogs a series of dates that will fall on a Monday. His ability to arrange numbers in graphically arresting compositions reminded me of the intricate text drawings of Alice Attie and Corwin Levi. Judging by the crowd gathered around Blue Monday (Reversal) that day, it is also one of the most popular pieces in the show, and for good reason. Widener is a numerical savant with Asperger’s syndrome and has the capacity to calculate numbers and patterns far beyond the capacity of an ordinary person. As the show catalog explains, much of the artist’s oeuvre also commemorates the sinking of the Titanic. The artist’s 50th birthday fell on the year of the 100th anniversary of the tragedy, and another George Widener, the wealthy Philadelphia businessman and arts patron, died when the Titanic sank, giving the artist an “intimate connection” with the tragedy.
If you’re in striking distance of Philadelphia, be sure to see Great and Mighty Things: Outsider Art from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection exhibit before it closes on June 9th. And don’t hesitate to bring your children along. There is a playfulness and accessibility about many of these artworks that your children will wholly appreciate.
On the day I visited, a number of kids were oo-ing and ah-ing over Filipe Benito Archuleta’s oversized painted animal sculptures and David Butler’s colorful whirligigs. One father had invented his own version of Where’s Waldo? out of Simon Sparrow’s luscious, dense assemblages made of everything but the kitchen sink—jewelry, plastic toys, beads, rocks, mirrors, buttons, shells, and other found objects. (Locating the plastic Star Wars Chewbacca appeared to be a popular game for both children and adults). Don’t let the photographs fool you. Seeing Sparrow’s massive, dazzling artworks up-close and in-person may alter any first impressions of these pieces as garish, cluttered kitsch. It was certainly true for me, and I noticed I wasn’t the only museum visitor struggling to resist the urge to touch Sparrow’s opulent creations.
Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz have done us the valuable service of assembling one of the greatest collections of outsider art in the world. This work will sit beautifully beside the Philadelphia Museum’s existing collection of Pennsylvania German art, as well as pieces by Horace Pippin and Adolf Dehn, all artworks that are deeply American in origin and design.
The Bonovitz collection undoubtedly will further cement the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s reputation as a world-class institution, but more importantly, it means that these pieces will not only be preserved, but also become part of the larger cultural conversation surrounding American art. For too long, museums have tried to shoehorn idiosyncratic artists like these into a pre-existing, critically-sanctioned narrative. But there are as many diverse interpretations of these works as there are diverse personal histories amongst the artists who created them. The Bonovitzs’ gift to Philadelphia gives us a more complete picture of the creative impulse in American culture and assures that these original voices are not drowned out.
Great and Mighty Things: Outsider Art from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection is on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through June 9th, 2013. For more information, please visit the PMA website.
I also highly recommend the accompanying book Great and Mighty Things: Outsider Art from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection edited by Ann Percy with Cara Zimmerman. The 269-page book is illustrated in full color and contains every artwork shown in this special exhibit. A small percentage of your purchase (made through the links provided here) benefits Gwarlingo. And don’t forget to check out the Gwarlingo store for more book recommendations.
An Update on the Gwarlingo Membership Drive
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¹ Joanne Cubbs, “Voices from the Black South” in Great and Mighty Things: Outsider Art from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection, edited by Ann Percy with Cara Zimmerman. Published by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2013.