Inside the Outsider Art Fair

Richard Kurtz, "Multi Flash," detail of artist accordion book, casein on paper. Photo © Jennifer Esperanza/Esperanza Projects.

Outsider artists historically worked independently of the art world to explore alternative ways of creating and thinking; however, in recent decades, the genre has gained more recognition from the mainstream. In 1992, LACMA hosted an exhibition validating outsider art entitled Parallel Visions: Modern Artists and Outsider Art and in 2013, the main exhibition at the Venice Biennale, Il Palazzo Enciclopedico, was based on a 1950s work by self-taught Italian-American artist Marino Auriti.

Now that general audiences have caught up, outsider art is poised to take on the art market. In addition to its increased inclusion in international exhibitions, outsider art is now the subject of several fairs, including the Outsider Art Fair in Paris and New York.

Defining Outsider Art

Outsider art is synonymous with the term art brut, or Raw Art, a movement championed by French artist Jean Dubuffet. With no formal art education, Dubuffet achieved success as a propagandist and painter. Throughout his career, Dubuffet developed an interest in pursuing the art of children and the mentally ill. Dubuffet wrote in his 1947 manifesto, “These artists derive everything…from their own depths, and not from the conventions of classical or fashionable art.” Today, artists who identify as “outsiders” are typically self-taught or working on the fringe of traditional art world institutions.

To get an insider perspective on this expansive genre, we spoke with artist Richard Kurtz about his process, paintings, and preparations for the Outsider Art Fair in New York (January 18 – 21, 2018).

Left: Richard Kurtz with his collector, artist Luis Lazo in Miami at his show “Loyalty is Royalty,” 2015. Photo © Jennifer Esperanza/Esperanza Projects; Right: Richard Kurtz, “Little Monster,” casein and fabric, 8 by 8. Photo © Jennifer Esperanza/Esperanza Projects.

To Kurtz, the term outsider art refers to “a journey of breakthrough, breakdown.” He cites repetition of images and themes across his body of work as a method to remain stable through the ups and downs. When speaking about his artistic process he stated, “The repetitive nature of my work… is my touchstone, my stability. For me, it’s my connection to my inner sensitivity, that a lot of people don’t see, which helps me stay connected and on the planet.”

The Artist’s Struggle

Kurtz, whose work is in the collection of the de Young Museum in San Francisco, cites several artists who lived outside the mainstream as being part of his artistic development. These include Purvis Young, James Havard, Keith Haring, David Siqueiros, Rufino Tamayo, and poet Robert Lowell. “They have the chops,” Kurtz says, “It’s doing the work and persevering. Part of the daily struggle informs the work that I am doing.”

The duality of conflict and acceptance is reflected in the work of many other artists to whom Kurtz feels a kinship. He recognizes the value in art that is indicative of personality and reflects the artist’s life, “This is really effortless. It is made to feel honest. It wakes me up.” On the other hand, now that outsider art has been popularized, “A lot of things are just image. A lot of people take on roles just to look a certain way or be a certain way.”

The recurring themes and motifs in Kurtz’s art, especially his series of prize fighters, are reflective of his personal journey. For Kurtz, boxers represent survival and the need to remain mentally present. He often includes language in these works “as a way to have a daily mantra of what I was going through or what I wanted to focus on… It is personal, but it is also connecting to what is happening in our culture.”

In the past, Kurtz was homeless for a period of five years. As a result, he values tactility and mobility when searching for materials. The artist created a series of paintings on old canvas bank bags which epitomizes these ideas: “It can be taken with you… I like the connection to what is going on with the country, the disparity of incomes… and it’s textural, too. I can touch it.” Utilizing found objects and mixed media techniques, Kurtz’s art is a product of his life experience that resists further classification.

Left: Richard Kurtz, “Dream,” mixed media painting, 48 by 96, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Photo © Jennifer Esperanza/Esperanza Projects; Right: Richard Kurtz, “Pattern 3,” photo © Jennifer Esperanza/Esperanza Projects.

Working with found items including Little Golden Books, dictionaries, shooting targets, suitcases, and discarded Starbucks gift cards also enables Kurtz to continue creating in almost any environment. When describing a series of accordion books he says, “I’ve been nomadic quite often. Those books can fold together into a pocket book that you can put into your purse or your pocket. I like the mobility of that.”

Now that he works out of a studio space, Kurtz has been experimenting with larger, more traditional canvases. “Working large takes more looking and quiet time,” he says, “It is healthy for me to be able to go to those places.”

Preparing for the Fair

Kurtz’s work has traveled to the Outsider Art Fair in both Paris and New York in years past, but this year the artist’s partner, Jennifer Esperanza of Esperanza Projects, is devoting her entire space (Booth #19) to showcasing a range of his work. As opposed to a typical gallery that may be showing 4 to 5 artists, this is an opportunity to “show the breadth of what I’ve been doing.”

Richard Kurtz, 2 of 100 double-sided vintage flash cards with box, casein, 2015.

Showing at the Outsider Art Fair comes with certain logistical challenges, particularly because Kurtz and Esperanza live outside of Los Angeles, California. After organizing and packaging the work, “We have to drive across the country, and then you only have a certain amount of space,” says Kurtz. As such, Esperanza acted as editor when the duo prepared Kurtz’s work for travel. “She is going through what she wants to show, organizing, and then pricing,” says Kurtz of Esperanza, “She’ll be creating an environment for how she’s going to present the work.”

To Kurtz, the fair represents a pathway through which he can continue doing his work. He says, “The people who decide to take work home with them, they’re benefactors. They speak to my vision and they are willing to support what I see and what I’m doing, to keep doing it. It’s not that somebody is buying something… it’s ‘here’s one more month to do the work,’ or ‘this is for your paints.’ Those people are allies to what I do.”

Artist Richard Kurtz in Oxnard, CA, 2017. Photo © Jennifer Esperanza/Esperanza Projects.

Richard Kurtz has lived and worked in New York City, NY, Taxco, MX, Santa Fe, NM, and Miami, FL. He currently maintains a studio in Oxnard California, where he lives with his partner Jennifer Esperanza.

The work of Richard Kurtz can be found in numerous private and public collections including, Audrey Heckler, The Blanchard-Hill Collection, Sophie Calle, Blake Byrne, The Museum of Everything and the de Young Museum. He has shown with Laura Steward at the Paris and New York Outsider Fairs. His work has been included in such notable shows as Faces and Figures in Self Taught Art at Vassar College and My Big Black America at the Corridor Gallery in Brooklyn, New York. Visit Richard Kurtz’s website for more about the artist and his work.