Outsider art refers to works created by self-taught, unconventional, and oftentimes, under-recognized artists. Until the 1980s, the term was synonymous with art brut, a French movement that translates to “raw art.” Art brut referred to any work produced by untrained artists made outside the academic tradition of fine art. Though considered culturally marginal figures due to varying circumstances, outsider artists have been known to produce a diverse range of high-quality works. They share little to no assumptions or aesthetic styles, It is their process, rather, that unites them: creating without rules or fear of taboos. Thus, outsider art can be raw, extreme, and unconventional.
Mainstream interest in outsider art has been on the rise in recent years. Many museums have dedicated exhibitions to the movement—including Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Outliers and American Vanguard Art at LACMA—allowing a place for these artists and their compelling stories to shine. Market demand for work by Outsider artists also underscores their historical significance, and in January of 2019 artist Henry Darger’s work sold for $684,500 at Christie’s. As more cultural institutions shed new light on outsider art, a greater focus on a traditionally overlooked movement has come to the fore.
What is Outsider Art?
Though the origins and true definition of outsider art are varied, French painter Jean Dubuffet is commonly accepted as the movement’s founding figure. In the 1940s, Dubuffet began collecting works of art made in unusual contexts by artists such as Heinrich Anton Müller and Aloïse Corbaz. He considered these works to be more authentic than works by classically trained artists. In 1949, he coined the term art brut to refer to this “raw” or “undefined art.”
The term outsider art wasn’t introduced until 1972 when art historian Roger Cardinal used it as an English-language equivalent to the French art brut. The term was originally intended to describe art made by people living with certain disabilities and those on the fringes of society, but by the 1980s it expanded to include a much greater range of vernacular arts. Often, outsider art overlaps with terms such as “self-taught art” or “contemporary folk art.” Some of the first American artists to be identified under this movement include Horace Pippin, William Edmondson, and John Kane.
Famous Outsider Artists
Born in Scotland, John Kane eventually immigrated to America where he became well known for painting scenes of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Scotland. Kane grew up with financial limitations, and held many trade positions throughout his life including street paver, house painter, and carpenter. An unfortunate accident in which he lost his leg at the age of 31 inhibited his ability to find good employment opportunities. His resulting immobility, however, became the catalyst that drove him to paint.
Though Kane applied to art schools on a number of occasions, he was unable to pay tuition. Without formal training, Kane’s artistic skill was entirely self-taught. His work was finally introduced to a broader audience in 1927 after his Scene from the Scottish Highland was accepted by the Carnegie International Exhibition in Pittsburgh.
Morris Hirshfield owned a prosperous business manufacturing women’s coats and suits. He also ran a company that produced bedroom slippers. He made art in his spare time, and gained admiration from Sidney Janis, a gallerist with an affinity for self-taught artists. Janis included Hirschfield in a show he arranged for the MoMA’s “member’s room” in 1939 called Contemporary Unknown American Painters. He also featured Hirschfield in his book, They Taught Themselves: American Primitive Painters of the 20th Century, in 1942.
Hirshfield became the first self-taught artist to have a comprehensive retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Every inch of his canvases were filled with intricately rendered patterns featuring animals or women.
African American folk art sculptor William Edmondson was the first artist to be given a solo show at MoMA in 1937. Edmondson had a strong work ethic, and with no education, began working at the age of sixteen. After retiring from a job as a laborer, he had a religious vision from God that inspired him to begin sculpting. Because he had little money for raw materials, his sculptures were made from unconventional media such as discarded blocks of limestone and chisels fashioned from railroad spikes.
American folk painter Horace Pippin is largely regarded as the greatest African American painter of his time. Pippin, whose work wasn’t discovered until 1937—just nine years before his death—is known for his depictions of African American life and the horrors of war. Throughout his childhood, he painted biblical scenes on frayed pieces of muslin and later was employed as an ironworker, junk dealer, porter, and eventually served in World War I. Upon returning from his tour of duty, he began painting by burning intricacies into wood panels with a red-hot poker and filling in the outlined areas with paint. While his early works featured their signature heavy impasto and restricted use of color, his later works offered a much bolder palette.
Henry Darger led a solitary, reclusive life as a hospital custodian in Chicago, Illinois, and it wasn’t until after his death in 1973 that his work was discovered. He became famous for his 15,000 page, single-spaced fantasy manuscript complete with 300 paintings known as The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. His subject matter ranged from tranquil flowered landscapes populated by fantastic creatures to horrifying depictions of carnage, and he often used mixed media with collage elements.
Guo Fengyi was a self-taught Chinese artist, although she vehemently rejected the designation of “artist” throughout her lifetime. Throughout her early life, she worked at a rubber factory but retired early due to arthritis. After finding a spiritual path, she began experiencing visions, which served as inspiration for her drawings. She began producing large-scale works on rice paper depicting Chinese dragons, puppets, mythological beasts, and other fantastical creatures driven by her visions.
What We Can Learn from Self-Taught Creatives
Whether through choice or circumstance, outsider artists typically have little to no formal training in artistic technique, and instead forge their own paths. Find inspiration in the unconventional methods of learning that led to these artists’ creative freedom.
Outsider art remains a label assigned not by the artists themselves, but by art historians, critics, and collectors. It continues to encompass a broad range of work that rarely has a common style or otherwise unifying feature. Outsider art has even inspired an increased use of art therapy as a tool for treating forms of mental illness. As work produced by this group of artists grows in popularity—punctuated by growing focus among museum exhibitions, art fairs, and galleries—so too will the artists and the influential stories behind their works.