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When the American Avant-Garde Met The Outliers - At LACMA

  • Rosie Lee Tompkins - Untitled
November 18, 2018
Balasz Takac is alias of Vladimir Bjelicic who is actively engaged in art criticism, curatorial and artistic practice.

Throughout art history, there were always certain artists who became easily forgotten and somehow excluded from the dominant narrative constructed by the institutions. Numerous are the reasons due to which they were marginalized and their domains were not taken into account – spanning from the lack of academic training, to gender and race, and class and disability. However, looking from contemporary stance, it is interesting how those amateurs intervened with the mainstream artists.

The upcoming exhibition Outliers and American Vanguard Art at The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) will be entirely focused on the phenomenon of outcasts; the naive, marginal, and DIY artistic production will be closely examined in a broader social and cultural context. As a matter of fact, this survey will shed a new light on the ties between the avant-garde artists and outliers which introduced new models of behavior, tolerance, and integration by featuring over two hundred works of different media.

In order to present the continuity of such activity as well as the mentioned intersection with the artists which were institutionally recognized, the exhibition is chronologically divided in three periods: mid-1920s to early 1940s; late 1960s to early 1990s; and mid-1990s to the present. These decades are marked by a rapid cultural, social, and political shifts when the boundaries between self-taught, marginalized artists and the avant-garde ones became blurred. The experimentation and radical approaches were more than welcome and often reflected a form of socio-political engagement.

Left Judith Scott - Untitled Right Sister Gertrude Morgan - Revelation 7 chap
Left: Judith Scott – Untitled, 2004. Fiber and mixed media, 21 × 16 × 16 in., Courtesy of The Museum of Everything, London, © Creative Growth Art Center / Right: Sister Gertrude Morgan – Revelation 7. chap, c. 1970, paint on wood, 32 1/4 × 15 3/8 in., courtesy of The Museum of Everything, London, photo © Todd-White Art Photography

The Importance Of The Outcasts

This exciting and important exhibition will undoubtedly change our perception of how we perceive the official art history cannons. The exhibition features the works of artists such as Henry Darger, Greer Lankton, Sister Gertrude Morgan, Horace Pippin, Martín Ramírez, Betye Saar, Judith Scott, Charles Sheeler, Cindy Sherman, Bill Traylor, and Kara Walker, to mention a few. The curator and head of Contemporary Art at LACMA Rita Gonzalez who coordinates this presentation stated about the project:

Outliers offers a profoundly different way of assessing how modernism unfolded both in official enclaves, like the Museum of Modern Art and Whitney Museum of American Art, but and in peer-to-peer, artist-driven networks. Rather than leading with pathologizing and romanticizing narratives of the ‘outsider,’ this exhibition foregrounds the historical importance of artists who have been marginalized by categories and hierarchies mostly connected to academic training and museum support.

This is certainly not the first LACMA exhibition focused on amateur production, which is underlined in a statement given by Michael Govan, museum CEO, and Wallis Annenberg Director:

LACMA has a longstanding relationship with the content presented in Outliers. Parallel Visions: Modern Artists and Outsider Art, presented at LACMA in 1992, signaled the breakdown of a model based on center and periphery relations; and the museum has been bringing vernacular photography, folk art, and art by the self-taught into the collection. We are now pleased to host Outliers and American Vanguard Art, further exploring often overlooked histories and artists.

Barbara Rossi - Rose Rock
Barbara Rossi – Rose Rock, 1972. Acrylic on Plexiglas panel with artist’s frame, 27 3/4 × 23 3/4 in., courtesy of the artist and Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago, © Barbara Rossi

The Extensive Installment

As it was mentioned, the exhibition consists of three sections. The first one will be centered on the years 1924–43, especially the aftermath of the Great Depression. Around WW I, American artists became largely interested in a form of primitivism, so they appropriated folk, naïve, tribal and children’s art. During the 1930s Alfred Barr, the founding director of New York’s MoMA, supported those ventures and used the term modern primitive to describe the practices of self-taught artists. The same decade brought the New Deal program, which was inaugurated by the US government to support artists – even those with little or no formal training.

The second section focuses on the years 1968–92 and explores the effects of various movements which actively tended to change society such as the Black Panthers, feminism, gay liberation, and countercultural movements. All of them were critical of established moral canons and inherited traditions and urged for acceptance and equal rights, and supported alternative lifestyles and back-to-the-land communes especially during the 1960s and 1970s. On the other hand, the 1980s brought a more complex understanding of such an artistic production, especially in the American South where the self-taught artists were empowered by scholarship and collections; they were distant from major urban centers and were appropriating regional artistic traditions.

The final section will be centered on the latest period from 1998 until 2013 which is marked by the revision of the relationship between self-taught and vanguard American artists. Thanks to the deconstruction of the very notion who can be an artist inherited from theory and practice of the previous times, the paradigm changed so all of the artists became more or less equal.

Left Marsden Hartley - Adelard the Drowned, Master of the Phantom Right John Kane - Self-Portrait
Left: Marsden Hartley – Adelard the Drowned, Master of the “Phantom”, c. 1938–39. Oil on board, 28 × 22 in., The Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, bequest of Hudson D. Walker from the Ione and Hudson D. Walker Collection / Right: John Kane – Self-Portrait, 1929. Oil on canvas over composition board, 36 1/8 × 27 1/8 in., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Fund, 1939, digital image © The Museum of Modern Art/licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY

Outliers and American Vanguard Art at LACMA

This important exhibition tends to explore the dynamics of the art world and what it means to be an outlier in contemporary terms as well. Furthermore, it questions issues of gender, class, vernacular traditions, craft, and representation, along with the notion of periphery and center in the context of institutional practices.

It is important here to underline that Outliers and American Vanguard Art is curated by Lynne Cooke and initially presented at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, and afterward, the show traveled to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.

Outliers and American Vanguard Art will be on display at The Los Angeles County Museum of Art from 18 November 2018 until 17 March 2019.

Editors’ Tip: Outliers and American Vanguard Art

Since the last century, the relationship between vanguard and self-taught artists has been defined by contradiction. The established art world has been quick to make clear distinctions between trained and untrained artists, yet at the same time it has been fascinated by outliers whom it draws selectively and intermittently into its orbits. For a new exhibition launching at the National Gallery of Art, curator Lynne Cooke explores shifting conceptualizations of the American outlier across the twentieth century, drawing on the inherent sociality of the exhibition in her installation of these works. This companion catalog, Outliers and American Vanguard Art, offers a fantastic opportunity to consider works by schooled and self-taught creators in relation to each other and defined by historical circumstance.

Featured image: Rosie Lee Tompkins – Untitled, 1996. Cotton, cotton flannel, cotton feed sack, linen, rayon, flocked satin, velvet, cotton-synthetic blend, cotton-acrylic jersey, acrylic double-weave, cotton-polyester, polyester double knit, acrylic and cotton tapestry, silk batik, polyester velour, rayon or acrylic embroidery on cotton, wool, needlepoint, and shisha-mirror embroidery (quilted by Irene Bankhead in 1996), 88 × 146 in., Eli Leon Trust, photo by Sharon Risedorph. All images courtesy LACMA.