Self-taught artists—variously termed folk, primitive, visionary, naïve, outsider, and isolate—have played a significant role in the history of modernism, yet their contributions have been largely disregarded or forgotten. Organized by the National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC), this exhibition of 250 diverse works by more than 80 trained and untrained artists reveals how the mainstream art world has looked to artists without formal training for inspiration and innovation for more than 100 years.
Whirligig, ca. 1941
Watercolor, graphite, colored pencil with scraping, and pen and ink on paperboard
Index of American Design, National Gallery of Art, WashingtonFounded in 1935, the Index of American Design was one of many New Deal government programs designed to offer work relief to the unemployed during the Great Depression. Over the course of seven years, over 1,000 artists, most of whom were commercial and graphic artists or illustrators, created more than 18,000 watercolor renderings of folk and craft objects from across most of the United States. As an archive of decorative and applied arts, the Index was intended to serve as both a historical record of the nation’s patrimony and a model for future American designers.
Peaceable Kingdom, ca. 1834
Oil on canvas
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler GarbischPeaceable Kingdom demonstrates an early example of a self-taught painter using art as an extension of his religious mission and professional trade. Originally trained as a coach maker and keen on painting elaborate decorations on his work, Edward Hicks fully embraced art making as a tool to support his Quaker ministry at a moment of schism in his religious community.In Hicks’s kingdom on Earth, predator lies down with prey; in the distance, William Penn, Quaker founder of the Pennsylvania colony, signs a treaty with representatives of the Lenape people. Hicks’s rich hybrid of historical and biblical imagery contributed to a revival of his reputation in the 1930s, when he was hailed as an “American Rousseau.”
Jack Johnson, 1934–1941
Newark Museum, Bequest of Edmund L. Fuller, Jr., 1985William Edmondson attributed his foray into carving, begun after decades of working as a hospital janitor, to a vision from God. In the 1930s, Edmondson went beyond the tombstones he made for fellow Nashvilleans and filled his yard with sculptures of preachers, teachers, nurses, biblical figures, animals, and national celebrities he carved from local limestone.With the support of his black community, local white patrons, and an exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1937, Edmondson came to self-identify as an artist. The MoMA exhibition was the first one-person show by an African American artist in the institution’s history and the first by a self-taught artist.
John Brown Legend, ca. 1945
William H. Johnson
Oil on board
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, Gift of the Harmon FoundationOn October 16, 1859, abolitionist John Brown led a raid on a federal armory at Harpers Ferry in the colony of Virginia (now West Virginia) as part of a plan to help slaves escape to freedom. The rebellion ended unsuccessfully with Brown’s being captured and hanged for treason but is often credited with being the final catalyst for the Civil War.In works such as this one, William H. Johnson departed from his academic training and turned to a folk style characterized by flat shapes and bold colors. He portrays John Brown as a martyr coming down from a cross. A young child kisses Brown’s bowed head in reverence for his sacrifice.
Untitled (Madonna), ca. 1948–1963
Crayon and graphite on pieced paper
Mr. and Mrs. James HarithasMartín Ramírez’s reputation is based on the formal innovation and psychic charge with which he transformed subjects and motifs from his daily life and childhood experience. On sheets of used paper, roughly glued together, this former ranch hand created hallucinatory landscapes, stage sets, and mountainous terrain from repeated lines drawn with pencil. The railroad, which had transported Ramírez from his native Mexico to California, was the source of subsequent lucrative jobs and took on a fantastical reincarnation in his drawings.Ramírez created most of his drawings in DeWitt State Hospital near Sacramento, where he was institutionalized for many years. The manmade elements—trains, tunnels, tracks, and arcades—that “tame” his otherwise deserted vistas speak of a transit that has neither point of origin nor identifiable destination. Ramírez’s singular vision proved compelling to artists such as Jim Nutt, who encountered it by chance in 1968 after he moved to Sacramento to take up a teaching position and found Ramírez’s drawings among the course materials of a psychology professor.
Indigo Mercy, 1975
American, born 1926
Mixed media assemblage
The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York; Gift of the Nzingha Society, Inc.An altar-like sculpture that draws on wide-ranging belief systems and cultures, Indigo Mercy epitomizes the diverse influences that have shaped Betye Saar’s ecumenical vision. Growing up near Watts Towers in Los Angeles, Saar claimed Simon Rodia’s monumental artwork as formative, alongside the work of another self-taught maverick, Joseph Cornell, who generated his signature assemblages through reveries conjured from mementos. To these potent sources of inspiration, Saar later added vernacular traditions of African and African American Southern culture, personal trinkets, and mystical astrological systems, among myriad others.
Take My Yoke Upon You and Learn of Me Saith Jesus, #1,060, 1977–1978
Paint on board with embossed wood, artist’s frame
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, T. Marshall Hahn Collection, 1997.74A preacher from age sixteen, Howard Finster turned to painting in the late 1970s after experiencing a vision, and he soon came to believe he could disseminate his apocalyptic message more effectively by making art than through any sermon he might deliver. Scenes of hellfire and damnation galvanized his imagination, but so too did worldly figures including Elvis Presley and Henry Ford, whom he saw as modern-day prophets.Finster’s vast if canny ambition, coupled with the breadth of his activity, ultimately made him one of the most renowned self-taught artists of his day. In the 1980s, when neo-expressionist styles and neo-primitivizing forms came to the fore in contemporary painting, his work briefly segued into mainstream art circles. While also a musician in his own right, he is better known for album covers he designed for the bands Talking Heads and fellow Georgians R.E.M.
Rosie Lee Tompkins
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
Collection of Eli LeonCrediting religious inspiration, Rosie Lee Tompkins, who had learned to quilt as a child, took up the craft again in midlife. She described her creative process as a kind of meditative prayer in which aesthetic and spiritual concerns prevailed, as she never intended her quilts to function as bedcovers.Tompkins’s art is distinguished by her preference for velvet, whose sensuous surface is highly responsive to light. Together with her eye for color and composition, the sumptuous quality of Tompkins’s work sparked the interest of contemporary art curators. The artist’s inclusion in the 2002 Whitney Biennial heralded subsequent appearances in art museums and galleries, expanding her audience beyond institutions dedicated to the display of African American folk art.
Jackie O., 1985
Fabric, wire, glass, human hair, acrylic paint, and matte medium
Meg Siegel and Rachel SiegelGreer Lankton explored the self-fashioning nature of identity through transforming her own body and by creating and photographing dolls. Some of her manikins are the epitome of upscale elegance, some of downtown camp. Others may be read as relics and votive offerings to trauma and suffering. All, however, address the porousness of the boundaries that define gender and class as well as the volatility of identity. Alternately merciless and flattering, Lankton’s camera animates her avatars, hinting at an otherwise unsuspected interiority.
From the Beginning to the End to the Beginning, 1985
American, born 1950
Compacted casting sand
Souls Grown Deep Foundation, Atlanta, from the William S. Arnett CollectionIn 1979, Lonnie Holley began to make and exhibit sculptures that drew on his hardscrabble life experiences and his ruminations on lessons to be found in everyday materials. Soon, he was devoting much of his energy to creating an environmental artwork on the one-acre property he owned on the outskirts of Birmingham, Alabama.In 1997, city authorities claimed the land and ultimately destroyed everything on it in preparation for an airport expansion. The narratives Holley weaves, in their preacherly address and cadences, offer his audiences spiritual and existential parables for grappling with a world that the artist presents as riven with suffering and adversity.
About the Exhibition
Outliers and American Vanguard Art focuses on three key periods when the intersection of self-taught art with the mainstream has been at its most fertile: The First Wave includes the interwar years—particularly the aftermath of the Great Depression—through World War II; the Second Wave covers the “long” decade of the 1970s in the wake of the civil rights, feminist, gay liberation, and countercultural movements; and the Third Wave begins in the twilight of the twentieth century, when the long-held distinction between schooled and unschooled makers began to prove increasingly difficult to detect.
Contributing to these three great waves of interest in self-taught artists were groundbreaking exhibitions, artist encounters, and larger paradigm shifts that are the focus of this exhibition’s nine chronologically sequenced galleries. The great diversity of artists and artworks on display suggests that, while being an “outlier” implies distance from a norm, it also has defined a position of power central in shaping the course of twentieth-century art.
Explore the Outliers Interactive
At the heart of this exhibition’s presentation of nearly 90 artists are themes of diversity and convergence that can be explored further through this interactive tool. Tap a thumbnail to learn more about the artist behind each featured work and discover connections between artists using the filters at left.
Outliers and American Vanguard Art is organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington
Major funding is provided by the Fulton County Board of Commissioners
This exhibition is made possible by
Premier Exhibition Series Partner
Exhibition Series Sponsors
Premier Exhibition Series Supporters
Anne Cox Chambers Foundation, The Antinori Foundation, Ann and Tom Cousins, Sarah and Jim Kennedy, Jane and Hicks Lanier, Louise Sams and Jerome Grilhot
Contributing Exhibition Series Supporters
Barbara and Ron Balser, Corporate Environments, Peggy Foreman, James F. Kelly Charitable Trust, Jane Smith Turner Foundation, The Lubo Fund, Margot and Danny McCaul, Joyce and Henry Schwob
Generous support is also provided by
Alfred and Adele Davis Exhibition Endowment Fund, Anne Cox Chambers Exhibition Fund, Barbara Stewart Exhibition Fund, Dorothy Smith Hopkins Exhibition Endowment Fund, Eleanor McDonald Storza Exhibition Endowment Fund, Forward Arts Foundation Exhibition Endowment Fund, Helen S. Lanier Endowment Fund, Howell Exhibition Fund, Isobel Anne Fraser–Nancy Fraser Parker Exhibition Endowment Fund, John H. and Wilhelmina D. Harland Exhibition Endowment Fund, and Massey Charitable Trust