Outliers and American Vanguard Art at the High Museum

Folk, naïve, vernacular, visionary, outsider, self-taught—over the past century, a range of rubrics has emerged to describe artists who rose to prominence in the mainstream art world despite a lack of formal training. The touring exhibition “Outliers and American Vanguard Art,” on view from now through Sept. 30 at the High, examines the shifting identity of American self-taught artists and offers an unprecedented overview of their profound impact on the evolution of modern and contemporary art.

Organized by the National Gallery of Art and curated by Lynne Cooke, senior curator for special projects in modern art, the exhibition features more than 250 diverse works from the 1910s to the present by more than 80 trained and untrained artists. Together the works reveal how artists on the margins enabled new paradigms of inclusion and galvanized the mainstream art world to embrace difference and diversity across race, region, class, age, and gender. Artists featured range from lesser-known painters like Morris Hirshfield to contemporary art stars like Kara Walker, and the artworks on view vary from classic Americana like Edward Hicks’ 19th-century “Peaceable Kingdom” to contemporary works such as Betye Saar’s found-object assemblage “Sambo’s Banjo,” which exposes and critiques enduring racial stereotypes in America. The exhibition also includes works from the High’s distinguished collection of folk and self-taught art, including significant examples by Southern artists such as Gee’s Bend quilter and abstract artist Mary Lee Bendolph and the visionary preacher and environment builder Howard Finster.

Artists featured in that historic exhibition included Henri Rousseau, the famed French tollbooth collector who became a cause célèbre among the turn-of-the-century Parisian avant-garde; the Pittsburgh painter John Kane, who was hailed as the American Rousseau; and Horace Pippin, another Pennsylvania painter who became widely celebrated during the era. Pippin’s work influenced and intersected with that of trained artists, not only in terms of its expressive form and color but also in subject matter, like African-American life in the South, gospel and religious themes, and revivals of folk heroes, including Abraham Lincoln and John Brown. “Outliers” is the first exhibition to demonstrate how the work of self-taught artists like Pippin, Bill Traylor and William Edmondson, the first African-American artist to have a solo show at MoMA (1937), converged with that of their trained peers, both white and black, including Jacob Lawrence, Marsden Hartley, John Flanagan and Henry Bannarn.

Morris Hirshfield
Morris Hirshfield(American, born Poland, 1872–1946), Tiger, 1940, oil on canvas. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Fund, 1941.

The middle section of the exhibition, which covers roughly 1968–1992, explores how interest in self-taught artists, which was initially a predominantly East Coast phenomenon, flourished in other regional centers in the later 1960s as the civil rights, feminist, antiwar and gay rights movements became increasingly powerful forces in society. In the mid-1960s, a group of recent graduates of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, known as the Chicago Imagists, found untrained artists both locally and across the country whose work provided inspirational models for their own boundary-pushing, popular-culture-driven styles. Artists including Roger Brown, Jim Nutt, and Gladys Nilsson began to bring the contemporary art spotlight to the work of their self-taught contemporaries, from the majestic landscapes of Joseph Yoakum to the fantastical drawings of Martín Ramírez.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, the South became recognized as a hotbed of artistic activity as artists like Edgar Tolson, Howard Finster, and Elijah Pierce rose to national renown. Pierce was one of 19 Southern African-American artists to be featured in the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s 1982 exhibition “Black Folk Art in America: 1930–1980.” That landmark exhibition sparked conversations about race, religion, and postcolonialism that consumed the art world in the 1980s and brought attention to previously undervalued artistic expressions, including the unfired clay heads of blues musician James “Son Ford” Thomas and the exuberant evangelical painting of Sister Gertrude Morgan. The impact of African traditions on American culture and the legacy of slavery and racism were central concerns that governed the work of a group of assemblage artists working in Los Angeles during this period, including Noah Purifoy and John Outterbridge. Many of these artists will be on view at the High for the first time in “Outliers.”

Whereas the first two sections of the exhibition reveal many of the direct lines of engagement between untrained and trained artists, the last galleries explore the intersections and parallels that have emerged in more recent contemporary art, from around 1998 to the present. One gallery focuses on artists who have leveraged the camera as a tool for constructing identity, framing desire and revising history. Works by Cindy Sherman, Lee Godie, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein and Greer Lankton blend performance and portraiture, while Lorna Simpson and Zoe Leonard use staged and found photography to blur the lines between real and fictive personalities. The exhibition continues with a gallery that puts quilting and other textile practices into dialogue with works by New York-based painters who sought to make relevant what they considered a declining abstraction. Multimedia works by Al Loving and Nancy Shaver are presented with textiles by Mary Lee Bendolph, Annie Mae Young, and Rosie Lee Tompkins as well as wrapped sculptures by Judith Scott.

The exhibition concludes with videos, installations, assemblages, and paintings by artists including Lonnie Holley, James Benning, Forrest Bess and Henry Darger, each of whom used art to construct a personal cosmos.

“Outliers and American Vanguard Art” debuted at the National Gallery of Art (Jan. 28 through May 13, 2018) and will travel to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) following its presentation at the High.

Related Programs

“Outliers” Opening Weekend Talk: Art of the Detour
June 23 at 2 p.m.
Hill Auditorium
Don’t miss David Epstein, author of the New York Times bestseller “The Sports Gene,” as he discusses how detours in life have led “outliers” to exceptional innovation.
$14.50; Free for members

“Outliers” Conversation Pieces
Tuesdays from noon to 12:30 p.m.; June 26; July 10, 17, 24 and 31; Aug. 7, 14, 21 and 28; Sept. 4, 11, 18 and 25
Enjoy a 30-minute, in-gallery conversation focusing on a work of art in “Outliers and American Vanguard Art.”
Free with Museum Admission

Road Trip to Paradise Garden
July 14 from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
High Museum of Art and Paradise Garden
View the exhibition “Outliers and American Vanguard Art,” then spend the day exploring Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden with the High’s Merrie and Dan Boone curator of folk and self-taught art, Katherine Jentleson, and Paradise Garden’s executive director, Tina Cox. Lunch and snacks provided.
$150; $100 for members

August First Friday
Aug. 3 from 6 to 9 p.m.

Normal is overrated. Celebrate the High’s exhibition “Outliers and American Vanguard Art” at First Friday! Enjoy docent-led tours of the exhibition, a performance by choreographer Okwae Miller, drawing on the Orkin Terrace, and art-making with Indie Craft Experience and a featured Atlanta artist. Don your best attire and dance the night away at our Alternative Prom! Take a prom pic in the photo booth and indulge in the spiked punch for purchase.
Free with Museum Admission

Celebrating Quilts
Sept. 22 at 2 p.m.
Hill Auditorium
A panel of artists and experts takes a closer look at the rise of the quilt in American museums and what contemporary artists are doing with this medium.
$14.50; Free for members

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