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‘Outliers and American Vanguard Art’ is a Discourse Altering Show

At the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., Lynne Cooke's debut exhibition turns the spotlight on so-called 'outsider' artists

‘Outliers and American Vanguard Art’, Lynne Cooke’s debut exhibition at the National Gallery of Art as senior curator, is one of those rare shows that fundamentally alters a discourse. In this case, it’s the long debate around what we used to call ‘outsider art’. It is a type of exhibition exceedingly difficult to execute, let alone brilliantly, as Cooke has done here. The show mines the field at every step, including issues as diverse as cultural difference, social privilege, human suffering and ‘term warfare’. 

In three suitably eccentric and discontinuous periodizations, the exhibition imbricates works by (mostly) US autodidacts and canonical artists alike. Roosevelt-era projects (1933–45) give way to identitarian battles of the later 20th century, followed by early 21st-century imaginaries sometimes grouped into cosmoi. Cooke’s careful curation brings longstanding walls of exclusion under seismic pressure.

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Judith Scott, Untitled, 2004, fibre and mixed media, 54 x 41 x 41 cm. Courtesy: The Museum of Everything, London

The show succeeds, largely, thanks to the sheer quality of the works themselves. Three examples from the opening section: in the anteroom, we encounter Judith Scott’s untitled transfigurations – from 1989, 1993 and 2004, respectively – of both fibre arts and of hegemonic misapprehensions about intellectual competence. (Scott, who died in 2005, had Down’s Syndrome.) Next, we discover Lucille Chabot’s Shaker Rug Strip (c.1936), an exquisite watercolour depicting a rectilinear swatch of carpet painted for the Index of American Design, a Works Progress Administration initiative from President Roosevelt’s 1933–36 New Deal programmes. The tiny painting, alongside other striking Index works, undermines modernist verities of autonomy and utility, art and craft and, of course, the grid, with a terse precision worthy of Anni Albers. In Bill Traylor’s works on paper, crisply geometricized figures cavort and careen through rural scenes, as in Men Drinking, Boys Tormenting, Dogs Barking (c.1939–42). Born into slavery in Alabama in 1853, Traylor suffused his spare compositions with a devastating menace – and hilarity, which only redoubles the dread.

The exhibition also engineers surprising yet revealing correspondences. The painter and musician Sister Gertrude Morgan first appears in a room inspired by the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s landmark ‘Black Folk Art in America, 1930–1980’ exhibition; later, just after a room of responses to the 1965 Watts Rebellion, we hear her singing from her perfectly titled album Let’s Make a Record (1970), directly across from images of the Watts Towers (1921–54) by Simon Rodia, who died at 86 in the very year of the rebellion. Entanglements like these build over the course of the exhibition, such as when Forrest Bess’s surgical experiments in hermaphrodism open onto Henry Darger’s ambiguously gendered children, which reminded me of Morton Bartlett’s sexually discomfiting mannequin Untitled (Ballerina) (c.1950), followed closely by Greer Lankton’s doll-like sculpture of the transgendered self. The works here span nearly a century of art-making.

Which is not to say that the show is perfect. Works from Cindy Sherman’s ‘Untitled Film Stills’ (1977–80) are so out of place as to be simultaneously distracting and forgettable, and selections from Kara Walker’s Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated) (2015) feel entirely extra. More significantly, a viewing experience of such byzantine complexity could benefit from some visual cues to signal a transition from one section of the exhibition to another. The fact that it is divided into three segments was not clear on first viewing, nor was the extent to which some rooms include direct quotations from past exhibitions engaging with the ‘outlier’. This is important information. The National Gallery of Art forewent such overt signalling to avoid pigeonholes (an understandable caution), but more guideposts would have been helpful.

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Sister Gertrude Morgan, Revelation 7. chap., c.1970, paint on wood, 82 x 39 x 1 cm. Courtesy: The Museum of Everything, London

‘Outliers’ dodges deadly binaries like centre/margin or authenticity/derivation, while at the same time citing the discursive – and largely exhibitionary – history that initiated and contested those dualities to begin with. Cooke’s design informs us of the historical interconnectivity between hugely diverse practitioners while also adumbrating the dizzying complexity of their aesthetic relays. The show insightfully avoids a totalizing account or overarching historical model. Visitors leave the museum with dozens of new or forgotten names from a difficult US art history, as well as a fresh view of more familiar artists. After ‘Outliers’, the already threadbare binaries thankfully become almost difficult to recall.

The outliers are in. Let’s hope it’s for good this time.

Outliers and American Vanguard Art’ runs at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., until 18 May.

Main image: Bill Traylor, Men Drinking, Boys Tormenting, Dogs Barking (detail), c. 1939–42, opaque watercolour on card with dark gray prepared surface, 36 × 55 cm. Courtesy: Collection of Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz, Promised Gift to the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Jack McGrath is an art historian based in New York, USA. He teaches on the MFA programme at Columbia University. 

Issue 196

First published in Issue 196

June - August 2018
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