Inside Out

John Haber
in New York City

Janet Sobel at the 2009 Outsider Art Fair

I felt like an outsider at the Outsider Art Fair. That means I belonged, right?

Art thrives on paradoxes, including the kind that should never have got past Philosophy 101. Yet outsider art is trapped in plenty of its own. Now that anything can be art, the outsider still claims a place apart. And then it claims that place for art. In contemporary art, everyone gets to play, even those who claim not to be players. Janet Sobel's Burning Bush (Gary Snyder Fine Art, c. 1943)

For all that, something still sets outsider art apart, right down to its all too frequent madness and monotony. Something, too, gives it every right to haunt the mainstream, including the 2009 art fairs and 2010 art fairs soon to come. But what?

For an answer, consider how art got from the primitive to the outsider. And for a case in point, consider an artist who first exhibited as a primitive and, six years later, left New York without once looking back. In between, Janet Sobel helped inspire Modernism in America.

From primitive to outsider

Twenty-five years ago now, an exhibition of "Primitivism and Twentieth-Century Art" outraged pretty much everyone. In tracing Modernism's borrowings from the art of Africa and "Négritude," the Museum of Modern Art seemed to embrace imperialism. It seemed, too, to write off other cultures as primitive. In response, artists have addressed globalism, multiculturalism, and the "primitive discord" within modern art. A "primitivism revisited" would no longer wait around for insiders to speak for them. It would look, in fact, very much like outsider art.

Now self-taught artists can speak for themselves—and through reputable dealers. They can demand respect from sophisticates that at once disdain them, market them, and appropriate them. This year, the Outsider Art Fair has moved to an office building right across from the Empire State Building. Just last spring a competitor to the 2008 Armory Show, Volta NY, snagged the very same space and the same access. Each time, dealers found a place outside, but in midtown Manhattan. Each time, too, they turned inside out and outside in.

Some artists are born insiders, and some achieve insider status. Others, like Archibald Motley in black Chicago, have interiors thrust upon them. Outsider art has long included women, like Judith Scott, who could never enter the workplace, much less the art world. It has included art from prisons, a subject for Maureen Kelleher, and mental institutions, like Arthur Bispo do Rosário. In a sense, too, psychosis is being forever locked in one's head. At least one gallery at the fair, Fountain, still dedicates itself to artists suffering from mental illness—although without, to my knowledge, turning up the next tormented genius.

In other ways, too, outsiders are insiders, quite apart from African Americans like Thornton Dial outside of Birmingham. Geographically, their roots are in the Americas—in folk art, tapestry, or art of the Mexican revolution. Culturally, their roots are just as western. At the 2009 Outsider Art Fair, one can see echoes of Emil Nolde, Frida Kahlo, Mary Bauermeister, and Jean Dubuffet alongside Howard Finster, Bill Traylor, and Henry Darger. Alongside voodoo imagery from Haiti, one could see scenes from the Bible or more secular scripture, such as Lincoln handing down the Emancipation Proclamation. If you want to visit Africa, you can always surf the Web.

Much of the fair conveys the ultimate in American family values—a childlike innocence and a responsible adulthood, much like posthumous portraits in the nineteenth century. Unlike earth goddesses, totems, or Darger's nudity, much less Jeff Koons as porn star, it could have earned a PG rating. Even Morris Hirshfield's female nude covers her lumpy private parts with flora, like a matronly Eve preparing for houseguests. Ursula Barnes turns the Temptation into two blonds sharing an apple, like sisters at a summer picnic. Sexuality and spirituality may also co-exist. Eugene Andolsek hints at a mandorla or a vagina, in dense, symmetric drawings with the transparency of stained glass.

One could use all these notions of the insider to define outsider art—from spiritualism and native tradition to criminality and madness. One could also describe the distinction between primitivism and the outsider as a turning inward. And that turn, I shall argue, corresponds to a turn in twentieth-century art, as Modernism came to America and the outsider went to art school. In effect, primitivism is to early modern art as the outsider is to Abstract Expressionism and after. As it happens, one woman artist has a role in both transitions. Her work will help make the terms a little clearer and a lot messier.

A primitive in Brighton Beach

Janet Sobel first exhibited in 1943 with Sidney Janis, in his "American Primitive Painting," alongside Horace Pippin and Grandma Moses. Just three years later, Janis included her in "Abstract and Surrealist Painting." Not only had his interests and recent art evolved. She had changed, he announced. She was "no longer primitive," but Surrealist—and then some. She had also produced something revolutionary, probably the first drip painting.

Her Milky Way, painted in 1945 or 1946, once again hangs with Abstract Expressionism at the Museum of Modern Art. She also has a booth to herself at the 2009 Outsider Art Fair. Talk about an outsider: New Yorkers last had an extensive look at her work in 2002 and 2005, with her first solo shows in more than fifty years. I do not wish to repeat my review then. A quick recap, though, will suggest her brief but colorful career.

Janet Sobel's Untitled (JSC132) (Gary Snyder Fine Arts/, c. 1946)Sobel, a mother of five, took up painting in 1937, at age forty-three. Her son Saul, who studied at the Educational Alliance, had a passion for art, and his mother took up his brushes. For a while, he put them aside to become her untiring advocate. An admirer of Art and Experience, he tracked down John Dewey in the Florida Keys, his mother in hand, to introduce her. Dewey wrote the catalog essay for her 1944 solo show, at Puma. Before long Max Ernst and André Breton were dropping in on her in Brighton Beach, and she had her second solo show, at Peggy Guggenheim, in 1946.

She also caught the attention of Jackson Pollock, who soon exhibited with Guggenheim, too. At Puma, he and Clement Greenberg probably saw Burning Bush—as it happens, a reference to the calling of a prophet, Moses. Its flecks of white invade the figures and extend to the small painting's borders. "Pollock and myself admired these pictures rather furtively," Greenberg noted. They did not have long to admire them. Before long, Sobel left Brooklyn for a spacious home in New Jersey, gave up painting, and never looked back.

What did it mean to be no longer primitive, and what did it mean to be a primitive in New York City in the first place? Gary Snyder, her dealer, constructs a plausible chronology, if maybe a little too firm in its outlines. First, he surmises, come stiff, claustrophobic compositions closest in style to outsider art. Even then, however, nothing is certain. In one painting, figures in dark, heavy clothing hold up long objects in parallel—perhaps the tools of a peasant laborer, perhaps weapons. Are they a self-taught artist's memories of the Ukraine, which Sobel left at fourteen, or echoes of prewar American realism, with its solid outlines and themes of labor?

Next, he argues, come the "all-over" paintings that impressed Pollock. Figures grow more colorful and maternal, but also more isolated and attenuated. A body may lie face down, seemingly dead, but the surrounding faces always smile. More cartoon-like faces peer through many of the drip paintings. But do they mark a transitional style before her abstract art, a later return to figuration, or a touching up of older work? When she blows and drips from glass pipettes, adopts household enamel, or paints on cardboard returned with shirts from the cleaners, is she primitive or sophisticated, playful or experimental, afraid of no one's opinion but her own or casual in her commitment to art?

The primitive as history

No one, not even family, knows when Sobel gave up art. She switched from paint to crayons and other media in 1946. (Among other factors, she had an allergy.) Snyder has now extended his dating into at least the early 1950s. Still, whether or not she had forgotten art, art had all but forgotten her by her death in 1968. She then had one more chance to influence the mainstream—or the outsider.

That year, William Rubin made his pilgrimage to her home. Rubin later staged the notorious show of "Primitivism and Twentieth-Century Art." However, he was not in search of another primitive. He purchased an abstract painting for MoMA, a drip painting—and another for himself. In a way, that exhibition and his purchase make much the same gesture. Primitivism, they both say, already belonged to the history of modern art, but thus also to history.

Sobel does belong with both outsider art and late Modernism in America. And that reopens the question of how much they belong to each other. After her last solo show, in 2005, I compared her nonlinear progress to the real ins and outs of Abstract Expressionism. Think of echoes of figuration in Pollock or Willem de Kooning, who veered from abstraction to Woman I and back. At the Met, in an exhibition of acquisitions under its departing director, one can see de Kooning back in 1940, with his Glazier. Is its strange mix of fine drawing, heavily simplified anatomy, and seeming incompletion a testimony to his formal training, his knowledge of Cubism, his coming radicalism, or a place in outsider art?

It takes effort to see de Kooning as an outsider. It may take less to see the outsider myth in Pollock. In the usual glamorized version of his life, he rode out of the Wild West to save American art. He had his fascination with Carl Jung and his own madness, in alcohol. He had his acquaintance with Sobel. True, he also had modern art, Greenberg, and Hans Hoffman, whom Lee Krasner had encountered at the Arts Students League. That does not make the insiders outsiders, but it already suggests an unmentioned interdependence.

No one can know what Pollock borrowed from Sobel—or Sobel from Pollock and Mark Tobey, who was moving in the same direction then. Then again, just how much of an outsider is a suburbanite, like Sobel in her years on the margins? The interdependence is even greater now, as outsiders quote European painting and young artists, such as Amy Wilson or Paul Chan, borrow from Henry Darger. Most people still think of modern art as child's play. "My three-year-old child could do that," they believe, or they could turn up Pollock in a thrift shop, perhaps along with Jim Shaw and his "Thrift Store Paintings."

What has fostered that interdependence? Again, I want to argue, both mainstream art and self-taught art found a new path by turning inward. I know of only one hint of religion in Sobel, a slim male with a halo. When a Jew quotes a Christ figure, one had better forget anything one knows about inside and out.

Band of outsiders

Both currents of postwar art make a new claim for looking inward, for several reasons. America began to take art as its due. It came with the turmoil in Europe and the influx of immigrants like de Kooning, Sobel, Breton, Ernst, and Arshile Gorky to the United States. It soon came with quite another sense of displacement, in the flight to the suburbs. It came with a renewed sense of history within the Americas, from New York City and the blues to Mexico City and voodoo in Haiti. It came with new recognition for women and native crafts—and even for their influence on an earlier Modernism, as with Henri Matisse and textiles, his family's business.

Instead of drawing on the eternal to return art to its origins, postwar art could draw on the rejected to energize tradition and to reclaim it as their right. Art was no longer looking to the Dark Continent for the repressed but to itself for leadership. So, politically and artistically, was America. The changes did not stop either as drip painting became a basis for formalism. Art could move from inner demons to fixed artistic traditions. Recognition of imperialism and racism made the elevation of the primitive a joke or an insult even as Rubin was insisting on it.

Where Romanticism once tried to recover from a felt spiritual deprivation in modern life, Modernism alternately derided and reveled in it. Now Postmodernism has done much the same to a felt deprivation in the late-modern formalism. The recent exhibition of "NeoHooDoo" has explicitly linked multiculturalism and spirituality. Again primitivism has given way to alternative traditions. And again the change colors revisionist views of early Modernism, like that of Pablo Picasso as the outsider from Barcelona.

However, the idea of the outsider needed one more, equally important step later—with the increasing professionalization of art as the century came to an end. Contemporary art no longer staked its existence on an opposition to academic training. It had spawned MFAs as a career move. In the process, it found its other in the outsider, and outsider art in turn reasserted its otherness. But not entirely. With media saturation, no one is original, and art again and again pays its debt to outsiders and popular culture.

It also repays those debts, again thanks to the media and globalization. No one, even an outsider, is entirely immune and entirely self-taught. The outsider as insider has found new audiences outside, too—beyond local, national, and cultural boundaries. The 2009 Outsider Art Fair has exhibitors from New Zealand, Strasbourg, the Netherlands, and England. Everywhere is outside. Give me a place to stand, and I can move the world, but where would it go?

Outsider art is not born but made. As Jean-Luc Godard's Band of Outsiders (Bande à Part) race through the Louvre, they thumb their nose at convention, while turning Western art to their own purposes. Godard does much the same when he places himself within an alternative canon, one based on Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller rather than the French "cinema of quality." Now one can rent them all on Netflix. Outsider art will never fulfill its promise of a vital alternative to the mainstream—and the mainstream is grateful for it.

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The Outsider Art Fair ran three days, through January 11, 2009, at 7 West 34th Street. As with the earlier review of Janet Sobel, I am indebted to her grandchildren for their information. I am also indebted to Gary Snyder and his fine panel presentation at the fair.


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