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Outsider Art Assimilates

Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz pass their collection of works by untrained artists to the Philadelphia Museum of Art

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Runaway Goat Cart, c. 1939–42. Bill Traylor, American, c. 1853–1949. Opaque watercolor and graphite on cream card, 14 x 22 inches (35.6 x 55.9 cm). (Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection)
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The PMA show is evidence of how wisely the Bonovitzes have chosen. Even with their decision to concentrate on outsider art, the couple has never bought with the intention of forming an encyclopedic collection of the genre, or to fill “holes.” In fact Sheldon argues that it is a kind of dishonesty to collect that way. Instead they have steadily and consistently bought only the individual pieces that moved them. They form a congenial pair of collectors. (The Bonovitzes said it was a strange experience to have their offices and their home stripped, and that they were going to take the opportunity to paint the interior walls, while they “missed” near-life-sized carved statues of a preacher and his wife.) As is the case for many joint collections, there is talk of mutual veto rights, but in the Bonovitzes’ case the veto seems to have been infrequently exercised.

The Bonovitzes have not played the role of discoverers. That role has gone to the perceptive eyes—often those of young mainstream artists—that by chance have been in the right places at the right times. The undeniably important Martin Ramirez (1895–1963) is an outsider artist whose discovery borders on the miraculous. Born in Mexico and moving to the United States under the pressure of military rebellion, economic hardship, and family troubles, he spent the period 1931 to 1948 in one mental facility and the remainder of his life in a second. There is some evidence that he drew at the first institution, but no known drawings survive. In the second institution, a psychologist named Pasto noticed and encouraged his work and tried, for the most part unsuccessfully, to see that it was recognized. Pasto’s collection of drawings was finally noticed and valorized by the Chicago artist Jim Nutt. Ramirez’s drawings are hypnotic representations of aspects of the reality that he had known: horseback riding, trains, tunnels. They are crowded with undulating lines that lead the eye with snakelike movement, through landscapes of mounds and rivers. Ramirez’s technique, too, was highly original, using build-ups and carve-outs of waxy pigmented materials.

Outsiders work in obscurity, and the Bonovitzes have never developed into direct supporters of particular artists. Instead, they are curators. By promising the artwork to the PMA they are taking a necessary step in moving outsider art inside. Sheldon is clear in saying that he did not want his collection in a specialized museum. The placement of the Bonovitz collection in a broadly based institution reinforces the idea that their gift is a marker of the assimilation of outsider art into the Western artistic canon. At the same time, the outsider art movement—if we can use the term—may have come and gone, like other movements that now exist as discrete exhibits in large museums. Only one artist in the show is still alive, and it is significant that the Bonovitzes know of no gallery that now specializes in the field, even if for collectors the area is thriving, with New York’s annual Outsider Art Fair running since 1993.

Many of the pieces in Great and Mighty Things are best seen as entirely apart from the mainstream. Yet others resonate in powerful ways within the curatorial progression of periods and styles, even if seeing that requires a shift in perspective. Purvis Young (1943–2010) is a rare urban outsider artist, having spent his life in Miami. Jail time set him on a redemptive path involving decoration of his impoverished Overtown neighborhood. Early discovery made him into an artist whose work is widely owned, but he never retreated from his project. He produced thousands of works, painting and drawing on found materials; his subjects were often the travails and injustices of the lives of his neighbors. With such a large production, his work can be uneven. But seeing a marvel like Young’s “procession of figures” is an exhilarating experience. Figures subtly suggested with very limited rapid strokes dance in lines on a yellow ground. The raw materials add to the idea of inexorable, unstoppable creation. One feels the skill, spontaneity, and economy of old master European drawings, and one senses the significance of dance as one senses it in Matisse’s murals. Work like this holds its own in any context.

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Super interesting article. Thanks, Paul.

Those selections from the whole collection that are featured affect me with a strange breathless panicky hunger to see all of them, right now, to be in their presence – the runaway cart is incredibly funny, the mind that produced it is unfathomable, isn’t it. And the beautiful picture of gray and turquoise, undulating petal-like forms, so elegant and expressive. It’s wonderful that this couple could engineer the survival of these gems, so that ordinary people like me can see them, and marvel.

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Outsider Art

Great and Mighty Things: Outsider Art From the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art