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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

Paul Fishbane
March 05, 2013

The term “outsider art” has the virtue of brevity, but as a descriptor it leaves much to be desired. It is not a coherent movement, but rather the fruiting and ripening of something that took root in the fertile soil of America across the mid-20th century. For the most part, the artists who are categorized as “outsiders” were self-taught; they were poor or otherwise marginalized members of society working in a rural setting using materials at hand (soot and saliva, or chicken bones, as well as paint and you-name-it); and they made their art without the idea or intention of sale.

Today this art, which during the artists’ lifetimes may have hung on a fence, or been piled up in a shopping cart, or may never have been seen by others at all, makes its appearance in the classical spaces of great museums, where the visitor must climb monumental steps and pay an entrance fee. Great and Mighty Things, an exhibition that opened this weekend at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, presents much of the impressive collection gathered by Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz over the last three decades—and elegantly shows that the work of the best practitioners deserves to be seen on its own terms, for its own artistic value.

The Bonovitzes, who live in Philadelphia, have promised their collection to the PMA, and the paintings, sculpture, and other—sometimes unclassifiable—works in the show largely carry themselves with the power of other works in the museum. No artist in the Bonovitz exhibition illustrates the issues involved in the collecting and reframing of outsider art as “art” better than James Castle (1899–1977), who lived in an Idaho farming region. He was completely deaf and failed to learn to communicate in any standard way. Probably he never learned to read. His art, which he was free to practice alone because he could not participate in the regular work of the farm, seems to have been his means of communication. His father ran a local Post Office branch, so Castle was well exposed to popular culture. He watched packages arrive and leave and saw printed images, all of which informed his work. He used the crudest forms of discarded materials to make sober and deep explorations of twisted and folded forms, of surreal and real images, of figurative compositions morphing toward abstraction. He may have invented for his own use a personal version of written language. He appears to have independently discovered one-point perspective.

Castle created art over his whole life and produced a corpus that he regularly gathered and stashed—hid, really—around the farm. As his family moved to several different locations, his bundles were forgotten and were only partly rediscovered in the late 1990s. Did Castle think of himself as “creating art” in the way that Matisse did? Does it matter when evaluating the aesthetic value of his productions? Thirteen pieces of Castle’s “constructions,” twine-sewn layers of paper and cardboard, are present in the show and testify to the enduring interest of this important artist.

The Bonovitzes are at least on the surface very much a part of insider culture. Jill’s mother, Janet Fleisher, ran a first-line contemporary art gallery in Philadelphia that in the ’70s curated shows of several outsider artists. Jill is herself a distinguished ceramic artist with pieces in public collections. Sheldon grew up poor in a Jewish neighborhood in Cleveland and rose to the top of a large law firm in Philadelphia; he also serves on the boards of both for-profit and nonprofit organizations. But a deeper look reveals something special about each of them. Jill worked with handicapped children for a period after her schooling. Sheldon, for his part, worked summers at his uncle’s fish business, in which a small Jewish managerial level oversaw the work of a large number of black employees.

In an interview with the couple at Sheldon’s corporate office, the walls denuded ahead of the opening, he recalled to me an attitude that was often much less than respectful toward those workers, which he found disagreeably surprising from people who had themselves suffered the indignity of discrimination. He also recalled, as an undergraduate at Penn, resistance by the “insiders” to some of the people with whom he wanted to associate. Whatever the reasons, one senses a very profound democratic urge in the couple that permitted them to see beyond labels and to understand that genius recognizes no social boundaries.

An important moment for the couple as collectors was a 1982 show, Black Folk Art in America, at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. Outsider art is not really a version of folk art, which relies on tradition and continuity and is often concerned with decorative issues. But the show did have a good many pieces by outsider artists, among them the iconic sculptor William Edmondson (1874–1951). Edmondson, claiming to have been guided by God, made solemn hierarchic figures from granite. He was one of the first of the genre to have been discovered—he had a solo MoMA exhibit in 1937. Also present at the Corcoran were works by Bill Traylor (1853–1949), born a slave, who produced his first known drawings at around the age of 80 and, thanks to support from the mainstream artist Charles Shannon, made more than a thousand partially abstracted and socially complex drawings and paintings over an intense four-year period that lasted into his nineties. Many of his works, jewel-like on rough supports, illustrate mysterious interactions between people, animals, and their surroundings. Others portray individual objects placed on the support in singular fashion.

Jill recalled the powerful impression made by Traylor’s work at the Corcoran. Sheldon said the Corcoran show influenced the way the couple bought. In any case, something in the outsider art movement resonated within the couple, and about 10 years or so after the show they found that they had been collecting coherently and made a considered decision to continue their collection of outsider art.

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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Paul Fishbane is a professor emeritus of physics at the University of Virginia.

Paul Fishbane is a professor emeritus of physics at the University of Virginia.