James Castle, Untitled (patterned house and tree)

What Do We Admire in the Work of Self-Taught Artists?

John Beardsley–

The subject of outsider art continues to attract high-profile attention: witness the exhibition Outliers and American Vanguard Art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 2018, or the new book from Yale University Press, Nonconformers: A New History of Self-Taught Art. While a great deal of effort has gone into parsing what is and isn’t outsider art, how it is related or not to more mainstream cultural practices, and whether or not designations like self-taught and outsider are even acceptable categories of analysis anymore, less effort typically goes into evaluating it, as if all outsider artists were ipso facto good, or as if such evaluations were irrelevant to the subject.

I have been guilty of this lapse myself, a fact driven home to me by an anonymous pre-publication reviewer of my recent monograph on the twentieth-century self-taught artist James Castle, Memory Palace, published by Yale in 2021. The reviewer noted that in my initial draft for the book, I asserted Castle’s brilliance at transforming personal memories into powerful images that collectively constitute a visual autobiography without fully exploring the conceptual and formal decision-making inherent in such transformations. Nor had I fully accounted for the range and versatility of his work, which included not only memory images rendered in inks made from soot and saliva, but also delicate landscape abstractions, word puzzles, cut-out cardboard constructions of animals, furniture, and clothing, numerous small books, and improvisations on appropriated images.

This sent me back to my own drafting table, so to speak, to attempt a more detailed consideration of Castle’s reach as an artist and the possible relations among the many different aspects of his production. I also sought to examine in greater detail his conceptual and formal strategies: his tireless variations on a given subject; his manipulations of scale and space; and his extraordinary, even mystifying, mastery of representational techniques, including foreshortening and perspective—exceptional by any standards and even more so in someone without formal training.   

But the reviewer also provoked some larger questions, notably this: How might we more broadly assess the accomplishments of artists variously described as self-taught or outsiders? As the artist Jean Dubuffet liked to say, their work is uncooked according to the conventional recipes of art history. They typically have little access to education of any kind, never mind in art. They are consequently unaware of or indifferent to the usual technical rules of art making—perspective, composition, chiaroscuro, color theory, and the like. So how should we evaluate their achievements instead? This might seem like a suspect inquiry: quality has become something of a problematic term, evoking questions of authority—especially who has the power to determine what is good? Indeed, inequities of all kinds are rife in the lives of self-taught artists, from their social experiences as individuals to their transactions with—and sometimes exploitation by—the art world. But avoiding or removing qualitative judgments does not create an inherently more egalitarian field of play. Rather than aspiring to an absence of curatorial or critical opinion, we might do better to recognize that such judgments are often made from a perspective of cultural, economic, and educational advantage, which inflects opinions without necessarily invalidating them.

Just as we rely on biography to define who is a self-taught artist, we might be inclined to turn to biography as a tool for assessment. Many self-taught artists have confronted adversities of various kinds—geographic and social isolation, economic disadvantage, racial prejudice, physical and neurological differences, or mental illness. We might be tempted to celebrate their dedication to creativity in the face of such challenges, as if that in itself were sufficient measure of achievement. Or we might turn to assertions of authenticity, which often seems like a variation on the Surrealist idea of unmediated creativity—a creative impulse arising unbidden from a place deep in the psyche untouched by cultural habits, like some kind of creative id operating outside the influence of the artistic superego. We might lean on binary contrasts between tutored and untutored artists, the one becoming more refined and technically proficient as he or she matures, the other never wavering from individual, even idiosyncratic, imagination—as if there were not hybrids between the two, tutored artists who look to the example of the untutored, and untutored individuals who absorb various forms of cultural information. Or we might celebrate commercial innocence, the uncorrupting distance from or indifference to the marketplace.

All of these ideas deserve some unpacking, as they provide insight into the social experience of many self-taught artists. But as a means of accounting for artistic achievement, they only get us so far; they are sometimes distracting and can even be misleading. James Hampton, for instance, creator of the dazzling gold and silver foil-covered setting for the Last Judgment he christened The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millenium General Assembly, was posthumously diagnosed as schizophrenic by two mental health professionals on the basis of visions he recorded in elements of his environment of Moses and the Virgin Mary appearing to him at various moments in Washington, D.C. This in turn led to Hampton’s unfortunate inclusion in John MacGregor’s book, The Discovery of the Art of the Insane. But as I learned in research conducted for the exhibition I co-organized, The Quilts of Gees Bend (2002), vision narratives have long been required for membership in some African America congregations, and should probably be understood in that context instead.  In any case, I want to take a different approach here. I want to work out for myself what appeals to me in the art of the self taught, and how the subject of my recent monograph, James Castle, embodies these qualities. All this is to say that, for the purposes of this text, I care less about the biographical or social experience of these artists and more about their art; less about definitions of folk, outsider, or self-taught art and more about its reception.

When I think of the self-taught artists I most admire—among them David Butler, Henry Darger, Thornton Dial, William Edmondson, James Hampton, Sister Gertrude Morgan, Martin Ramirez, Achilles Rizzoli, Nellie Mae Rowe, and Bill Traylor, as well as any number of Gees Bend quilters (starting but not finishing with Mary Lee Bendolph, Loretta Pettway, and Annie Mae Young) along with Castle—I wonder what common characteristics are evident in their work. (As should be evident from this list, I am more concerned in this instance with object makers than environment builders, about whom I wrote at length in my book Gardens of Revelation.) To begin with, there’s a quality of sheer ambition in all of these artists, measurable in multiple ways. Sometimes it’s the scale of the work, sometimes the extraordinary output, sometimes the range of style, subject matter, and technique, and sometimes the imaginative reach of the motivating ideas. In Dial’s case, it was the urgency to represent the whole history of African American experience in his huge, mixed media paintings and sculptures, from the horrors of the Middle Passage to the trial of O.J. Simpson and the war in Iraq. For Henry Darger, it was the commemoration of the epic struggle of the Vivian Girls against child slavery imposed by Glandelinian overlords in a 15,000 page illustrated novel, In the Realms of the Unreal. For Achilles Rizzoli, it was the conceptualization of a utopian Beaux-Arts-inspired city he called Y.T.T.E.—Yield to Total Elation. A lowly architectural draftsman by day, by night Rizzoli visualized the plans and elevations for his ideal city, laid out like a vast global exposition and full of buildings that were symbolic portraits of his family, neighbors, and members of his church—his mother, for instance, was symbolically represented as a cathedral. Y.T.T.E. was also to include narrative structures—among them a rigorously symmetrical edifice called the Essosee (The Spirit of Cooperation) and the Shaft of Ascension, a tower where the living would be given “a pleasant, painless bon voyage.”  Like Darger, Rizzoli was also a writer—in his case, producing hundreds of 24 by 36 inch graphite on vellum sheets mixing poetry, narrative, and architectural renderings, the whole meant to bridge architecture and theology and intended as the basis for the third and final testament of the Bible.

Alongside ambition and imagination, there is a quality of confidence and directness—a sureness of line, a consistency of output. Most artists produce better and lesser works, but many of these self-taught artists never miss a beat. And they seem to emerge fully formed, without a period in which missteps are more common than successes. Admittedly, a lot of juvenilia by these artists might be lost, but you cannot beat Martin Ramirez for confident draftsmanship and chromatic subtlety. Self-taught artists also share a quality of versatility across media—they use unexpected materials; they do unexpected things with conventional materials. Nellie Mae Rowe was well known for drawings made with felt-tip marker pens, but she also made dolls out of salvaged clothing and little painted talismanic figures made from masticated chewing gum given to her by neighborhood children.

Self-taught artists can be seen to deploy a wide range of aesthetic strategies that are at once fully developed and deliberate. They typically gravitate toward poles of either serene abstraction or no-holds-barred expressionism. On the one hand, their work might be characterized by simple, elegant geometric forms, like Edmondson’s angels, or balanced asymmetrical shapes, as in Traylor’s architectural compositions. On the other, they might opt for an accretive aesthetic, a piling up both of images and materials, resulting in crowded surfaces that fill every corner of the pictorial surface, like Gertrude Morgan’s compulsively communicative combinations of word and image representing the New Jerusalem. This is not to say that artists at this end of the spectrum are not selective or even discerning about what they represent in their work—what they leave out is often as important as what they include, revealing a critical response to both the outer world and their inner visions.

Either way, self-taught artists strike me as formally self-aware. As Jane Livingston noted four decades ago in the catalogue of an exhibition she and I co-curated, Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980, “their inventiveness is always tempered by a sense of proportional correctness, of what makes an interesting shape, of how to express their ideas unerringly through abstract means. A sense of intelligible gesture is uncannily right in so much of this work; we instantly know what is intended.” In this sense, their work might be described as more cerebral than intuitive—the latter a quality more typically ascribed to their work. As Lynne Cooke wrote of the Gees Bend quilters in Outliers and American Vanguard Art, what sets Gees Bend apart is “the self-consciousness with which aesthetic invention became a mode of individualized self-expression.” The improvisatory quality of Gees Bend quilts, the material substitutions and disruptions of pattern, are all the more astonishing given the limited range of classic patterns from which they depart. Suzanne Hudson made a similar point in the same publication: self-taught artists connect with the world in “remarkably self-reflexive ways” that might be understood as “auto-critique” and that affirm the internal connection of these artists to vernacular media, popular culture, aesthetics, and markets. In all, self-taught artists convey a conviction that they have something important to say. This is revealed most explicitly in their efforts to bring their work to public attention—Hampton’s ambition to open a storefront ministry or Darger’s and Rizzoli’s ambitions to publish their illustrated books. But even without these public aspirations, the quality of self-awareness or self-consciousness is evident in the volume of work these artists often make and its frequently insistent character—its demand that we pay attention.

How does all this bear on Castle? By almost any measure, he ranks among the most accomplished self-taught artists. For a start, he had ambition in excess, apparent in all manner of ways. He was ferociously prolific, producing literally thousands of paintings, drawings, illustrated books, constructions, and sculptures. He was remarkable versatile within his chosen media—there is an astonishing range in the character of his lines, the opacity of his ink washes, and the intensity of his colors. He was also versatile across media, equally adept at portraying architecture, animals, or domestic objects in two and three dimensions, as painted images or constructions. He was technically inventive, making his own inks and color washes and his own tools for drawing; moreover, he salvaged all kinds of unlikely materials, from unfolded matchboxes to ice cream cartons, to use as supports. He had an unmistakable flair for pattern—striped and gridded trees, houses with cross-hatched or chevron siding, and endless variations on geometric shapes, especially three-, four-, five-, and six-sided figures. About the only ambition not manifest in his work is the desire to work at a large scale—he composed mostly at a table and generally confined himself to things he could do by hand within an arm’s reach.  

Castle’s work does not show the hallucinatory or dream-induced quality often seen in the work of the self-taught. His goals were different. As a non-hearing, non-speaking person, he used his art as a form of visual storytelling and—more particularly—as an extended autobiography. In this sense, he showed remarkable imaginative reach, compiling an elaborate personal history of his physical surroundings. He also gave clues to his intellectual curiosity, especially about language—he manipulated different alphabets, disassembled and reassembled words, composed neologisms that look like poems, and created illustrated books with identifiable characters. All this he did with confidence and directness, with an evident sensitivity to proportional correctness, compelling shape, and intelligible gesture. I don’t mean to recapitulate here all the arguments I eventually made in the book about Castle’s aesthetic strategies and accomplishments. Suffice it to say that he showed himself to be deliberate and fully developed as an artist, possessed of all the self-awareness or self-reflexive qualities needed to guide his ambitions. As much as any self-taught artist, he insisted he had something important to say and rewarded our attention.

Some might find that I am placing too much emphasis here on formal concerns. I am not advocating a solely aesthetic approach to these artists, disconnected from current discourses about race, gender, or neurodiversity, for instance—only a more nuanced approach in which the aesthetic reclaims a position of prominence alongside biography and social experience. I am sensitive to critic Ken Johnson’s claim, made in a review of the Outsider Art Fair in The New York Times on January 21, 2016 and quoted in Outliers and American Vanguard Art, that if the formalist view were to prevail, outsider art might dissolve into the mainstream. But would this be the worst thing? The work of self-taught and/or outsider artists should be in greater dialogue with the mainstream, with the goal of complicating the understanding of what that mainstream is and who has the authority to determine what it is. What we value as art ought to encompass creators and creations that still are overlooked in conventional histories of art. Among the self-taught, there are some astonishingly good artists. And this, I would argue, more than biography or social experience, is the main reason most of us who care about this art do so.

John Beardsley is an author, curator, and educator.

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