"Outsider Art" Comes in from the Cold

Works by insane, institutionalized, or otherwise culturally isolated artists are gaining a following -- and fetching fancy prices

By Thane Peterson

A couple of years ago when I was living in suburban Chicago, my artist neighbors across the back courtyard had a wonderful art collection that featured many well-known contemporary Chicago artists whose works sell for thousands of dollars. When I walked into their apartment, however, the painting that always caught and held my eye was a small, crudely done portrait on the mantel that looked as if it might have been done by a child. My friend Theresa had bought it in 1985 for $12 from Lee Godie, an eccentric, self-taught Chicago artist who for years sold her works to passersby on Michigan Ave.

I was thinking of that painting while wandering through the annual Outsider Art Fair held Jan. 24-27 in New York City because I saw several paintings by Godie going for $1,500. The oeuvre of the one-time street person, who died in 1994, is now largely handled by Chicago's Carl Hammer Gallery. And if the price Theresa paid is any indication, the value of the prolific Godie's works has vaulted more than 100-fold since the mid-1980s. With the exception of Microsoft, not many stocks have done better during that period.


  If anything, "outsider art" seems destined to continue soaring in value and critical esteem. Loosely defined as art by insane, institutionalized, or otherwise culturally isolated individuals, it has long been one of the Rodney Dangerfields of the art world -- finding little love and respect beyond a small cadre of artists, dealers, and collectors. That may have started to change on Jan. 27 when Christie's held the first-ever sale of outsider art by a major auction house.

The Christie's sale, which set records for a number of outsider artists, shows how far the genre has already come since the first Outsider Art Fair was held 11 years ago. The more than 100 works in this year's auction came mainly from the collection of Robert M. Greenberg, 54, a hip New York adman whose R/GA agency has pioneered digital imagery for clients such as Nike, AOL Time Warner, and IBM (as well as helping create the archival film sequences in the Woody Allen movie Zelig).

Alamentosa, colored pencil, collage, and watercolor on paper, by Martin Ramirez

A healthy 78% of the works at the auction sold, and the best ones commanded some astonishing prices. For instance, While Inside They Await Developments/They Are Cleverly Outwitted by the late Chicago recluse Henry Darger (and one of the weirder human beings I've ever read about), went for $89,625, a record for one of his works and well above Christie's pre-auction estimates. Alamentosa, by Martin Ramirez, a California man who took up drawing while institutionalized in the 1950s and 1960s, also set a record for the artist, selling for just under $100,000.

The auction's take totaled $1.1 million, less than the $1.5 million minimum Christie's had hoped for, but that was mainly because the most expensive work failed to sell. Noah's Ark, a sculpture by William Edmondson, a Nashville-based African-American stone carver who once had a solo show at New York's Museum of Modern Art, had been expected to fetch at least $400,000. However, bidding fizzled out at just $300,000.

Still, Christie's says it wants to hold more outsider art auctions. "It's our intention to build the category," says Margot Rosenberg, a Christie's vice-president and folk-art expert who was one of the sale's organizers.


  If you're on a tight budget and want to get into collecting, my guess is that this is a good -- though risky -- area to consider. It's still affordable for average folks, for one thing. Many of the works at the Outsider Art Fair were priced at under $1,000. However, if Christie's succeeds in creating a secondary market, prices are likely to keep climbing.

Noah's Ark, limestone, by William Edmondson

At its best, outsider art has a weird power that most other folk art doesn't have. Many artists I know have outsider pieces in their personal collections. In Europe, where outsider art is known as l'art brut (raw art), the genre was pioneered by French artist Jean Dubuffet. He and other European artists such as Paul Klee were deeply influenced by outsider works, especially those created by the institutionalized insane. Some of these pieces collected by Dubuffet, such as those by Swiss mental patient Adolf Wolfli, commanded top dollar at the Christie's sale.

In the U.S., shows by major institutions such as the Museum of American Folk Art in New York are adding to the category's legitimacy. Indeed, you can now find museums from Baltimore to Sheboygan, Wis., specializing in self-taught artists. You can also check out works at galleries such as Carl Hammer in Chicago and Phyllis Kind in New York. Even Iowa City, Iowa, has an interesting outsider gallery, the Pardee Collection. Information about all the galleries represented at the Outsider Art fair can be found at www.sanfordsmith.com/out.html.


  Outsider art's growing popularity, however, also makes collecting it riskier because, as with all markets, supply tends to increase with burgeoning demand -- often at the expense of quality. That's a fancy way of saying a lot of junk was also on display at the Outsider Art Fair amid the occasional gems. Some dealers seem to be combing the streets for disturbed people and promoting any crude drawing as great outsider art.

On the other hand, as my friend Theresa's experience shows, it can pay to be kind to street people. Lee Godie, Theresa says, wouldn't sell her paintings to just anyone. She had to like you. And to the hundreds -- probably thousands -- of Chicagoans she liked, she left treasured gifts.

Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online

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