How a Self-Taught Artist Can Sell for $250,000
American Primitive, an Upper East Side gallery that specializes in Outsider Art, lists some of its prices online. An animal sculpture covered in bottle caps by Terry Turrell is on sale for $3,800. A semi-abstract picture of figures on a boat by Max Romain, a Haitian self-taught artist now living in New York, is offered for $1,800. For anyone who’s tried to pry a price list from the unwilling hands of a New York gallery attendant, this kind of transparency is nothing short of unprecedented.
“I live in another universe, apparently,” says Aarne Anton, the gallery’s owner. “Nonetheless, Outsider Art really is art, and fortunately, it’s recognized as such these days.”
Outsider Art—otherwise known as “self-taught” art or “folk art”—is a loose term for work by people who don't come from a traditional art school or gallery background and who often create art for themselves rather than to generate income. At this point, though, many outsider artists have acquired a dedicated following of dealers and collectors, and artwork by these artists has begun to sell for five and six figures. This surge in popularity in price isn't without its pitfalls, however, and the movement's backers are treading an increasingly uneasy line between highlighting artworks' uniqueness and easing the genre into the mainstream art market.
There's no doubt Outsider Art's visibility has increased dramatically in recent years. In 2014, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York accepted a gift of 57 works by outsider artists. The same year, the Studio Museum in Harlem had a show devoted to Outsider Art in relation to contemporary art and the South. Then last year, the new Whitney Museum of American Art’s inaugural exhibition included a work by Bill Traylor, another outsider artist.
Christie’s top lot is a sculpture by William Edmondson (1874-1951), which has a high estimate of $250,000. Other lots include a graphite and crayon drawing by Martín Ramírez from 1953, Untitled (Seven Stags), which has a high estimate of $100,000, and a child-like painting by William Hawkins of a spotted leopard from 1988, which carries a high estimate of $40,000.
“Collectors who have been supporting this market for the past 20, 30, even 40 years are excited for new discoveries at the fair, and to see how their old discoveries are now valued much higher,” says Becca Hoffman, director of the Outsider Art Fair. “This is about everyone sort of prospering from the growth of Outsider Art.”
It’s been a long time coming. In the mid-20th century, the genre drew academic interest in Europe and then in the U.S.—the modernist painter Jean Dubuffet had a 1,000-piece collection devoted to Outsider Art, which he coined Art Brut—but it was largely overlooked by the American art market until roughly seven years ago. Since then, “there’s been a surge,” says Hoffman, the fair director.
There are multiple possible reasons for the genre’s popularity: the unique history of many self-taught artists; the booming contemporary art market generally; and the (not insignificant) fact that much of the art looks uncannily like the modern and contemporary art that sells for millions. (Martín Ramírez's drawings, for instance, bear a striking resemblance to, say, Italian futurism.)
As the genre increases in visibility and price, its proponents, eager to draw it into the mainstream, appear stuck in a mild identity crisis. “I don’t like to delineate between outsider art and art in general,” Hoffman says. “It’s all art.”
James Fuentes, whose influential Lower East Side gallery represents a mixture of contemporary and self-taught artists, uses similar language.
“It’s ultimately about excellent work and interesting art,” he says. “I don’t see any difference between Lonnie Holley,” a self-taught artist Fuentes represents, whose prices range from $5,000 to $30,000—about the range of many young, gallery-represented contemporary artists—“and one of our artists with an MFA.”
But downplaying Outsider Artists’ biographies comes with some risk: The narrative behind many self-taught artists is a powerful draw, and the literal outsider status of these works—their galleries listing the price online, the comparative affordability of much of the art, the thrill of discovering yet another self-taught artist toiling in obscurity—is part of what makes the genre so special. Take away the "self-taught" aspect, in other words, and the work can lose some of its allure.
Some older dealers agree. “I can’t imagine not being interested in the backstory,” says Anton, the owner of American Primitive gallery. “To me, it’s so intertwined.”
He uses the miniature handstitched pictures of Raymond Matterson, which sell for $2,500 to $3,000, as an example. “He was in prison and had no material,” Anton explains. “So he had to unravel his socks to get colored thread.” That kind of story, he says, “adds to the value.”
Fuentes, however, says that the background of the artists is embedded in the artwork itself— there’s no need, therefore, for backstory.
“When someone appreciates a work by Lonnie Holley, they’re tapping into something with soul, for lack of a better word,” Fuentes says. “Especially if they see other contemporary artists who are taking an ironic position, or an antagonistic position against the viewer, they're going to appreciate his work as sincere.” (As opposed, for instance, to the blithe cynicism of Richard Prince's "Instagram Paintings", or even the we-know-this-is-all-a-joke snideness of Damien Hirst.)
That, Fuentes says, is the secret to Outsider Art’s success: In contrast to the hyper-ironic art produced by artists in the traditional art world, Outsider Art is “a f---ing breath of fresh air."
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