Exclusive Preview: 2021 Outsider Art Fair New York

Exclusive Preview: 2021 Outsider Art Fair New York

Due to the coronavirus pandemic and COVID-19 crisis, this year’s Outsider Art Fair in New York will not take place at its usual location in downtown Manhattan as an in-person event, attracting exhibitors and visitors from the United States and other countries.

Instead, it will take the form of an online event, which will begin on Friday, January 29, 2021, and run through Sunday, February 8 a full week longer usual.

In conjunction with the online presentation, a few group exhibitions featuring works of art that will be offered for sale by the fair’s participants will be mounted at galleries or other venues in New York. They will be open to the public but will require a collective, paid admission ticket. Information regarding access to the online fair and the $15.00 ticket allowing entry to all of these exhibitions may be found on the Outsider Art Fair’s website (www.outsiderartfair.com).

The inclusion in this year’s OAF of a handful of in-person exhibitions and at least one online panel discussion (“Transgression and Taboo in Outsider Art”) reflects its producers’ effort to imbue the broader event with some compelling appeal. 

Among the exhibitors taking part in this year’s online OAF, many will be using the occasion to showcase recent discoveries or emblematic works by some of their most notable artists.

Among New York dealers, Ricco/Maresca will introduce ink-on-paper works by George M. Silsbee (18401900) featuring exquisite calligraphy, intriguing symbols, and allusions to mysticism and the occult. Born in upstate New York, Silsbee’s life journey took him to Wisconsin, where he died. Along the way, he worked as a maker of pipe organs and as a miner and engineer in the Colorado Silver Boom of the late 1800s.

Cavin-Morris, another New York gallery that also has long played an anchor role in the OAF, will present rarely seen early works by the European art brut creator Anna Zemánková (1908-1986). Along with the Czech artist’s colourful compositions filled with rhythmic, organic forms, this gallery will offer a painting and a “healing machine” by Emery Blagdon (1907-1986), marking its first showing at the OAF of the Nebraskan outsider’s mysterious creations in almost 20 years.

The New York dealer Marion Harris will offer the Canadian Jordan Laura Maclachlan’s polychrome clay sculptures, featuring human figures and animals, and Daniel E. Rohrig’s gouache-and-watercolour paintings on paper. Rohrig (19111969), who was born in Indiana, served in the U.S. military in the Pacific during World War II. His pictures mash up sumo wrestlers and other imagery from East Asian advertising and pop culture. Harris, who in the past played a leading role in bringing to market the anatomically precise dolls, mostly depicting young girls and regarded by some observers as eerily fetishistic, of the American self-taught artist Morton Bartlett (19091992), will take part in the above-cited panel looking at transgressive themes in outsider art. (See the OAF website for details about this January 29 event.)

At its physical space in downtown Manhattan, during the fair and through February 20, Shrine will present Home, an exhibition of works by the self-taught artists David Butler, Sanford Darling, Mary T. Smith, and Sarah Mary Taylor. Similarly, in its OAF online viewing room, Shrine’s portfolio will also feature works by Black self-taught artists of the American Deep South, which, in recent years, have won serious critical attention in the U.S. and entered the collections of numerous museums.

From Chicago, Carl Hammer will offer tattoo-design drawings from the 1930s by W.R. King, along with works by such definitive American outsiders as Henry Darger and Joseph Yoakum. Also from Chicago, Western Exhibitions will introduce the drawings of Courttney Cooper, who lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, and uses ballpoint pens to draw sprawling aerial views of his hometown on pasted-together scraps of paper. (Unbeknownst to Cooper, similar works expansive, bird’s-eye-view cityscapes are being made today in Japan by the self-taught artists Norimitsu Kokubo and Shogo Harazuka.)

Based in Oakland, California, Creative Growth Art Center’s gallery will present both online and in the fair’s on-location exhibitions works by artists associated with its art-making studio. Among them: David Parsons, Dan Miller, and Rosena Finister. Look for the artist Susan Janow’s short-form videos, which represent Creative Growth’s first-ever offering of such motion-picture works. Connecticut-based James Barron Art will introduce acrylic-on-canvas paintings by Elisabetta Maestro and acrylic-on-paper works by Reza Shafahi, artists whose imagery includes human figures or aspects of nature in stylised compositions.

Galerie Gugging, part of the Art Brut Center Gugging, near Vienna, will offer drawings on paper by the Iraq-born artist Basel Al-Bazzaz, who lives in Austria. It will also present ink-on-paper drawings by Oswald Tschirtner (1920-2007), the Austrian art brut artist who was closely associated with Gugging and resided in its Artists’ House.

From London’s Gallery of Everything, one of the highlights of the fair will be an exceptional Adolf Wölfli drawing from the early 1920s in coloured pencil on paper, with the artist’s handwritten text on its back side. This work by Switzerland’s art brut master was once owned by the influential Swiss curator Harald Szeeman (1933-2005), who, in the early 1970s, played a leading role in calling renewed attention to the richness, originality, and complexity of Wölfli’s oeuvre.

The Montréal-based Galerie Robert Poulin will feature works by Anick Langelier, an artist from Québec whose paintings of wiry human figures in oil or acrylic on canvas evoke classic themes, like that of good versus evil, or seem to allude to deeply personal myths.

Among the exhibitions constituting the physical component of the fair, a selection of drawings by the outsider, “lo-fi” musician and visual artist Daniel Johnston (1961-2019), assembled by the American cartoonist, illustrator, and painter Gary Panter, will be on view at an unusual venue Electric Lady Studios in Greenwich Village, the legendary recording studio co-founded by Jimi Hendrix in 1968 at which the groundbreaking guitarist and many of rock’s biggest acts produced some of their best-known records. Panter has culled the Johnston works to be shown from the collection of studio manager Lee Foster.

The pandemic has been hard on many galleries in many art-market sectors, but with the recent emergence of several vaccines, some dealers have begun looking to the future and a return to more familiar business practices.

With this in mind, Ricco/Maresca’s Frank Maresca said, “More and more collectors of contemporary and modern art are discovering the power and the non-commercial directness of outsider and self-taught art. Art fairs are opening themselves up to showing the work, as are museums and the media. This work must continue to be shown as fine art, without restrictive labels.”

Shari Cavin, a co-director, with Randall Morris, of Cavin-Morris, noted, “We would love to see a further expansion of the critical press that focuses on living artists [in the field], as well as on artists who may not be so well known. Galleries need to continue addressing how – and why  art brut artists are individually unique, even while discussing the excellence of this kind of work in a contemporary context.”

Creative Growth’s gallery director, Sarah Galender Meyer, observed that the subjects of art brut and outsider art their history, aesthetics, and critical issues need to “infiltrate academia”, too.

For now, the 2021 Outsider Art Fair New York faces big challenges. In addition to meeting its own financial goals at a very difficult moment, despite the damper effect of the pandemic, it must use this year’s peculiar online event to reinforce its position as one of the leading and most popular events and institutions in its specialised field.