Most so-called Outsider artists aren’t household names, but some of the art world’s biggest insiders sure seem to know who they are. Contemporary art stars including KAWS, Maurizio Cattelan, Nicole Eisenman, and Cindy Sherman, all collect Outsider art and, this week, you can peek inside some of their collections in an exhibition at the Outsider Art Fair.
“The idea of the show came about from coming to the fair for 20 years and running into artists like Chris Martin and Kiki Smith, and more recently KAWS and Maurizio Cattelan,” Laster told Artnet News at the fair’s VIP day. Those artists were there, he heard time after time, to buy art.
“I think they are collecting it because they like the fact that these are works made without the market in mind,” Laster said. “Artists need to be reminded of that when they get success!”
When Laster decided to put together the booth, he began reaching out to some of the artists who he knew had Outsider art collections, like Julian Schnabel, who once enlisted a five-year-old Vahakn Arslanian to help smash dishes for his well-known series of plate paintings. (Vahakn, who was born deaf, went on to become a self-taught artist.) Soon, Laster was getting tips—he should check with Cindy Sherman, and didn’t Laurie Simmons have some Eugene Von Bruenchenhein work?
The booth soon morphed into a salon-style hang, its walls packed with works by the likes of Lee Godie, Janet Sobel, and Purvis Young.
Sometimes there are clear visual connections between the artist who made the work and the artist who bought it. Laster pointed to a Mose Tolliver portrait on loan from Polly Apfelbaum. “I think it looks like Polly’s work, and it was gifted to Polly by her mother, who may have thought that as well,” said Laster. (And with the figure’s black pageboy bob, it also looks a bit like Apfelbaum herself.)
Many of the works were discovered by happenstance, like the work Donald Traver owns by Prince Robert de Rohan Courtenay, a sort of 20th-century illuminated manuscript featuring a poetic ode to the postage stamp. “When I acquired a collection of nearly 30 of his works through a probate auction held by the state of New York in 1989–90, there was no internet, thus I knew nothing about the artist,” Traver says in the press release for the show.
Later, Traver found a text that Diane Arbus had written about De Rohan Courtenay when she photographed him in 1958. “The rightful Hereditary claimant to the throne of the Byzantine Eastern Roman Empire—styling himself His Imperial Majesty, the Magnificent Emperor of the Byzantines and of the faithful Romans, Semper Augustus—was born in Oklahoma in 1886, having lost his Empire, along with a treasure valued at $90 million, when the Turks overran it in the year 1453,” Arbus wrote in Harper’s Bazaar.
Nicole Eisenman, on the other hand, always knew exactly who Esther Hammerman was: a self-taught artist whose work is part of the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC—and is also Eisenman’s great-grandmother.
“You can see the inspiration that Nicole could draw from it!” Laster said of the Hammerman work on view.
A second work on loan by Schnabel is by Wayne Magrin, who Schnabel discovered a few years ago at the home of a friend in Palm Beach, Australia. He fell in love with one of Magrin’s nautical paintings and asked where he could meet him. Schabel was told “’Up the block, [Magrin] has a bacon and eggs breakfast spot on the beach,’” recalled Schnabel in 2018, when he helped curate Magrin’s first US solo show, at Ibid Gallery in Los Angeles. “Wayne was painting in a small widow’s walk on the top of his house.”
But not all chance encounters happen in the real world anymore. The booth also includes a painting by Vera Girivi, borrowed from Jeannette Montgomery Barron. She and her husband, art dealer James Barron, found the Italian artist on Instagram—a reminder that social media offers a new platform for artists, self-taught and otherwise, the world over.
Wisely, Laster has shared some of these stories with fairgoers, mounting the Arbus excerpt and other statements from the artist-collectors on the booth walls. “I love the fact that these works have stories,” he said. Oftentimes, the stories of self-taught artists, learning what fuels their desire to create, is a large part of Outsider art’s appeal. In “Relishing the Raw,” works’ connection to well-known contemporary artists serves to add an extra layer of interest.
The Outsider Art Fair is on view at the Metropolitan Pavilion, 125 West 18th Street, New York, January 16–19, 2020. Tickets are $30, or $60 for a three-day pass.