Why ‘The Art That Doesn’t Know Its Name’?

Yes, it’s an unusual name for a blog, so I thought I’d explain where it came from.
On the first night I arrived here in New York, on my Travel Scholarship, I was invited to the premiere of Eternity Has No Door Of Escape, a fascinating film by Director Arthur Borgins, which charts the history of Outsider Art:

Outsider art challenges established art historical categories and artistic movements. A translation of the French “art brut”, a term coined by Jean Dubuffet in the aftermath of the Second World War, this label was applied to works produced by artists suffering from mental illness, practitioners of Spiritism, and self-taught visionaries. It compels us to question our aesthetic and cultural norms, and the place attributed to madness in our society. This documentary retraces the tumultuous history of art brut and introduces us to some of its pivotal figures Jean Dubuffet, André Breton, Hans Prinzhorn, Harald Szeemann… based on analyses, interviews, and a treasure trove of rare archival footage, often previously unreleased. It allows us to encounter leading experts in the field, and the key places and institutions where its history unfolded and continues to unfold, in France, Switzerland, Germany, and Belgium. This documentary is also an invitation to lose ourselves in a maze of universes beyond logic and reason, in the works of Adolf Wölfli, Aloïse Corbaz, Augustin Lesage, August Natterer… Art brut is too often overlooked by art history. This documentary allows us to make the acquaintance of this enigmatic, disquieting stranger, and to raise questions about the mysteries of artistic creation.

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The film was a trip through most, but not all, of the significant historic moments that have helped to position this type of work in the contemporary art world today. There is a definite European, particularly French, focus which was both welcomed and informative.

 

Following the viewing, there was a Q & A session with New York based art dealer, curator and author Jane Kallir, Harvard’s Raphael Koenig and the film’s Director Arthur Borgins. It was during this discussion that an audience member asked the panel about how useful the term Outsider Art was in categorising this type of art work. Taking a deep breath, Chair of the discussion Koenig described this inevitable part of the Q & A as term warfare. Jane Kallir added that “this discussion has been going on for years and I suppose this is still the art that doesn’t know its name.’

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Of course, she was right. This debate has gone on for years with terms like Art Brut, Visionary Art, Outsider Art, Non-Academic Art, Self-Taught Art….all being used to describe this type of work and it’s artists’ various iterations. Each name seems loaded, not in a way that the artists feel comfortable or happy with, but rather to encapsulate what the art market or the dealers need – a catch-all phrase that brings together a critical mass of diverse work that is now unified in the international Outsider Art Fairs in Paris and New York – which incidentally is the starting point for my trip.
From all that I’ve read and seen, I still feel that none of these terms actually fully encompass the work. An alternative view of Outsider Art is ‘You know it when you see it’, which I admit isn’t a satisfactory theoretical or scientific way to categorise artwork.
Later this week I’m meeting with Becca Hoffman, the Director of the Outsider Art Fairs, to get her take on the name and contemporary definition of Outsider Art. I’ll report back after our conversation.

 

Walking In Agnes Martin’s Shoes

Agnes Martin is an artist who has always held a strange fascination for me and as I write this I’m sitting in a coffee shop opposite her old studio at 3 Coenties Slip, New York. I could actually cry at any second. Although I’ve wanted to sit in this exact spot for many years, I never expected to feel so emotional when it actually happened. Maybe I was a bit naive. I’ll admit that I’ve actually google street-viewed this exact spot so many times that my search history probably indicates me as obsessive.

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Agnes Martin’s Studio today 3-5 Coenties Slip, New York
Really, it was my fascination with her grid paintings that first sparked my interest in so-called Outsider Art and those who make work that falls into this diverse category. I always knew that there was something about Agnes that no one seemed to be talking about, and it was during my research for my Masters in Art History and Curating, that I decided to write my dissertation about Martin’s work. I was fortunate that Frances Morris, now Director of Tate Modern, shared my fascination and was researching Martin at the same time I was. Mine was dissertation research, but Frances’ was for the Agnes Martin retrospective at Tate. Frances’ knew that it was hard, almost impossible, to find the information I needed, and in one of the greatest acts of kindness I’ve ever been shown, she gave me access to her research – a shelf in her office with everything that you could ever wish for. I was like a child in an Agnes Martin sweet shop!

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SILVER PRINT, 18 X 17 IN. GIFT OF D. FREDERICK BAKER FROM THE BAKER/PISANO COLLECTION, 2012.1.50
Agnes Martin by Diane Arbus (1966)
It was during this time that I read about Martin’s diagnosis of Schizophrenia for the first time. Everything dropped into place. The missing episodes in her biography. The periods spent in hospital. The way Martin talked about the ‘inspiration’ that sent paintings to her as fully formed images, the size of postage stamps which she re-drafted onto canvas. The mystery about why she left New York so abruptly in 1967. Decades later Martin said, “I left New York because every day I suddenly felt I wanted to die and it was connected with painting. It took me several years to find out that the cause was an overdeveloped sense of responsibility.”
Sometimes curators fall into the trap of pathologising art work once they discover that an artist has a mental health diagnosis. They believe that the paintings have been produced because of the diagnosis as opposed to the mental health issue playing some part, but not all parts. In a way, it’s a good thing that Agnes kept her Schizophrenia secret from all but a few of her close friends. That way, her work has been protected for many years from this pathologising, and I hope it stay that way. Agnes Martin did not produce her work because of her Schizophrenia, but I do wonder whether her work provided some kind of coping mechanism, or had a therapeutic effect. When you look at Martin’s paintings, the canvas is so controlled that it may have provided her with a level of control that fell outside of Martin’s everyday exprience as someone hearing command voices that she didn’t feel in control of.
Yesterday I visited the New York Outsider Art Fair. Many pieces of the work shown by the over 80 participating galleries was made by artists with a mental health diagnosis and I was really relieved to see that the agents and gallerists behaved more or less in exactly the same way as they have in every other art fair I’ve ever attended. They were definitely interested in sales and definitely looking over my shoulder to see if anyone interesting was coming through the door after me. I was worried that the same pathologising that Martin sometimes suffers, would be apparent here and that the work would be talked about in hushed, patronising tones, but nothing could be further from the truth. Red dots appeared more often than I’ve seen in other Fairs and probably a similar number of artists were there too, speaking for themselves and enthusiastically describing their artworks.

Treatment for Schizophrenia was still archaic in 1957 and Martin’s diagnosis must have seemed heavy with the weight of the stigma of the day. As I sit here looking up at the studio she was brought back to after her hospitalisation and ECT treatment at Bellevue Hospital, I wonder how she found the emotional strength and tenacity to pick up a paintbrush again.

There is something so moving about walking up this street where she would have walked after she was released from hospital and that she walked down for the last time when she decided to leave The Slip for the last time. I suppose when we breathe the same air they did, it somehow brings us closer to them. I don’t think I’ll forget this afternoon for a long time.

…and so the journey begins.

It seems like a lifetime ago since in 2017 I was given a Winston Churchill Travel Scholarship. Now, it’s 2018 and I’m sitting writing this in a hotel in New York and I can’t quite believe it.

When you apply to the Churchill Trust it’s with a specific project in mind. For me it was a real opportunity to investigate an area of the art world that I’d been interested in for a long time – Outsider Art. Some call it Art Brut, others call in Visionary Art…it’s a discussion we’ll have later.

For a long time the two paths of my life, art and mental health, have run parallel to each other, crossing now and again, but really existing in isolation. For several years I’d been working in the arts while also working in suicide prevention. It was really only when I worked on a photographic exhibition at the Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool that I started to think seriously about bringing the two worlds together.

The same year I left the Walker Art Gallery where I’d been running the John Moores Painting Prize, I made a documentary with the BBC and also complete my Art History and Curating Masters – see what I mean about the two worlds running parallel!

The Trust gave me a grant that allowed me to visit New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Tokyo, Kyoto and Shiga investigating Outsider Art practice. I’ll be sharing my experiences here. My first stop is a pilgrimage to the old studio of my favourite painter…Agnes Martin.