Outliers at LACMA

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Another year, another moment of looking back and thinking about the future. Whether your leanings are left, right or center — as the KCRW show puts it — there is little doubt that these past few years have been tumultuous. It is a time when much is being reconsidered, which transforms the culture of today and views of culture past. Such reappraisal is startlingly clear in the exhibition Outliers and American Vanguard Art at LACMA on view through March 17.

Since the advent of modernism in the early 20th century, artists have been fascinated by the art of those who were not privy to the training and education of an academic setting. The art of children, the mentally ill, prisoners, mystics and eccentrics offered raw, uncensored and often original methods of perception discouraged in more traditional settings for art. This included folk art, especially by blacks in the segregated south.

Many exhibitions have explored this phenomenon. However, this exhibition, organized last year by Lynne Cooke for the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., demonstrates an increased sophistication around the conversation of what and, more importantly, why an artist was defined as an “outlier.”

Betye Saar, Indigo Mercy, 1975, mixed media, 42 × 13 × 13 in., The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, gift of the Nzingha Society, Inc., © Betye Saar

Helmed at LACMA by curator Rita Gonzalez, the exhibition no longer presents the modern artists as those who improved upon the so-called “outsiders.” Instead, the tutored and untutored share exhibition space and their influences are shown to be reciprocal.

The introductory gallery includes paintings by premier American modernists Florine Stettheimer, Marsden Hartley, Charles Sheeler and others who were in search of an American art rooted in its own unique history, including folk art. Riding high in that esteemed company is a 1939 painting by the Harlem Renaissance artist Palmer Hayden. While in the 10th Cavalry, he had cared for horses and years later, he depicted a black trooper galloping atop a white horse, symbolism that needs little explanation.

Philanthropist Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Museum of Modern Art director Alfred Barr, modern art impresario Alfred Stieglitz all extolled the virtures of what were then considered “modern primitives.” In Europe, this included Henry Rousseau, whose Tropical Forest with Monkeys (1910) in this show was a touchstone for artists including Picasso.

Horace Pippin, Interior, 1944, oil on canvas, 24 1/8 x 30 3/16 in., National Gallery of Art, Washington, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Meyer P. Potamkin, in honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art

It was another tumultuous time, the 1920s followed by the Great Depression of the 1930s that created new opportunities. One gallery wall features 1940s-era paintings by Horace Pippin, including a portrait of black opera star Marian Anderson in full throat. The self-taught black artist Pippin, who painted to strengthen his right arm after being wounded as a soldier in World War I, became celebrated by curators and collectors.

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Joseph Yoakum, Briar Head Mtn of National Park Range of Bryce Canyon National Park near Hatch, Utah U.S.A., c. 1969, pen and colored pencil on paper, 20 x 24 in., National Gallery of Art, Washington, gift of the Collectors Committee and the Donald and Nancy de Laski Fund

During the 1960s and 1970s, contemporary artists increasingly found inspiration in artists who were outside any sort of mainstream. The exhibition includes work by Chicago Imagists such as Jim Nutt, an admirer and collector of the imaginative landscapes of Joseph Yoakum. In this show, Yoakum’s colored pencil drawing identifies each of the pastel green hills around San Obispo.

The 1960s was also a period of recognition for incomprehensibly complex environments like Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, completed in 1955, which became a center for L.A.’s black artists. The show includes assemblage by John Outterbridge and Noah Purifoy as well as Betye Saar, whose methods dovetailed with evolving awareness of another marginalized group: women.

Rosie Lee Tompkins, Untitled, 1996, cotton, cotton flannel, cotton feed sack, linen, rayon, flocked satin, velvet, cotton-synthetic blend, cotton-acrylic jersey, acrylic double-weave, cotton-polyester, polyester double knit, acrylic and cotton tapestry, silk batik, polyester velour, rayon or acrylic embroidery on cotton, wool, needlepoint, and shisha-mirror embroidery (quilted by Irene Bankhead in 1996), 88 × 146 in., Collection of Eli Leon, photo by Sharon Risedorph, courtesy of the Eli Leon Trust

The quilts of Rosie Lee Tompkins, for instance, bridge geometric abstraction with the handiwork traditionally completed by women. The lumpen sculptures of Judith Scott are wrapped in messy lengths of yarn.

The attempt to incorporate more established contemporary art into this dialog is the most problematic aspect of the show, especially the film still self-portraits of Cindy Sherman. (Is there any other woman as firmly enmeshed in post-modern art history?)

Marsden Hartley, Adelard the Drowned, Master of the "Phantom", c. 1938–39, oil on board, 28 × 22 in., The Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, bequest of Hudson D. Walker from the Ione and Hudson D. Walker Collection

An exception and a revelation is the installation Three Suitcases of Love, Truth, Work and Beauty (2006) by Matt Mullican, a respected and educated artist who gained attention in the 1990s but whose work is rarely seen here. While hypnotized, Mullican manifested a character called That Person. The large drawings mounted on bedsheets and hung from the ceiling to form an open room are purported to reveal the ramblings and fantasies of That Person as channeled by Mullican. He uses the voice of a fictional and invented outlier to make claims at odds with the substance and content of institutionally-supported art.

Even without that background, the obsessive, curvilinear expressions of words and designs make a powerful presentation. Artists have long been the ones to acclaim the art of difference.

Institutions have been catching up. As we speed into 2019, upheaval seems to be the new norm. Such times have generated some great realizations in the history of modern art. Outliers and American Vanguard Art is another leap forward. No looking back.