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Jerry Saltz on the Outsider Art Fair — and Why There’s No Such Thing As ‘Outsider’ Art

February 8, 2013

Untitled, (Blue and Brown House with Chimneys), circa 1939-1942, by Bill Traylor, at the Outsider Art Fair. Courtesy of Ricco Maresca Gallery.

The Outsider Art Fair has been beautifully revived, and today through Sunday, you can see it in the charmed spaces of the former Dia Building at 548 West 22nd Street. Launched in 1993, the Fair spent many happy years in the Puck Building, during which time brilliant visionaries were seen for the first time — artists like James Castle, Morton Bartlett, George Widener, Melvin Way, Judith Scott, and A.G. Rizzoli, all now part of the “outsider” canon. Then the show hit a plateau about eight years ago and eventually went all but bland in an out-of-the-way office high-rise on West 34th Street. By last year, I thought we’d seen the end of a great thing.

The Chelsea dealer Andrew Edlin shows contemporary artists and also represents the estates of geniuses Henry Darger and Ralph Fasanella. In the past year, Edlin bought the fair, weeded out lesser dealers, added new ones, and moved the show to this beautiful space. For that intrepid effort alone, he deserves a key to the city. The show looks great here. There’s more room, wider aisles, better light, less dross, higher energy. Search any of the 40 booths, and there’s a good chance you’ll uncover something newish worth your while. And not too overpriced. Maybe a few of these discoveries, too, will enter the “outsider” pantheon.

Which brings us to the the horrible Rubicon that still separates so-called “outsider,” “self-taught,” and “visionary” art from institutionally sanctioned official art. Now that even immigration reform can happen, it’s time for MoMA — and all museums — to integrate “outsider art” into their permanent collections and erase that distinction for good. They need to allow these artists to take their rightful places in the canon. In addition to the artists mentioned above, visionaries like Hilma af Klint, Emma Kunz, Bill Traylor, Adolf Wolfli, Martin Rameirez, Minnie Evans, John Kane, Clementine Hunter, Hector Hyppolite, and others must be integrated into the canon. At the Fair, there’s a 1939–1942 town scene by one of the greatest “outsiders” of them all, Bill Traylor, that would easily compare with any Picasso from the same period. Or, indeed, any artist.

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