Essential Books: 8 Vivid Monographs on Famed Outsider Artists

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Outsider Art isn’t a particular genre so much as it is a plethora of them: vernacular art; folk art; visionary art; works by institutionalized, incarcerated, or disabled artists. The only thing these artists have in common is that they’re self-taught. Not surprisingly, there’s been a long-standing debate over the efficacy of using “Outsider Art” as a catch-all term for this kind of work, and attitudes toward it as a cultural phenomenon have changed over the years. During the 1920s, studies of psychiatric patients used the label “art of the insane” to describe artworks made by some of them. In the 1940s, French artist Jean Dubuffet championed such expression as a category in its own right, dubbing it Art Brut. Meanwhile in the United States, folk art—or Americana as it was also known—captured the public’s imagination during the 1950s and ’60s. It wasn’t until 1972 that Outsider Art as a descriptor was coined by British art historian Roger Cardinal as the title of his book on the subject. Since then, self-taught artists have been mainstreamed, blurring the distinction between their work and that of formally trained artists. Whatever you want to call it, though, some of the most astounding artists of the past century have worked apart from the art-historical canon—as you’ll find in our recommendations of the best monographs on Outsider artists. (Prices and availability current at time of publication.)

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1. Klaus Biesenbach, Brooke Davis Anderson, Michael Bonesteel, Carl Watson, Henry Darger
To call Henry Darger a superstar would be an understatement. He’s been the subject of films and has inspired poems, rock bands, video games, fashion designers, and even an opera. Yet as detailed by Klaus Biesenbach, Darger labored in total obscurity, supporting himself as a janitor and dishwasher in hospitals around his hometown of Chicago. His main diversions were attending mass and working at home on his fantastical oeuvre, Realms of the Unreal, a 1,500-page book with accompanying drawings and collages featuring androgynous, prepubescent children who were often pictured nude. Cut out of newspapers or traced from photostatic enlargements taken from coloring books and catalogs, these images depicted the “Vivian Girls,” as Darger named them, cavorting in prelapsarian landscapes while doing graphically violent battle with soldiers bent on destroying them. A bizarre pas de deux between brutality and idyll, Darger’s work was discovered only when his landlords cleared out his apartment shortly before his death. Though Darger lived on the margins of society, he left it an astonishing legacy.
Purchase: Henry Darger  $31.49 (new) on Amazon

2. Paul Arnett, Joanne Cubbs, and Eugene W. Metcalf Jr., Thornton Dial in the 21st Century
One of the more notable developments affecting Outsider artists in recent decades has been the increasingly porous boundaries between their efforts and those of art school graduates. There is no better case than Thornton Dial, who’s become a key figure in contemporary art despite his self-taught background. Dial was born in Alabama in 1928, and his mixed-media constructions—usually made of wood, painted fabric, and found objects—are certainly a match for anything produced by the best American artists of his generation. Richly illustrated with 150 images, this book focuses on Dial’s output after 9/11, which included drawings and mixed media combines commenting on the events of that day and the invasion of Iraq that followed. Also highlighted are Dial’s tributes to the Gee’s Bend quiltmakers and works alluding to his impoverished childhood in the South.
Purchase: Thornton Dial in the 21st Century  from $36.48 (used) on Amazon

3. Jeffrey Wolf et al., James Castle: A Retrospective
Born in Garden Valley, Idaho, in 1899, James Castle was deaf from infancy and did not speak. Yet Castle found a way to communicate through an extraordinary body of drawings and three-dimensional constructions made of paper, cardboard, wood, and objects salvaged around his parents’ homestead. Starting in childhood, he depicted his rural surroundings with renderings of houses, interiors, animals, landscapes, and local inhabitants created with a mixture of woodstove soot and saliva applied with sharpened sticks and other purpose-built implements. His style, while intuitive, mirrored concurrent developments in 20th-century art like Expressionism, making his work appear strikingly fresh. This definitive volume on Castle served as the catalog for his 2008 career retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum and includes 300 images as well as a DVD documentary delving into his life and art.
Purchase: James Castle: A Retrospective $125.00 (new) on Amazon

4. Lynne Cook, ed., Martín Ramírez: Reframing Confinement
For people who associate Outsider Art with mental illness, Martín Ramírez’s works would seem to present prima facie evidence—but only up to a point. A Mexican peasant born in 1895, Ramírez was institutionalized after arriving in Depression-era California in search of work to support his family. Finding little to none, he had an emotional breakdown and wound up being arrested in 1931 for vagrancy. Deemed non compos mentis by the authorities despite his protestations, Ramírez was subsequently consigned to state asylums for the rest of his life. After repeated escape attempts, he became resigned to his fate and began to create drawings that have since been acknowledged as some of the finest of the 20th century. Taken from memory, his images often depict men on horseback situated within claustrophobic settings defined by nested, repeating lines. This volume of essays compiled by Lynne Cook is accompanied by 80 illustrations and features the latest research on Ramírez’s life and work.
Purchase: Martin Ramirez: Reframing Confinement $25.14 (new) on Amazon

5. John M. MacGregor, Metamorphosis: The Fiber Art of Judith Scott
Among other things, John MacGregor’s book raises the question of intentionality in Outsider Art, taking the fiber sculptures created by Judith Scott as an example. An Ohio native born with Down Syndrome, Scott was also deaf and couldn’t speak. At the age of 45, after being enrolled in Oakland’s Creative Growth Art Center, she began making enigmatic, cocoonlike forms by wrapping yarn, string, and fabric strips around an assortment of found objects. Sometimes her work seemed figurative, especially one piece depicting conjoined forms, which may or may not have referred to the twin sister (who wasn’t disabled) whom Scott was separated from when she was first institutionalized at age seven—a loss Scott apparently felt throughout her life. (Her sister would later become Scott’s legal guardian.) Whatever motivated her, Scott and her achievements are honestly and empathetically examined in this account illustrated with photos by Leon Borensztein.
Purchase: Metamorphosis: The Fiber Art of Judith Scott  $129.99 (used) on Amazon

6. Leslie Umberger, Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor
Considered by many a canonical figure of 20th-century art, Bill Traylor was born into slavery on an Alabama plantation in 1853. He witnessed the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the rise of Jim Crow, laboring as a sharecropper after emancipation. In 1939 at age 85, he moved to Montgomery, where he fell into homelessness on the streets of the city’s Black district. Spending his time people-watching along the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare, he found a discarded pencil and paper one day and spontaneously began to draw. With the help of a local white artist (who, appreciating Traylor’s talent, gave him art supplies), Traylor ultimately produced around 1,500 renderings populated with figures and animals based on his observations and recollections. He worked in a startlingly modernist style, picturing his subjects as boldly colored, abstract shapes floating against blank backgrounds. Creating a kind of magical minimalism, Traylor testified to the resilience of African Americans during a dark era. Some 205 images of his work, including examples that were previously unpublished, accompany this compendium of writings on Traylor, which features an introduction by the artist Kerry James Marshall.
Purchase: Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor  $37.08 (new) on Amazon

7. Harald Szeemann et al., Miroslav Tichy: Dedicated to the Women of Kyjov
As mentioned above, separating “outsider” artists from the “insider” variety has become increasingly tricky through the years, with the work of Czech artist Miroslav Tichy being a perfect illustration. Tich? attended art school in Prague, gaining some repute as a modernist painter until Social Realism was imposed as an official style after the Communist takeover of 1948. Tichy stopped painting and retreated into isolation in his hometown of Kyjov. There he began what can only be described as a de facto outsider practice that involved taking voyeuristic photos of women with a crude, hand-built camera. Surreptitiously snapped from a distance, Tichy’s images were blurred and barely legible. Yet they were suffused with a creepy eroticism that seemed to emanate literally from the gutter as Tichy, who’d grown progressively unkempt over time, roamed the streets, capturing his subjects in various stages of dishabille (ironically, he himself was being surveilled by the state as a dissident). His work remained unknown until a neighbor brought it to public light. This catalog by the legendary Swiss curator Harald Szeemann further illuminates Tichy’s remarkable career.
Purchase: Miroslav Tichy: Dedicated to the Women of Kyjov  $152.01 (used) on Amazon

8. William Fagaly, Sister Gertrude Morgan: Tools of Her Ministry
Religion has often motivated Outsider artists, but few have embraced the role of proselytizer as fervidly as Sister Gertrude Morgan, who left her husband after a divine revelation sent her on the road to preach. She settled in New Orleans in 1939, where she established a ministry for orphaned and abused children. A musician and poet, Morgan turned to painting and drawing 30 years later, when another epiphany led her to visualizing the New Jerusalem Jesus would establish upon his return—at which point, he’d also marry Morgan. (Years earlier, Morgan had already begun wearing all white in anticipation of their impending nuptials, which she frequently portrayed.) Illustrated with her dense, childlike compositions, Fagaly’s book is the first monograph on Morgan; it accompanied a 2004 retrospective at the American Folk Art Museum in New York and the New Orleans Museum of Art.
Purchase: Sister Gertrude Morgan: The Tools of Her Ministry  $34.57 (used) on Amazon


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