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outsider art, artwork created by typically unconventional and untrained artists from the margins of society and the art world. The term was coined in 1972 by British scholar and art critic Roger Cardinal to translate art brut [Fr.,=raw, or crude, art], which Jean Dubuffet used to describe art made by inmates of asylums and others outside the mainstream. Expressionism and surrealism borrowed from these artists, but Cardinal's 1972 book Outsider Art and his subsequent (1979) London exhibition, Outsiders, brought the artists and their work to a wider audience. The term was adopted by American art critics, and has since been expanded to include works produced by artists who are considered intuitive or who reject current trends and accepted rules.
Adolf Wölfli (1864–1930), a Swiss artist and psychiatric patient written about by psychiatrists in the 1920s, was one of the earliest recognized outsider artists. His intricate, obsessive work is preserved by the Adolf Wölfli Foundation, Bern, Switzerland. Another early outsider artist was Ferdinand Cheval (1836–1924), a French postal official who built Le Palais idéal [Fr.,=ideal palace] and his mausoleum in Hauterives, France; he won recognition for his work late in his life. The palace, which echoes a range of world architectural styles, was constructed during more than 30 years. William Edmonson (1874–1971), the son of former slaves who began sculpting after a vision, was one of the first Americans to be regarded as an outsider artist and was the first African American to be given a show (1937) at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. One of the most celebrated of outsider artists, Bill Traylor (c.1854–1949), an African American born in slavery in Alabama who began making art at the age of 85, used scraps of cardboard to make colorful and powerful silhouetted drawings and paintings of humans, animals, and “Exciting Events.” Some of his works depict various aspects of the Jim Crow South. Traylor exhibited at the American Folk Art Museum, New York, and since his death has been included in or the subject of exhibitions. Of all the American outsider artists, Traylor is probably the one whose work can be considered important modern art.
Henry Darger (1892–1973), perhaps the best-known outsider artist, was discovered after his death to have written a 15-volume work that he had illustrated with nearly 300 watercolors. Titled The Story of the Vivian Girls in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, it was composed over several decades and tells of the seven Vivian girls efforts to free children enslaved by the evil adult Glandelinians. The American Folk Art Museum has a study center devoted to him, and his work is represented in numerous other museums.
Martín Ramírez (1895–1963), who immigrated from Mexico to the United States in the 1920s and spent many years in California psychiatric institutions, made hundreds of complex drawings and collages that have been exhibited at several museums. Another visionary artist, Ionel Talpazan (1955–2015), who arrived in the United States after fleeing Romania in 1987, made brightly colored paintings and sculptures of UFOs, which he sold on the sidewalks of Manhattan. After he was discovered in 1990, his work was exhibited at galleries and museums.
One of the largest examples of outsider art, now a national landmark and popular tourist site, are the Watts Towers, consisting of 17 structures constructed by Simon Rodia (1879–1965) over some 30 years in Los Angeles. Another outsider artist who constructed visionary environments was Howard Finster (c.1915–2001), a Baptist minister who in 1961 began building his Plant Farm Museum (later renamed Paradise Garden) in Pennville, Georgia. Paradise Gardens consists of architectural works made of bicycle frames, plywood and concrete buildings, religious texts, and an elaborate chapel Finster called the World's Folk Art Church. Finster also made paintings and wooden objects and created record covers for rock groups.
Two notable self-taught Caribbean artists are John Dunkley (1891–1947) of Jamaica and Frank Walter (1926–2009) of Antigua. Dunkley is known for carved mahogany and stone figures, representing Jamaican life and history, and some 50 mysterious paintings, mainly landscapes in which dark tropical vegetation and animals are bathed in a luminous glow. Walter, who struggled with mental health problems, believed white slave owners in his family linked him to the aristocracy and styled himself “7th Prince of the West Indies, Lord of Follies and the Ding-a-Dong Nook.” He produced some 5,000 mainly oil paintings—geometrical abstractions, portraits real and imagined, landscapes, and works dealing with island race and class—and hundreds, sometimes thousands, of wooden sculptures, photographs, carved frames, and wooden toys as well as writings on history and philosophy, poems, plays, and art criticism.
See R. Cardinal, Outsider Art (1972), W. Morgenthaler, Madness and Art: The Life and Works of Adolf Wölfli (1992), J. Maziels, Raw Creation: Outsider Art and Beyond (1996), L. Peiry, Art Brut: The Origins of Outsider Art (2001), J. Elledge, Henry Darger, Throwaway Boy: The Tragic Life of an Outsider Artist (2013).