Self-taught appears to be the new mantra for these do-it-yourself days when scientists, professors and most of what was once our nation’s great intellectual class have been sidelined – even when it comes to art, where a continuing sense of respect for those buying into the art press, or MFA art graduates from the top conceptualizing art schools, still plays heavily into the weight of who exhibits where, and what sells best and most. It’s as if the exalting of primitive artforms and primitive attitudes in Western artists that heralded Modernism, got championed in Abstract Expressionism and has worked its way through the many strands of Postmodernist art movements has finally equaled, if not trumped, the older ideal of perfecting beauty – as well as pure craftsmanship, in many cases.
“Does it matter whether an artist is self-taught or art school-educated?” reads the key intro line to the new exhibit, “Faces and Figures in Self-Taught Art,” opening at Vassar College’s Lehman Loeb Art Center this week for a run through the summer. “The distinction between art made by professionally trained artists and those who have never attended art school, insiders and outsiders, is being challenged in the arena of contemporary art and criticism. As evidence of this softening of the edges between these categories, in recent decades, many mainstream art museums have added self-taught art to their collections and exhibition programs.”
Drawing from works within its own collection to demonstrate a continuum that it traces back to the naming of Art Brut in France during the postwar years, and pegs for a flowering that started in the early 1970s, the Vassar show focuses on a body of work that it defines as having “achieved unique status in the art world for a compelling expression of emotion and unself-conscious style.”
Curated by Mary-Kay Lombino, the Emily Hargroves ’57 and Richard B. Fisher curator and assistant director for Strategic Planning at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, the new show includes works by approximately 33 artists, including James Castle, Henry Darger, Thornton Dial, Howard Finster, Bessie Harvey, Dwight Mackintosh, Donald Mitchell, Mose Tolliver, Bill Traylor and Inez Nathaniel Walker, among others. Pieces range from Darger’s innately disturbing images of young girls frolicking to Finster’s religious fever dreams and Tolliver and Dial’s raw Expressionism, powerful and distinctly not literal in meaning. “My hope is to also bring more exposure to the lesser-known artists housed in Vassar’s collection by showing them in the context of artists more widely known,” says Lombino.
What emerges is a sense of the ways in which the showing of this art made outside usual gallery circles has infiltrated art schools and the mainstream in recent years – but also a feel for much of what’s eternal in all that attracts us, visually, including the often-scatological elements in some of the collection’s brewer/founder’s earliest acquisitions, back when he was buying based solely on his own self-validated tastes.
Many of the works in the exhibit were donated to the Art Center by Vassar alumna Patricia O’Brien Parsons, Class of 1951, who passed away in 2013, or are from the personal collection of New York State Assembly member Didi Barrett and her husband David Barrett and the Blanchard-Hill Collection.
“Faces & Figures in Self-Taught Art,” July 11-August 30, curator talk, Friday, July 25, 12 noon, Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, 124 Raymond Avenue, Poughkeepsie; (845) 437-5632, https://fllac.vassar.edu.