Nonconformers: A New History of Self-Taught Artists
(Yale University Press, 2022)
When the British art historian Roger Cardinal wrote his 1972 book Outsider Art, which first coined the term as an anglicisation of Dubuffet’s “art brut,” he was, like his predecessor, positing “an alternative art” as a challenge to the cultural mainstream. Fifty years later, Lisa Slominski’s Nonconformers: A New History of Self-Taught Artists arrives at a time when the Outsider Art Fair in New York has been running for almost thirty years and, in some sense, Outsider art has become just another category within the traditional art world. As Slominski points out, for artists working today, being designated an Outsider is a promising path to institutional recognition, if one too often relegated to specialized interest.
The label “outsider” is easily problematized but remains predominant. The book’s title, “Nonconformers,” may afford its artists greater agency, but it also illustrates how tricky it is to escape approximate synonyms for “outsider.” However, Slominski illustrates how implying that artists lack sophistication and have little influence from or on the wider culture, the term is not just offensive but inadequate at capturing their impact. One example she offers is Harold Finster’s album covers for R.E.M. and Talking Heads. “Self-taught” also fails to stand up to scrutiny, as with the runaway success of NFT artists like the teenaged FEWOCiOUS (Victor Langlois), cited as one example of the label’s growing irrelevance at a time when untrained artists are independently reaching mainstream audiences.
The book is divided into three parts. The first threads together familiar histories of Outsider art on both sides of the Atlantic, followed up by “Disparate Boundaries,” dedicated to less-explored trends within Outsider art, such as large-scale environmental art or highly private practices like that of Henry Darger. Finally, “Compositions” proposes a new way of categorizing these artists. Thematic sections within the first and second parts are introduced by guest experts such as Katherine Jentleson of the High Museum and professor and critic Michael Bonesteel.
“Ability,” a section of particular interest in the second part, has an essay by Tom di Maria, director of Creative Growth Art Center in California, tracing the emergence of supported studios for artists with disabilities as they gained improved rights during the 1960s and ’70s. Slominski herself is the co-founder of Art et al., a platform that promotes inclusive programming for the visibility of neurodivergent, intellectually, and learning-disabled artists. Here, a considerable number of works are spotlighted, including the semi-abstracted drawings of Julian Martin; Nnena Kalu’s vigorous vortexes; and the spikey, anthropomorphized ceramics of Shinichi Sawada.
Slominski asks, “Does the act of elevating artists and creatives from marginalized circumstances, contributing to the diversity of perspectives expressed in the art world, outweigh the potentially problematic or restrictive lens in which they are presented?” Efforts to publicize these artists can quickly reinforce their “outsider” status, a trap that this book is itself at risk of falling into—but makes efforts to sidestep. Elsewhere, she asserts, “this is not an attempt to legitimize practices in comparison to modern or contemporary peers, but rather … [to] disrupt the broad assumptions and stigmas applied.”
Slominski is resolute, in placing the emphasis on the artists themselves with her “perspectives” texts, which foreground their practices over excessive detail about their lives. In her introduction, she addresses her caution over how to treat difference and adversity, deciding: “Considering that producing (art) work is personal, which arguably it is (as part of the human experience, we are all products of our environment and circumstance), then we could contend (self-taught artist or not), that aspects of an artist’s life are very much relevant to discussing the art itself, if done in a respectful manner.” It would indeed be remiss, in most cases, to act as if the artist’s histories and any challenges specific to their identities did not exist or never inform their work.
In the example of Judith Scott, a celebrated sculptor who was born deaf and with Down syndrome and was institutionalized for over thirty years, the artist’s own decision to let her work speak for itself by declining to explain it casts doubts over efforts to construe narratives that tie the formal and biographical details together. In other artist interviews this problem is avoided, as in a conversation between gallerist Sophia Cosmadopoulos and artist George Widener, who freely associates his fascination with numbers to his diagnosis of autism.
As is the case for all artists, critical and curatorial attention is undoubtedly important. To this end, the easiest way to avoid being reductive might be to stick to solo presentations and monographs, but no artist exists without a context. To this end, the third section of the book presents a range of artists of various backgrounds under the age-old formal categories of Abstract, Landscape, and Figurative. Suddenly, it feels intuitive not to scan the pages for evidence of otherness, but to wonder instead at how Mamadou Cissé’s gaudy but remote cityscapes differ from the looming and gothic visions of Katsuyoshi Takenaka. Or, how peculiar figures emerge from a dense glaze of graphite in the drawings of Davood Koochaki. And how, with just brisk brushstrokes, Carlo Zinelli outlines complex scenery.
Flicking the pages eagerly back and forth, a lingering confusion over how best to categorize these artists lifts. It may be unavoidable that this book foregrounds these artists as “Outsiders,” but by positioning the artists in the context of their style or discipline, Slominski anticipates the day when such a narrow focus may no longer be necessary.