Self-Taught Genius seeks to frame the collection of the American Folk Art Museum as an archive of the culture of self-education in the United States. The exhibition’s organizers draw their interpretation of the word “genius” from roots in the Enlightenment and Romanticism, embracing a definition that underscores the potential in all human beings for exceptional creativity, intuition, and insight. The use of the term “self-taught” embeds the works in a continuum of self-actualization outside of formal educational structures, calling up the resistance to hierarchical institutions and indoctrination that is foundational to the spirit of the American narrative. This premise is satisfyingly inclusionary and long overdue.
For artists whose work has been ghettoized within fraught categories like Outsider Art, Vernacular Art, Psychotic Art, and Intuitive Art by patronizingly simplistic or exploitative analyses and mythologies, the American Folk Art Museum’s framework is incredibly validating without being over-compensatory. Those who have followed the historicization of Folk Art and its many overlapping fields and terminologies will find it deeply refreshing to see these artists rightfully recast as key players in the shaping of American visual culture. To experience the use of the word “genius” in an art context without its application solely to white men is also a gratifying bonus, to say the least.
The works in the exhibition span a time period of over 200 years and range wildly in medium to include paintings, quilts, furniture, handmade books, sculpture, ceramics, and decor. Presumably in an attempt to help viewers navigate this broad spectrum, the museum presents seven themes that group works together: Achievers, Encoders, Messengers, Improvement, Reformers, Ingenuity, and Guides. These themes can at times be unpersuasive, even seemingly arbitrary, but ultimately they do not significantly distract from the overarching thesis of the show.
Of all the seven themes, Encoders stands as the most engaging and accessible, without veering into simplicity. One of Judith Scott’s untitled sculptures is on view here, showcasing her signature elaborate wrapping of yarn and fabric over an undisclosed armature. The work’s form feels both figurative and weapon-like—a latent potency being cocooned within layers of dampening textile. The care and intricacy of this binding loads its inner secrets with implication—a shrouded significance that feels best left unknown. Henry Darger’s The History of My Life and The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion (Volume 1) are also included in this section. One a 5,000-page autobiography, the other a 15,000-page novel, both are full of intensely detailed descriptions, characters, and historical facts that blur the boundaries of fiction and biography, poetry and prose. Darger’s oeuvre is marked by a distinctive language and patterning; a series of indexes is necessary to track the complex structure of his chronicles. His life’s work is a network of encrypted content, vast in scope and density, that doesn’t need decoding to be moving.
Darger and Scott exemplify the Outsider Art/Self-Taught Art/Folk Art fields and the regrettable imperative toward biography that these categories have traditionally entailed. The details of their lives, including diagnoses of mental illness, have largely crowded out thoughtful analyses of their work. Biography of course plays a part in contextualizing all artists’ practices, but in the case of artists who never leave behind an artist statement or play an active role in the historicization of their life’s work, a different stance is required. Embracing the mystery of encoded meaning in both Darger’s and Scott’s practices feels like an apt response to the work of individuals who have too often been spoken for by others.
The exhibition also features significant breadth in ambition and planning, showing exactly how much “self-taught” can encompass. Some works on display, like Purvis Young’s People Celebrating, are relatively unpresuming. Young’s mixed-media painting on wood is a document of unfettered rejoicing that is infectiously delightful to take in. Then there is work like Marino Auriti’s Encylopedic Palace, an 11-foot tall model of a skyscraper—the largest object in the show. The staggering detail and comprehensiveness of the model are indicative of Auriti’s original hope that the building would eventually be erected. Had it been, it would have been 136 stories and over 2,300 feet tall, with a footprint of nearly sixteen city blocks. This piece was also featured in last year’s Venice Biennale—yet another praiseworthy instance of the Insider/Outsider boundaries dissolving and revealing their irrelevance.
Thus, through the empowering strategy of simply letting works speak for themselves, Self-Taught Genius deftly navigates many of the pitfalls that still plague discourse around Folk, Intuitive, and Outsider artists. Evidence of these pitfalls is especially apparent in the marketplace, as epitomized by events like the Outsider Art Fair, which has recently featured many of the artists included in Self-Taught Genius. An advertisement for the fair in the April 2014 edition of Art Forum featured a full-page spread with only the word “Practice” with a slash through it. The implication of this ad is that artists outside the formal art-education systems don’t need to “practice.” Such a claim is a residue of a long-outdated and disserving mythology: Outsider artists have an intuitive gift, a raw vision, a brilliance that springs forth fully formed. Such an assumption brazenly disavows the rigor, discipline, focus, and commitment that defines the work of artists like Judith Scott, Martin Ramirez, Henry Darger, and many others. The continued reiteration of this mythology runs in direct conflict with the progressive notion that the American Folk Art Museum is attempting to cultivate: that every one of us has the potential to become a self-taught genius. You know what gets you there? Practice.
Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum runs through August 17 at the American Folk Art Museum.