Thursday, October 23, 2008

Outsider Exhibition

Adolf Wolfli - Medewerker

The very first pieces of Outsider art where cave paintings. Since there obviously were no art schools to attend, prehistoric men and probably women made drawings on the walls of caves without any type of formal artistic training. They used crude materials and made images from their life experiences and imaginations. Fast forward thousands of years later to the availability of art supplies, the invention of paper, longer life expectancy and much better living conditions, and many contemporary Outsider artists continue to make artwork without any artistic training and often create work that also relates back to their life experiences and vivid imaginations. The term Outsider Art is an often interchangeable one with other labels that mean much the same thing. Folk art or naïve art is also done by people without formal artistic training. The term “visionary” artist can often be found to define a person who, without any prior reason, history or training, suddenly begins to make art, and generally once they start, they continue to make more work at an amazingly compulsive rate.

In more recent times, the naïve and untrained qualities of Outsider artists have gained enormous amounts of interest, appreciation and exposure. Now, in an era where there are literally thousands of trade schools, workshops, colleges and universities that specialize in educating professional artists, for many critics, collectors and museum goers it is not the highly trained artists who are most famous but quite the opposite. Outsider art has become big business with art galleries, dealers, collectors and museums all over the world. The inexplicable lure and magic of the untrained visionary, the imagery of the poor, uneducated, illiterate and sometimes mentally ill are what interests the public the most.


You are a member of a museum staff. Your director has announced that next season the museum will host a large group exhibition of works from four important Outsider artists.

Exhibition Artists

Adolf Wolfli


Martin Ramirez

Untitled - Horse and Rider

Howard Finster

Baby Elvis

Earl Cunningham

Tranquil Garden

As a museum staff member (four or five group members), your tasks are multi-fold. While it is important that you operate as a group, some of the tasks may be better suited to individuals or a couple members within your group. Once you have reviewed all of your responsibilities, you can decide as a group how to best distribute the work.

1. Since the exhibition will originate from your museum, it will need a name; something short that will describe some important qualities of the artists shown while also being creative enough to provide the show with a commercial identity. Review the works from the four artists who have been chosen and come up with some “catchy” ideas. Once your group has come up with several possible titles, vote among yourselves to choose the winner.

2. Since many museum goers may not be acquainted with the term Outsider artist, it will be your responsibility to research artists who are categorized within this particular style and prepare a written introduction that will appear at the entrance to the exhibition. The introduction will be short and concise and describe the unique qualities that define Outsider artists from the other types of art people often associate with museums.

3. Two of the artists in the exhibition - Adolf Wolfli and Martin Ramirez - made all of their work while institutionalized in mental asylums. It will be your job to research how and why these artists lived out most of their adults lives in a mental hospital, the types of mental illnesses they suffered from, and determine how these specific types of disorders may have attributed to the work they produced.

3(a). Forms of mental illness have been well documented in some other famous artists who are not considered among the Outsider genre. Vincent van Gogh became so tortured during the later years of his life that he committed suicide. Jackson Pollack suffered from internal demons that drove him to destructive bouts of drinking and rage. William Blake suffered terribly from delusions. Research these artists to become more familiar with how mental disorders have plagued these and other notable artists and the connections that can be made between them and Adolf Wolfli and Martin Ramirez.

The other two artists in the exhibition were not diagnosed with mental disorders but like the other two generally made their artwork in isolation well outside the mainstream of the general public and contemporary art. Many Outsider artists were poor and disadvantaged and experienced difficult life situations that prevented them from gaining proper educations.

4. Throughout the course of the exhibition, you as staff members will be required to give a short gallery talk about the exhibition lasting no longer than fifteen minutes. The talk should offer a broad overview of Outsider art and the four artists exhibiting in the show. Point out some commonalities and some differences among the artists, offer short bios and some interesting facts that you have uncovered during your research. You will present the talk as a group with each member of the staff handling an equal part of the talk.

5. As part of the exhibition programming, the art education department in your museum will sponsor an Outsider Art Project Day. Children and visitors to the museum will be invited to make a piece of artwork in the spirit of the Outsider movement. You as staffers will construct an example that incorporates many elements that appears in the exhibited work.


Adolf Wolfli

Inner World Music

Martin Ramirez

Untitled - Cityscape

Howard Finster

Heaven is Worth it All

Earl Cunningham

A Sail at Dawn

Outsider Art Collections:

Compagnie de l’Art Brut

Phyllis Kind Gallery

Fleisher Olman Gallery

Anthony Petullo Collection of Self Taught and Outsider Art

Other Outsider Artists and Potential Resource Sites:

James Castle

Madge Gill

Henry Darger

Gee’s Bend

Mental Disorders

Discussion Topics:

Howard Finster - Talking Heads

Do you think that artwork created by untrained and uneducated people is of any less value and importance compared with works of art done by trained and educated artists? If so, then why? Construct arguments that support both sides of this question.

Do you think if the life circumstances of these Outsider artists had been better, they had received good educations and were not so isolated, do you think they would have made the artwork that they did, or is their work a direct product of their circumstances?


Martin Ramirez - Untitled Rabbit

Congratulations on a very successful exhibition. Thousand of people attended the show and both local and national critics wrote positive articles and reviews. Now that the exhibition has moved onto to another museum, you will have time to reflect on what you have learned in mounting this exhibition. Take some time as a group to talk about your experiences - both the positive and negative - and share with the group what you learned along the way.

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