Does it matter whether an artist is self-taught or art school educated? 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. Vassar College’s museum is no exception. The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center has a collection of more than one hundred works made by self-taught artists and Faces and Figures in Self-Taught Art, the Art Center’s new exhibition, showcases many of them. The show will be on view from July 11-August 31.
The notion of outsider art came into being around seventy years ago and has taken many names since, including Art Brut (first used in the 1940s by French artist Jean Dubuffet to denote the raw or naïve style of untrained artists) to the more controversial but still commonly used “outsider art,” to the more descriptively accurate “self-taught art.” Art critic Roger Cardinal (who coined the term “outsider art” in 1972) wrote in his book Faces and Figures of Outsider Art, for which this exhibition is named, that “what is perhaps distinctive in the case of the Outsider is his or her personalization of the figure, its rendering—in however minimal a way—as something odd and eccentric, as unmistakable as a signature.”
Included in this exhibition are paintings, drawings, sculptures, books, watercolors and photographic prints by artists who operate without academic training and outside traditional artistic discourse, often using unconventional materials to create works that vary remarkably in style. Taking the human form as its subject, artists express intensely personal visions and consequently open a window onto the imagination. The human face, the apex of the figure, takes on a strange other-worldliness that at times has been compared to children’s art, mythology, or pure fantasy.
Faces and Figures features works by approximately thirty-three 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 many others. The show also includes works borrowed from the personal collection of New York State Assemblymember Didi Barrett and her husband, David Barrett, and the Blanchard-Hill Collection.
[See the checklist of objects in the exhibition.]
“The work of self-taught artists has achieved unique status in the art world for its compelling expression of emotion and unselfconscious style,” explains 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. She cites Henry Darger's elaborate paintings of young girls caught in a vicious war, the sacred art of the prolific Reverend Howard Finster, and the raw power in Thornton Dial’s turbulent compositions as examples.
“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.
Faces and Figures is dedicated to the memory of Vassar alumna Patricia O'Brien Parsons, class of 1951, who passed away in 2013. O’Brien was a loyal supporter of Vassar and the Art Center and donated to the Art Center numerous works of self-taught outsider artists to whom she devoted a great deal of her professional life while the co-owner of the Webb and Parsons Gallery in Bedford, NY. In 2009, the Art Center presented the exhibition Faith and Fantasy in Outsider Art from the Permanent Collection, which featured many pieces donated by O’Brien.
“Patricia O’Brien inspired the Art Center to invest in the future of self-taught art through the collection and exhibitions,” says Lombino. “Pat’s statement that ‘not only is this self-taught art, it’s art that can’t be taught’ rings true throughout the galleries.”
Faces and Figures in Self-Taught Art is sponsored by the Friends of the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center Exhibition Fund.
July 25, 12:00 pm
Art Center curator Mary-Kay Lombino will lead an informal discussion of the Faces and Figures in Self-Taught Art exhibition, sharing her unique curatorial perspective on the show as a whole and exploring selected works in detail.
About the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center
The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center was founded in 1864 as the Vassar College Art Gallery. The current 36,400-square-foot facility, designed by Cesar Pelli and named in honor of the new building's primary donor, opened in 1993. Vassar was the first U.S. college founded with a permanent art collection and gallery, and at any given time, the Permanent Collection Galleries of the Art Center feature approximately 350 works from Vassar's extensive collections. The Art Center's collections chart the history of art from antiquity to the present and comprise over 19,000 works, including paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photographs, and glass and ceramic wares. Notable holdings include the Warburg Collection of Old Master prints, an important group of Hudson River School paintings given by Matthew Vassar at the college's inception, and a wide range of works by major European and American 20th-century painters.
Admission to the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center is free and all galleries are wheelchair accessible. The Art Center is open to the public Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, 10:00am–5:00pm; Thursday, 10:00am–9:00pm; and Sunday, 1:00–5:00pm. Located at the entrance to the historic Vassar College campus, the Art Center can be reached within minutes from other Mid-Hudson cultural attractions, such as Dia:Beacon, the Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt national historic sites and homes, and the Vanderbilt mansion. For additional information, the public may call (845) 437-5632 or visit fllac.vassar.edu.
Directions to the Vassar campus, located at 124 Raymond Avenue in Poughkeepsie, NY, are available at www.vassar.edu/directions.
Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential liberal arts college founded in 1861.