‘Outliers and American Vanguard Art’ is a Discourse Altering Show

At the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., Lynne Cooke's debut exhibition turns the spotlight on so-called 'outsider' artists

‘Outliers and American Vanguard Art’, Lynne Cooke’s debut exhibition at the National Gallery of Art as Senior Curator, is one of those rare shows that fundamentally alters a discourse. In this case, it’s the long debate around what we used to call ‘outsider art’. It is a type of exhibition exceedingly difficult to execute, let alone to do so brilliantly, as Cooke has done in ‘Outliers’. Here, the field is mined at every step, including issues as diverse as cultural difference, social privilege, human suffering and ‘term warfare’. It is therefore all the more astonishing just how good ‘Outliers’ is. In three suitably eccentric and discontinuous periodizations, the exhibition imbricates works by (mostly) American autodidacts and canon artists alike. Roosevelt-era projects give way to identitarian battles of the later 20th century, followed by early 21st century imaginaries sometimes grouped into ‘cosmoi’. Largely succeeding where other shows have failed, Cooke’s careful curation brings longstanding walls of exclusion under seismic pressure.


Judith Scott, Untitled, 2004, fibre and mixed media, 54 x 41 x 41 cm. Courtesy: The Museum of Everything, London

The show succeeds, first, thanks to the sheer quality of the works themselves. Three examples from the opening section: in the anteroom we encounter Judith Scott’s untitled transfigurations – from 1989, 1993 and 2004, respectively – of both fiber arts and of hegemonic misapprehensions about intellectual competence (Scott, who died in 2005, had Down syndrome). Next, we discover Lucille Chabot’s Shaker Rug Strip (c.1936), an exquisite watercolour depicting a rectilinear swatch of carpet painted for the Index of American Design, a Workers Progress Administration initiative from the New Deal. The tiny painting, alongside other striking Index works, undermines modernist verities of autonomy/utility, art/craft and, of course, the grid, with a terse precision worthy of Anni Albers. In Bill Traylor’s works-on-paper, crisply geometricized figures cavort and careen through rural scenes, as in Men Drinking, Boys Tormenting, Dogs Barking (c.1939–42). Born into slavery Alabama in 1853, Traylor suffuses his spare compositions with a devastating menace—and hilarity, which only redoubles the dread.

The exhibition also engineers surprising yet revealing correspondences. The painter and musician Sister Gertude Morgan first appears in a room inspired by the Corcoran’s landmark ‘Black Folk Art in America, 1930 – 1980’ exhibition, but later, just after a room of responses to the 1965 Watts Rebellion, we hear her singing from her perfectly-titled album Let’s Make a Record (1970) directly across from images of the Watts Towers (1921–54) by Simon Rodia, who died at 86 in the very year of the rebellion. Entanglements like these build over the course of the exhibition, like when Forrest Bess’s surgical experiments in hermaphrodism open onto Henry Darger’s ambiguously-gendered children, which reminded me of Morton Bartlett’s sexually discomfiting mannequin Untitled (Ballerina) (c.1950), followed closely by Greer Lankton’s doll-like sculpture of the transgendered self. The works here span nearly a century of artmaking.

Which is not to say that the show is perfect. Works from Cindy Sherman’s ‘Untitled Film Stills’ (1977–80) are so out of place as to be simultaneously distracting and forgettable, and selections from Kara Walker’s Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated) (2015) feel entirely extra. More significantly, a viewing experience of such byzantine complexity could benefit from some visual cues to signal a transition from one section of the exhibition to another. The fact that it is divided into three segments was not clear on first viewing, nor was the extent to which some rooms include direct quotations from past ‘outlier’ exhibitions. This is important information. The National Gallery forewent such overt signaling to avoid pigeonholes (an understandable caution), but more guideposts would have been helpful.


Sister Gertrude Morgan, Revelation 7. chap., c.1970, paint on wood, 82 x 39 x 1 cm. Courtesy: The Museum of Everything, London

‘Outliers’ dodges deadly binaries like center/margin or authenticity/derivation, while at the same time citing the discursive – and largely exhibitionary – history that initiated and contested those dualities to begin with. Cooke’s design informs us of the historical interconnectivity between hugely diverse practitioners while also adumbrating the dizzying complexity of their aesthetic relays. The exhibition insightfully avoids a totalizing account or overarching historical model. One leaves the museum with dozens of new or forgotten names from a difficult American art history, as well as a fresh view of more familiar artists. After ‘Outliers’, the already-threadbare binaries thankfully become almost difficult to recall. The outliers are in. Let’s hope it’s for good this time.

Outliers and American Vanguard Art’ runs at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., until 18 May.

Main image: Bill Traylor, Men Drinking, Boys Tormenting, Dogs Barking (detail), c. 1939–42, opaque watercolour on card with dark gray prepared surface, 36 × 55 cm. Courtesy: Collection of Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz, Promised Gift to the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Jack McGrath is an art historian based in New York, USA. He teaches on the MFA programme at Columbia University. 

Most Read

Royal bodies, the ‘incel’ mindset and those Childish Gambino hot-takes: what to read this weekend
In further news: women wearing rainbow badges beaten in Beijing’s 798; gallerists Georg Kargl and Richard Gray have...
‘Coping as a woman in France is a daily battle: the aggression can be subtle, and you always have to push harder to...
The rapper and artist have thoughts about originality in art; Melania Trump tries graphic design – all the latest...
The dilapidated Nissen hut from which Rachel Whiteread will take a cast
Yorkshire residents complain that the concrete sculpture of a ‘Nissen hut’ will attract excrement, vandalism and litter
Poul Erik Tøjner pays tribute to Denmark’s most important artist since Asger Jorn
Toyin Ojih Odutola’s portraits of a fictional aristocratic Nigerian family push toward an expanded definition...
Photographer Dragana Jurisic says her account was deactivated after she uploaded an artwork depicting a partially naked...
In further news: open letter protests all-male shortlist for BelgianArtPrize; Arts Council of Ireland issues...
From Sol Calero’s playful clichés of Latin America to an homage to British modernist architect Alison Smithson
Everybody’s favourite underpaid, over-educated, raven-haired art critic, Rhonda Lieberman, is as relevant as ever
‘Prize & Prejudice’ at London's UCL Art Museum is a bittersweet celebration of female talent
The curators want to rectify the biennale’s ‘failure to question the hetero-normative production of space’; ‘poppers...
A fragment of the brutalist Robin Hood Gardens will go on show at the Venice Architecture Biennale
‘Women's role in shaping the history of contemporary art is being reappraised’
Three shows in Ireland celebrate the legendary polymath, artist and author of Inside the White Cube
The legendary performance artists will partner up again to detail their tumultuous relationship in a new book
An open letter signed by over 100 leading artists including 15 Turner prize-winners says that new UK education policy...
Naturists triumph at art gallery; soothing students with colouring books; Kanye’s architectural firm: your dose of art...
Avengers: Infinity War confirms the domination of mass culture by the franchise: what ever happened to narrative...
The agency’s founder talks about warfare in the age of post truth, deconstructing images and holding states and...
From hobnobbing with Oprah to championing new art centres, millennial crown prince Mohammed bin Salman is following a...
A juror for the award last year, Dan Fox on why the Turner Prize is and always will be political (whatever that means)
The argument that ancestral connection offers a natural grasp of the complex histories and aesthetics of African art is...
One of most iconic and controversial writers of the past 40 years, Tom Wolfe discusses writing, art and intellectual...

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

March 2018

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018