PostHeaderIcon Is it Self-Taught, Outsider or Art Brut? Why Not Just Plain Art?

Editor’s Note: The postings this week and next focus on two magnificent art exhibits currently up.  One is 750 miles away at the Metropolitan Museum in New York while the other is only 90 miles from Chicago at the Milwaukee Art Museum. If hopping a plane is out of the question, I’d strongly recommend the journey north before the show closes on May 6th. I’m sure you will be moved  by the arresting and highly-accomplished works.

Anthony Petullo

Anthony Petullo

At the moment, while the Art Institute treads water, preparing for its upcoming Roy Lichtenstein show, genuine art excitement can be found just up the road at the Milwaukee Art Museum where a stunning collection of 200 paintings, sculpture and objects, part of the Anthony Petullo Collection, is on view. Mere words alone cannot do justice to the show’s visceral power. I only know that, soon after entering the exhibit, I was in the grip of the virtuosity on display in a way I seldom experience at an exhibition, where keeping a critical distance is the norm.

David Lloyd, Artist

Susanna York by David Lloyd

At the entry to the “Accidental Genius” exhibition is artist David Lloyd’s wall-size, blown-up portrait of English actress, Susanna York. Her gaze is captivating but one senses something askew about the likeness. That “off” quality serves as a metaphor for this bold assortment of works and styles by “self-taught” and “outsider” artists, no-name figures lacking academic training or existing outside mainstream culture due to psychological illness or some developmental disability.

The show highlights the artists’ mesmerizing talents as well as Petullo’s loving obsession for these works. Such previously-maligned and marginalized creations are now avidly pursued by collectors and museums. Go and treat yourself to a visual feast. After viewing the artists’ intuitive handling of color, composition, draftsmanship and detail, you may agree with me in finding current art babble surrounding these works too parochial. The current art canon should embrace such creations and label them Art–plain and simple, free of limiting modifiers. After all, many of the artists we now revere, names such as Cezanne, Rousseau, Van Gogh and Gauguin, didn’t go to art school either.

Carlo Zinelli (1916-1974)

Carlo Zinelli (1916-1974)

I found myself particularly transfixed by the work of Eddie Arning, David Lloyd, Henry Darger, James Dixon, Madge Gill, Carlo Zinelli along with the artists of Art Haus, a mental health facility outside Vienna. The six named artists have wildly contrasting styles that paid no mind to the art world, yet produced creations of stunning originality. When I passed a good number of the works, I instinctively moved within inches of the paper or canvas, drawn by the force of their images, color, hyper-precise line drawing or written text. Margaret Andera, the curator of “Accidental Genius”, deserves praise for her long-standing commitment to the collection that informs her intelligent selection and organization of the exhibition.

Every great collection reflects the eye and personality of its collector. While Petullo assembled his collection over three decades, he noted, in a telephone conversation, that half of the 320 donated works were acquired during an intense three year period, from 1990-93. While the collection contains work by several American masters like Darger and Bill Traylor, its strength lies in the quality and range of European self-taught artists represented, many of whom Petullo collected in depth. His donation to the Milwaukee Art Museum, according to director, Dan Keegan, “is the most extensive grouping of its kind in any American museum or in private hands.”

Mimmie Evans (1892–1987)

Minnie Evans (1892–1987)

Petullo’s first collecting foray came in 1974 when he bought a work that caught his eye at the city’s Lakefront Festival of Arts. Over the next decade, he collected what he liked with no plan. He dubs those first purchases “early Dad art”. They now reside with his children and grandchildren. Gradually, this local businessman moved away from folk/naive art and gravitated toward self-taught and outsider art.

Petullo doesn’t like the artificial distinctions placed on this work. What attracts him so much to these artists? “They share an independent spirit, unrestrained by the rules of art training. Also they are inventive, having a free flow of creativity. Essentially, they create for their own enjoyment and fulfillment, with little or no regard for the rest of the art world.”

As Petullo’s eye developed and grew more discriminating, he concentrated on figurative, colorful, uplifting and optimistic work. Abstract or highly polished art didn’t move him. “I’m an imagist,”, he says. The art of Edward Hopper, Egon Schiele, The School of The Eight, and artists of  the Fauve movement holds special appeal.

Madge Gill (English, 1882–1961)

Madge Gill (English, 1882–1961)

“I never bought art as an investment”, Petullo told me, advice he gives to every aspiring collector. “You have to realize that 98% of art never appreciates. And, as soon as the work leaves the dealer’s shop, it’s immediately worth 50% less than what you paid for it.” I asked if he had gotten some bargains when he began collecting outsider art in the early 1980s. “Well, maybe if you consider $20,000 or 30,000 a low price.”

Though he initially relied on one or two dealers to steer him toward outstanding work, Petullo soon developed firm confidence in his own taste. “You have to believe in yourself to build a great collection. You have to say “No” to them (dealers) if it’s not for you.” He laughingly recalled that Russell Bowman, a former director of the museum (now an art dealer in Chicago) once brought him a list of suggested artists to add to the collection. Petullo says he crossed off all but one or two names. He’d do it his way, thank you.

Friedrich Schröder Sonnenstern (1892–1982)

Friedrich Schröder Sonnenstern (1892–1982)

He made it clear years ago that his museum-quality collection was destined for Milwaukee. What criteria, I asked, did he use in deciding where it should go and had he considered a New York museum or The Art Institute (Petullo was born and grew up in Chicago and graduated from the University of Illinois, where he has endowed two named professorships).  He named four factors that governed the winning choice: “They needed to have strong interest in the collection, top curatorial talent, enough wall space and, very important, enough storage space.” He didn’t want the art to languish in an off-site warehouse.

Henry Darger (American, 1892–1973)

Henry Darger (American, 1892–1973)

New York’s Museum of American Folk Art didn’t have enough wall space and recently shuttered its doors. And the Art Institute was “too damn big”. The collection would be lost there and he thought the museum “not ready”, possibly meaning such art was deemed not yet worthy of admission. At Milwaukee, the Petullo Collection will join the Richard and Erna Flagg Collection of Haitian Art and the Michael and Julie Hall Collection of American Folk Art. Those three collections, notes gallerist Jane Kallir in the lavish “Accidental Genius” catalog, “make Milwaukee one of America’s preeminent centers for the study of work by untrained creators.”

At a time when auction houses and one’s checkbook rule as the new arbiters of artistic value and social celebrity, it is heartening to see an older model of a generous collector motivated purely by his passion for art and his community. For more information on the artists and exhibition visit the Milwaukee Art Museum.

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