Family life has brought me to Houston, Texas. So in addition to my regular London reviews, my blog will also feature interesting art from the other side of the pond.
What struck me first about Houston is the openness and accessibility of the art scene. There are The Silos at Sawyer Yards, a new converted grain silo where over 50 young artists rent studios and show their work to the public on bi-monthly open days. As part of a Downtown 'beautification project', street-light banners in bright colours carry poetry about the city. The community-based organisation Project Row Houses consists of eight houses used as art and performance spaces, and promotes urban development through art.
But the most prominent art museums in Houston also have an open view towards what constitutes an artwork, and is worthy to be collected by an art museum (and not just a museum of artefacts). The Museum of Fine Art, MFAH, displays golden masks from Pre-columbian cultures as well as famous contemporary artworks, such as Warhol’s Self Portrait of 1986. The Menil Collection, housing the collection of famous Houstonian art patrons Dominique and John de Menil and situated in a serene setting of building and gardens designed by architect Renzo Piano, shows famous Surrealist works next to African wooden sculptures, placed in dialogue with each other in beautifully lit, open rooms.
Two ‘self-portraits’ at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston: Pre-Columbian gold mask and Andy Warhol, Self Portrait, 1986
One area that is having a moment not only in Houston but also in London deserves special attention – that of the self-taught artist. The Menil’s current exhibition, Essential as Dreams: Self-Taught Art from the Collection of Stephanie and John Smither, shows a selection of works from the collection of the Smithers, who as a couple have passionately collected the work of self-taught artists for 30 years, travelling first all over the Southern States and then all over America to encounter these works and the artists who made them.
Self-taught art has traditionally been referred to as 'outsider art', as it is largely determined by the lives of the artists who often live on the margins of society, outside the mainstream (in mental hospitals and prisons, or physically on the outskirts of the cities or in remote areas). The term 'self-taught' is more neutral than 'outsider': it refers simply to artists without a formal art education. As the catalogue to the Menil exhibition states, self-taught art does not confirm to established stylistic criteria, but is rooted in the artist’s desire to communicate an inner vision or personal experience that does not sit well within the more academic language of contemporary art. Artworks by self-taught artists thus question traditional art history and aesthetics based on 'masterpieces'.
The Smithers’ approach to collecting was democratic and non-hierarchical. Even as their collection became more global, it remained based on an appreciation of the sensual things in life, and on individual technique and vision. Their criterion for buying artworks was always that they had to love the work.
The Smithers collected these works when they were not taken seriously by museums. But that is slowly changing. A great part of the works in the exhibition will be gifted to the Menil, and thus will form part of the Menil’s permanent collection. This will intensify the dialogue between artworks from all sorts of backgrounds, and stimulate scholarship not only of traditional 'masterpieces’, but of all expressions of art, 'high' and 'low'.
In London self-taught art also appears to be taking on a more prominent role. Last week, Frieze Masters featured a display by the Gallery of Everything, called “Le Foyer de l’Art Brut”. It was part of Frieze's Collections section started in 2015, with seven galleries chosen by Sir Norman Rosenthal. Le Foyer de l’Art Brut gave an historical interpretation of Jean Dubuffet’s first 1947 Parisian salon, exhibiting rarely-seen material by the anti-cultural art-makers that inspired Dubuffet and other artists of his generation. Dubuffet collected and campaigned throughout his life for so called 'art brut': an “artistic operation that is completely pure, raw, reinvented in all its phases by its author, based solely on his own impulses and in no way obligated to any artistic traditions" (in the words of the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland, where Dubuffet's collection is now housed).
Showing self-taught art in the context of Frieze Masters not only challenges the fair’s emphasis on 'masterpieces'; it also opens up an entirely new collectors' base for these works. The Museum of Everything has been around for some time, and pops up in different places (it was, for example, part of the 2013 Venice Biennale in the 'Palazzo di Everything'). It is not a museum in the traditional sense, but a British charity, a “wandering institution for the untrained, unintentional, undiscovered and unclassifiable artists of modern times”.
But now, for the first time, a selling gallery is brought under the umbrella of the institution. In its new space on Chiltern Street, The Gallery of Everything is London’s first commercial gallery dedicated to non-academic artists and private art makers. Its aim: “to communicate a parallel history of modern and contemporary art to a British and International audience”. Not a modest goal for a new commercial gallery!
The Gallery of Everything, 4 Chiltern Street, London and the exhibit of the Museum of Everything at Frieze Masters 2016
Photo from The Gallery of Everything
Is self-taught art essential? Do its manifestations have to be (re)-included in our art-historical canon? And what happens when art on the outskirts gets picked up by the art market, and becomes art on the inside? These are all interesting questions that will have to be answered. As Essential as Dreams refers to a phrase by philosopher Jean Beaudrillard, who said that the desire to create is a deeply human response "as essential as dreams". The Gallery of Everything refers to its display at Frieze Masters as that of 'cultural art-makers' instead of simply 'artists'. All this resonates with Ellen Dissanayake's influential 1988 book What is Art For? Dissanayake argues that art is a human behaviour that was essential for our evolution, like dreams and play.
Western aestheticism relies heavily on an intellectual approach to art, and this could explain why self-taught art, with its more intuitive approach, has been left out of the canon of art history. But things are changing. Exhibitions such as the Menil’s in Houston and the activities of the Museum and Gallery of Everything in London are elevating the status of the self-taught artist, thereby challenging traditional art histories. They seem to be on the forefront of a bigger wave in art worldwide: self-taught art is on the rise, in world-class art museums as well as in commercial galleries. I would encourage you to follow this new direction with interest. And to all budding collectors: let yourself be guided by John and Stephanie Smither, and buy the art that you love.
Jarvis Cocker’s Journeys into the Outside, The Gallery of Everything, London, until 20th November
As Essential as Dreams – Self -Taught Art from the Collection of Stephanie and John Smither, The Menil Collection, Houston, until 16th October
Sabine is currently based between London and Houston and enrolled in a one-year Certificate in Museum Education from the University of Houston. Sabine will continue to offer regular London art tours in London as well as private tours.
With thanks to Dr Assata Richards and Dr Carrie Markello from the University of Houston, for introducing me to some of the material in this blog.