Upon entering the exhibition I was immediately struck by the term self-taught on the blessedly brief wall text. I may have even paused to immediately consider adding this term to a lineage of others such as art brut, naïve art, primitive, folk, and the industry standard catch-all: outsider art. Self-taught remains nuanced as a broader definition than the others and a somewhat more productive term than the last. Where this identifier leaves the viewer is a space for the consideration of an art genre in flux, and I personally appreciated this breathing room.
While only a portion of Anthony Petullo’s collection is displayed, the curation is a breath of fresh air. Petullo has collected widely and works by European and Canadian artists offered a diversion from the usual suspects displayed in the Midwest such as Henry Darger, Bill Traylor, and Joseph E. Yoakum. Broadly, it successfully confounded my quick generalizations while simultaneously offering several points of departure. For instance, Rosemarie Koczy’s two-handed ink-on-paper drawings memorializing Holocaust victims seemed to follow a generalization accredited to other outsiders with her nearly obsessive intricate hatching of oppressed, gaunt figures with black eyes. However, Koczy’s associations with the self-taught remain sequestered in a drawing practice, as she was educated at the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs in the early 60s, and was well known in Europe for her tapestries and wood sculptures. Her line work can be seen in formal conversation with Madge Gill’s spiritualist driven ink-on-board depictions of women in architectural horror vacui, however, the motives of the two female artists are vastly different, and the term self-taught appears more applicable for one than the other.
Scottie Wilson (English, 1891–1972), Plate, ca. 1960, Ceramic with hand painted overglaze, diameter: 10 in. (25.4 cm); Courtesy The Anthony Petullo Collection / Photo credit: John R. Glembin
Another hallmark of the outsider mythology is the chronology of acceptance and self-awareness of “market.” Louis Freeman aka Scottie Wilson is featured heavily in the exhibition and his inclusion illuminates several fissures in the loose outsider criterion. Wilson initially took donations for the opportunity to view his work, calling upon skilled salesmanship originating from a peddling background. Moreover, the Royal Worchester china on display bearing his whimsical flora and birds associate his work with industrial design. Furthermore, the pieces in the exhibition reveal a shift over four decades of creepy figures referred to as the “greedies” in the earliest works to butterflies and fish in what appear to be mystical ecosystems popular in his output from the 1960s to his death in 1972. This selection of Wilson’s artworks provokes an assessment of a career (without providing a clear or reductive trajectory), as opposed to say a figure like Darger whose massive tomes about the Vivian Girls were only discovered and cultivated after his death.
Petullo’s collection also speaks to difference rather than similarities, and I enjoyed seeing James Lloyd’s pop pointillism (gouache on paper) in the proximity of Friedrich Schröder-Sonnenstern’s fantastical creatures (colored pencil and crayon on paper). I was also grateful for the exposure to many women artists like Sylvia Levine, Måna Lagerholm, and Consuelo Amézcua all of whom I was previously unaware. While scale was largely intimate, there were also considerably larger works such as Arnold Schmidt’s A Person (1998), and an untitled oil on canvas by Rosemarie Koczy from 1989. Many of the works on display were 2D, but materials were varied with artists utilizing ballpoint pen, stamps, glitter, pastel, on newspaper, envelopes, and cardboard.
Rosemarie Koczy (American/Swiss, b. Germany, 1939–2007), Alva Bound/Nursing Home, n.d., Ink on paper, 14 x 10 5/8 in. (35.56 x 26.99 cm); Courtesy The Anthony Petullo Collection / Photo credit: John R. Glembin
The Milwaukee Art Museum already had a strong collection of self-taught artists and Petullo’s sizable gift enhances previous acquisitions obtained through the Michael and Julie Hall Collection of Folk Art. What remains a provocative challenge for the curators is the integration of objects and works in future themed exhibitions, where perhaps the term self-taught and its exclusionary/inclusionary baggage will be less important than featuring compelling work by artists, period. I’m not sure I find the inclusion of "genius" in the title helpful, preferring Jane Kallir’s “accidental modernists,” a claim she elucidates in the excellent accompanying catalog by stating that self-taught artists were “creating works that looked like sophisticated art without deliberately intending to.” Despite the problematic assumption of these artists' intentions, the exhibition itself stands as a testament to the shift in the perceptions, connoisseurship, and collecting of these artists.
(Image on top right: Madge Gill (English, 1882–1961), Untitled, n.d., Ink on card, 25 x 20 in. (63.5 x 50.8 cm); Courtesy The Anthony Petullo Collection / Photo credit: Larry Sanders)