Art Market: The 'outed' Outsiders

Once they worked alone in garrets, untrained, unknown and aloof from the art establishment. Then they started to get noticed and make money. John Windsor tries to decide who's in and who's out
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
WANTED: genuine Outsider artists. Only the untrained need apply. Applicants should submit a hitherto unseen life's work of a visionary nature. Special consideration given for work done in lighthouses, prisons or mental hospitals. Clean CV essential (no previous contact with artistic culture or commercial galleries).

Up to pounds 50,000 has been paid for the work of "Outsiders" since my colleague Geraldine Norman wrote here two years ago that "Outsider Art is coming in". Since then, spiralling prices have produced one of the most tantalising paradoxes of the art market. While curators and academics argue about whether the austere criteria for Outsider Art dictated by its discoverer, French artist Jean Dubuffet, in 1945 should be relaxed, some artists signed up by commercial galleries as Outsiders are earning enough to come out of their garrets and start living it up.

Suddenly, every other artist wants to be an Outsider. The glossy magazine for Outsider Art, Raw Vision, receives supplications from talentless would- be Outsiders about once a week. Most are automatically excluded due to their art school training.

As a result, artists who allow themselves to be dubbed "Outsider" now have to watch their step. They are being watched. Have they sold out to galleries? Are they courting publicity? Who are they mixing with? In no other sector of the art market has an artist's reputation come to depend so crucially upon his lifestyle.

For long-term investors in this booming but potentially fragile tier of the market, the surest guarantee that the fine, careless rapture they purchased will not be discredited is to make sure that the poor, visionary recluse who painted it is dead.

A cheerful victim of the new, art-critical puritanism is the disgraced Outsider, Albert Louden, a 52-year-old former van driver whose 2,000 canvases of grotesque caricatural figures are overflowing from the terraced house in Leyton, east London, where he lives alone, into garden sheds. His paintings fetch up to pounds 4,500.

Having been discovered in 1981 by the late Victor Musgrave, friend of Dubuffet and founder of the Outsider Archive in London, Louden was dropped ten years later by Musgrave's partner, Monika Kinley, who inherited the archive, when he began showing at commercial galleries. Major galleries in Britain and the United States now sell his work.

Kinley is one of the most influential arbiters of Outsiders' authenticity, having collected 700 Outsider artworks and raised pounds 200,000 towards Britain's first Outsider museum. She says: "We need to know that artists are working by themselves for themselves. If an artist communicates with other artists on the cultural roundabout, then he's not an Outsider.

"When we discovered Albert he was a complete Outsider didn't know anybody. Victor nurtured him. But he didn't want to be an Outsider because he couldn't sell any pictures. Then, when Outsider Art was discovered, he wanted to be an Outsider again. Now he's being dragged round the galleries like a performing monkey. If that's made him happy, great.

"But at least we've got some of his wonderful early works. His current work has not got the same fire. That's what can happen when Outsiders come into contact with commercial galleries. But you can't protect them. Most are poor, they have no social life and they want to make money. It would be wrong to try to stop them."

The same view is echoed by Louden. "I refuse to play the purity game," he says. "I won't play the piano to Monika or anyone else. She dropped me because her driving force was the museum and mine was making a living. It's as simple as that."

Since being discovered by Musgrave, Albert Louden has discovered art history in particular, the story of the original Outsider artist, the psychotic Swiss child molester Adolf Wolfli (1864-1930), adopted by Dubuffet as the standard model for Art Brut, the "raw art" that we now call Outsider. Wolfli spent most of his life hallucinating in solitary confinement in a psychiatric clinic, drawing patterns obsessively crammed with musical notation. His work now fetches up to pounds 30,000.

Louden does not feel moved either to emulate Wolfli or to obey the purist strictures of Dubuffet whose insistence on the Outsider's immunity to artistic culture would have disqualified even such mavericks as Van Gogh and Gauguin.

He says: "Wolfli found art through mental illness, and I wouldn't want that. I find it ridiculous that artists should be judged by lifestyle and image. It seems that if someone is in a mental asylum they can paint cotton wool balls and be hailed as an artist and so can art college graduates. Why can't I? Victor put me on the right track. I work from the subconscious and he told me, 'Stop questioning and let it come out of you'."

Ironically, Louden has a champion and chum in the academic Roger Cardinal, who coined the term "Outsider" in 1972. Cardinal, professor of literary and visual studies at the University of Kent, has locked horns with no less an authority than Michel Thevoz, director of the Collection de l'Art Brut, founded by Dubuffet and now housed in Lausanne, Switzerland. Cardinal argues that Dubuffet's private war against "Cultural Art" should be consigned to history and that his rigid definition of Art Brut should be loosened "before it cracks under the strain".

Cardinal, Thevoz and Kinley are the most powerful arbiters of Outsider Art in Europe. (Americans are less picky, including folk art as Outsider, despite its cultural influences.) The trio is not exactly tightly knit. Cardinal seeks to revise Dubuffet, while Thevoz and Kinley continue to interpret his criteria strictly but do not always agree.

Cardinal lobbed the first brick into the Dubuffet glasshouse by pointing out that even the work of the near-sanctified Wolfli is not exactly culture- free. He says it contains borrowings from engravings, magazine pictures and the owl motif of locally-made ceramics. He has been critical of the way Dubuffet cast out from his Art Brut collection every work by Gaston Chaissac (1910-1964), on the grounds that Chaissac had hobnobbed with Paris intelligentsia.

Equally heretically, he maintains that the authenticity of Outsider art should be judged by what it looks like, instead of by spurious biographical detail. He challenges Dubuffet's claim that every work of Art Brut is different. It has a "distinctive intensity", he says, and recognisable "constants" such as dense ornamentation and compulsively repeated patterns.

But Thevoz is no revisionist. "It is always important to classify things," he told me. "There are even categories in cookery and love. What Dubuffet termed 'Cultural Art' is a specific system of distribution and commercialisation, which a true Outsider has nothing to do with."

Chaissac's work seems doomed to remain in Dubuffet's second-division "Neuve Invention" collection for flawed Outsiders, but Thevoz says he would like to rehabilitate from Neuve Invention to full Art Brut status the scandalous, often sexual art of the German Friedrich Schroder-Sonnenstern (1892-1959), who during the war sold firewood in the street and pictures to a gallery in order to survive. Thevoz says: "He never really entered the Cultural Art system."

Kinley shares Thevoz's admiration for Schroder-Sonnenstern's work, but work by several living artists represented in her collection has been relegated by Thevoz to Neuve Invention. They include the driftwood creations of the French post-office night worker Pascal Verbena, a prolific exhibitor.

She agrees that an artist's work is a more important guide to his Outsider status than his lifestyle, but is prepared to debate individual biographies. For example, she defends the best-known British Outsider, Scottie Wilson (1889-1972), from charges that he attended private views at commercial galleries, on the grounds that "he was mainly there for the whisky".

Albert Louden's work is in the second-rank Neuve Invention collection in Lausanne, Switzerland and he is proud of that. "I've always seen myself as borderline," he declares.

As it happens, "Borderline Art" is in an alphabetical list of 147 fanciful terms for Outsider Art published by John and Maggie Maizels, editors of the magazine Raw Vision, which is subsidised by two collectors in America. The running debate in Raw Vision about the classification of Outsider Art is known as "term wars".

John Maizels' satirical contribution to the debate, to be launched next month, is Zombic News, a single-issue 20-page magazine with a text of meaningless, Outsider-esque squiggles universally incomprehensible, he jokes, but no less so than magazines such as Artforum.

He says: "It is almost axiomatic that those who claim to us that they are Outsiders are not. They have too much nous: they know about art. We get letters every week that begin 'Although I've been to art school' ... My heart sinks. Such people have been rejected by galleries and are isolated, hurt and bitter. They really do believe they're Outsiders. One artist keeps writing, 'You've got to get me famous so I can enter high society.'

"The genuine Outsiders are usually brought to our attention by intermediaries. They have about them almost a nobility, an inner pride."

Billy Morey is the kind of Outsider he has in mind. He spent more than 30 years in institutions and jail, and now lives near the Maizels in a rented house which he has transformed into a concrete fantasy. A neighbour informed Mr Maizels about him.

Among Monika Kinley's proudest examples of Outsider art are the miniature shoes made from bread and saliva by Dusan Kusmic, a refugee from Tito's Yugoslavia, and doodles on old menus by Cypriot peasant and Tate Gallery warder Alexander Georgiou, nicknamed Perifimou.

One whose densely packed drawings of people in cities seem to incorporate all the stylistic "constants" identified as Outsider is the 31-year-old Kent artist Christopher Hipkiss, whose works sell for pounds 500-pounds 2,000. But he refuses to be called an Outsider.

Among the few to attend art school and survive as an Outsider is 32- year-old Damian Le Bas. At Worthing College of Art and Design he cut classes and set up his own studio in a music store in the students' union. Kinley has bought Hipkiss's work and Le Bas's snapshot-like drawings of everyday scenes (priced at pounds 700).

Fame does not necessarily spoil an Outsider's reputation. In a spinney at the bottom of the Maizels' garden in Letchmore Heath, Hertfordshire, is an eerie colony of 130 near-lifesize human, animal and bird sculptures by the 71- year-old Indian, Nek Chand. His secretly and illegally constructed sculpture park in Chandigarh is now India's second biggest tourist attraction after the Taj Mahal. After appearing in an Arts Council exhibition, the sculptures were unwanted a sharp reminder of Nek Chand's unblemished Outsider status.

One of Kinley's most vehement rejections "absolutely not", she says is of the work of "Von Stropp", a 33-year-old former lavatory cleaner whose technically brilliant oils and acrylics of mythical figures and entwined flesh and feathers are promoted by Britain's biggest dealer in Outsider Art, Henry Boxer, at prices up to pounds 4,000. Von Stropp has adopted 123 names by deed poll and says he feels "crucified" while painting. Kinley calls him a Symbolist.

Boxer also stocks drawings by 85-year-old American businessman turned hotel-room hermit, Malcolm McKesson, whose androgynous nudes fetch pounds 300- pounds 1,500, and the posthumously discovered religious drawings of Edmund Monsiel, a Polish schizophrenic (pounds 750-pounds 2,500).

Von Stropp's work is in the Neuve Invention collection in Lausanne and in the Bethlem Royal Hospital Museum in Beckenham, Kent, which houses work "of interest to psychiatrists". I put it to Patricia Allderidge, the museum's archivist and curator, that Von Stropp had no psychiatric history. "Not yet," she laughed, "but we thought we'd scoop him."

! 'Raw Vision': annual subscription (for three issues) pounds 14.50 including postage & packing: 42 Llanvanor Road, London NW2 2AP. Henry Boxer, by appointment (0181-948 1633). Bethlem Royal Hospital Museum, open Monday- Friday 9.30am-5.30pm, by appointment (0181-776 4307/4227). Exhibition of Zombic Artwork, 3-7 October: England & Co, 14 Needham Road, London W11 2RP (0171-221 0417)