Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 19, 2021
Katherine Jentleson Gatecrashers: The Rise of the Self-Taught Artist in America Oakland: University of California Press, 2020. 264 pp.; 53 color ills.; 18 b/w ills. Cloth $50.00 (9780520303423)

One gratifying consequence of an increasingly expansive, antiracist art history is the reframing of conventional subfields, allowing us to see familiar artworks with a fresh eye. Yet as Katherine Jentleson claims in her taut, well-argued Gatecrashers: The Rise of the Self-Taught Artist in America, the subfield, or even just the label, of so-called self-taught art has always made simple categorization difficult and continues to do so, as artists trained in settings beyond academic institutions gain more visibility. Recent high-profile exhibitions such as “Great and Mighty Things”: Outsider Art from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection (2013), Outliers and American Vanguard Art (2018), and Edith Halpert, the Downtown Gallery, and the Rise of American Art (2019–20) have gone a long way toward complicating received narratives of the “self-taught,” “outsider,” “folk,” or “primitive,” to name several insufficient descriptors. For instance, Outliers camouflaged which artists were not formally trained, relying on equivalences in process and materials to level the playing field in the eyes of the viewer. While this strategy contests the paternalism toward self-taught artists that feeds modernist appropriation, it does not necessarily avoid the rhetoric of uplift and “visionary” genius that, coming from a dominant art world center, privileges assimilation to the realm of fine art as the ultimate goal.

Jentleson responds sensitively to this brand of art world liberalism, noting: “Sometimes it seems that we as scholars operate with a threshold of artisthood that is too narrowly defined, resulting in overly intellectualized ascriptions of agency that can actually have a neo-primitivist effect, in the sense that a self-taught artist is once again being bent out of shape to fit the criteria of the art world, even if such criteria are today motivated by progressivism and inclusion rather than exoticism and othering” (124). If Outliers left me wanting a clearer understanding of the social and institutional networks binding the artists on view, Gatecrashers builds its premise on the notion that its case studies were not outsiders or outliers at all, but rather accepted as major players by US modernist institutions from the jump. The artists explored in depth—John Kane, Horace Pippin, and Anna Mary Robertson (“Grandma”) Moses—were widely celebrated in their lifetimes across boundaries of high and low, modernism and kitsch. At times Jentleson literally maps their overlapping support systems, as seen in a software-generated diagram showing the gallerists, dealers, collectors, and curators surrounding Pippin and the self-taught sculptor William Edmondson. In doing so, she suggests that it is art historical discourse that isolates artists as “self-taught,” when in reality they moved among “many of the same social and cultural forces that shaped the art and professional trajectories of their more canonical trained peers” (9). 

At stake in the emergent visibility of self-taught artists in the history of US modernism is the notion of Americanness itself. By extrapolating primitivism to a national model, Jentleson argues that self-taught artists were co-opted into a meta-discourse of primitivism in which the United States was seen as culturally inferior to Europe, and thus desperate to find an authentic artistic identity (70). The introductory first chapter outlines this broader context. Kane, Pippin, and Moses are what Jentleson calls “gatecrashers,” whose appearance in modernist white cubes may have been framed as surprising, but in fact resulted from their canny ways of working a system on the hunt for a national art. Here Jentleson’s argument aligns with those made by art historians such as Jacqueline Francis, a pioneer of critical race art history, whose Making Race: Modernism and “Racial Art” in America (University of Washington, 2011) also zoomed out helpfully to the larger context of US versus European modernism. Francis argued that racialized tropes made by painters of color were closely entwined with modernist discourses that threatened US nativism. For Jentleson, the characterization of self-taught so germane to modernist self-definition also ushered in the diversification of institutions. As she points out, both the first woman (Josephine Joy) and first African American (Edmondson) to have solo exhibitions at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) were self-taught. This offers a complicated, twofold legacy of, on the one hand, progressive, boundary-pushing politics; and on the other, institutional gatekeeping: the presumed association between Blackness and extra-institutional training initiated by modernist institutions would haunt formally trained African American artists throughout the twentieth century.

In the second chapter, Jentleson examines John Kane through a critical race lens, showing that Kane’s art was conceived of as uniquely American, but from a standpoint that in fact celebrated immigrant status. A working-class former miner who became known for his landscapes of industrial Pittsburgh, Kane benefited from his Scottish descent, historically a more easily assimilable and recognizable derivation of Euro-ethnic whiteness. Paintings such as The Campbells Are Coming (1932) and Scotch Day at Kennywood (1933) staged celebrations of Scottish traditional costume, dance, and music. These paintings wove together populism and nationalism into “a critical expansion of whiteness and American identity, which became even more multicultural after [Kane’s] death” (71). This line of inquiry could have been further explored: at the end of the chapter, Jentleson gestures to MoMA’s surveys of Latin American art and the broader Americas, which seems a critical component of the period’s alternately broadening and narrowing definitions of whiteness.

The third chapter, centering on Horace Pippin, proves especially helpful for those working across the fields of US, African American, and folk/self-taught art. Jentleson dispels the myth that Pippin’s success was solely due to white establishments, emphasizing how Black institutions and leading intellectuals of the New Negro Era supported and promoted Pippin, oftentimes in “points of convergence” that reveal more intersection than is usually attributed to the relatively segregated art world(s). Both Alain Locke and James Porter included Pippin in field-defining texts, which, albeit from opposing ideological standpoints, positioned folk artists and craftspeople as integral to both African American art and broader histories of modernism. But the most incisive commentary is reserved for comparison to William Edmondson, who did not attend his exhibitions and was thus known largely through Louise Dahl-Wolfe’s photographs of the sculptor in his Nashville yard, and the media frenzy over his indifference to fine art. Through the coeval example of Edmondson, Jentleson shows how Pippin, by contrast, was actively engaged in the discourses surrounding his work, especially as a veteran of World War I. This makes it difficult to categorize him as self-taught, or indeed to view self-taught as any kind of stable construct. In concert with questions about how we historicize artists uninterested in art world recognition, Jentleson challenges us to foreground other forms of agency: “the courage that an individual with little to no access to pipelines of training or art appreciation demonstrates by making art at all, especially when he or she is already in a tenuous social position” (124).

The fourth chapter’s discussion of Grandma Moses returns to the painter’s control over her image. Conventional accounts mark Moses as one opposite pole of postwar artmaking: her nostalgic landscapes versus Jackson Pollock’s avant-garde drip paintings. Jentleson posits that there are more similarities between these two than it would seem, given that both were touted as examples of US cultural and capitalist freedom. More than a conservative, “authentic” example of American artmaking, Moses used popular magazines, greeting cards, and Currier and Ives prints for her depictions of horse-drawn carriages and idyllic pastoral homes, which, as Jentleson argues, disrupts the notion of Moses as an autobiographical “memory painter” (135). Coming full circle, the reproduction of Moses’s paintings onto commercial objects heralded a new skepticism, in the Cold War era, toward the pictorial regionalism that had been so productive for someone like Kane. Her example proves an important foil to Abstract Expressionism, and it is helpful in destabilizing the myth of the movement as the only major US art story in the immediate postwar moment.

Jentleson closes the book with a chapter called “Expanding the Matrix of American Art,” which emphasizes the centrality of “outsiderness” as part of a US core identity. To that end, her point about the need to embrace other forms of agency, schooling, and knowledge beyond the art world is well taken. She also acknowledges what is lost if we completely subsume self-taught artists into narratives that forego labels: a recognition of the power dynamics that structure and control these terms. Along these lines, the question of whether self-taught artists democratized conceptions of artistic identity at midcentury is important—but is itself tinged with a hint of romanticism. In other words, there is a dark logic at play in MoMA’s early celebration of artists like Edmondson and Joy that is worth examining. At the same time, how do we present a narrative that privileges self-taught artists and introduces them as pioneering “insiders” of a national project without reifying the idea that insiderism—or nationalism—is what matters? Regardless of these nagging concerns, Gatecrashers successfully destabilizes received binaries, giving us crucial new insights into familiar “representatives” of the self-taught moniker, which in turn complicate that status.

Abbe Schriber
Visiting Assistant Professor, Massachusetts College of Art & Design