Museum Exhibitions

Self-taught artists and art history

Josephine Joy (American, 1869–1948), Waterbirds Nesting, ca. 1935–1939, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum,

Contributed by David Carrier / As an art critic, I usually have a divided consciousness. While I have to focus on the art I am writing about, at the back of my mind is an awareness of the art system through which it is presented. For example, when Alice Neel’s estate recently moved to Zwirner, I was duly fascinated by her work but at the same time taken aback to realize that the marvelously humble paintings looked out of place in the gallery’s grand setting. “Gatecrashers: The Rise of the Self-Taught Artist in America” at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art focuses on the pre-Clement Greenberg American art world – before Abstract Expressionism had triumphed, before the high-pressure commercial gallery system had been established, before American painters self-consciously sought to extend the traditions of European modernism, before they assumed the burden of building on Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and Cubism. Yet it’s important not to exaggerate that admitted hinge-point in art history. In the 1930s, prominent art dealers like Sidney Janis championed some of the outsider cadre as heartily as he would young Abstract Expressionists, and New York galleries hung their work as well as that of future American art stars they would later fete.

William Dorian’s Flag Day (1935), oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art, The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection
Lawrence Lebduska (American, 1894–1966), Untitled (Horses and Rattlesnakes), 1946, oil on canvas, Collection of Carl and Marian Mullis.
Grandma Moses (Anna Mary Robertson Moses) (American, 1860–1961), Sugaring Off, 1943, oil on canvas, courtesy of Galerie St. Etienne, New York. © Grandma Moses Properties Co., New York.

“Gatecrashers” testifies to their merit and innovation. William Dorian’s Flag Day (1935), with its 33 flags, is a sophisticated example of visual repetition. There are several paintings by Morris Hirshfield, recently the subject of a retrospective at the American Folk Art Museum. Pedro López Cervántez’s architectural study Almaden en Téxico (Téxico Depot) (1934) echoes Charles Sheeler’s depictions of grain elevators. John Kane’s Pietà (1933) is a copy of a 15th-century Flemish work.

John Kane (American, born Scotland, 1860–1934), Larimer Avenue Bridge, 1932, oil on canvas, Carnegie Museum of Art, gift of G. David Thompson.
Patrick J. Sullivan, Hunting He Would Go, 1940, oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art

Several later paintings in “Gatecrashers” conjure unique and outré fantasies. Patrick J. Sullivan’s Hunting He Would Go (1940) depicts a quarrel in the countryside between a man who wants to go hunting with his friends and a girlfriend who objects. His The First Law of Nature – Not Self-Preservation but Love (1939) is an exercise in homemade Surrealism featuring the self-sacrifice of a soldier, animal and human mothers, and a missionary. Lawrence Lebduska’s Untitled (Horses and Rattlesnakes) (1946) is a lovely picture of pink and blue horses and a rattlesnake patterned like a giraffe. Victor Gaito’s Tigers in the Jungle (undated) resembles Henri Rousseau’s work. The show also reinforces present-day political concerns: among the gatecrashing works are strong paintings by African American artists, including Cleo Crawford’s Christmas (1938) and Horace Pippin’s The Whipping (1941), as well as San Diego Mission (1935–39) by Josephine Joy, the first woman to have a solo exhibition at MoMA.

Victor Gatto (American, 1893–1965), Tigers in the Jungle, undated, oil on canvas, Collection of Carl and Marian Mullis.
Horace Pippin (American, 1888–1946), Saying Prayers, 1943, oil on canvas, Brandywine River Art Museum, The Betsy James Wyeth Fund, 1980.

Despite their often compelling work, it remains unclear where in the history of art these painters should be situated. It is perhaps unsurprising that some 85 years after MoMA presented a survey exhibition titled “Masters of Popular Painting: Modern Primitives of Europe and America,” in 1938, several of the painters from that show were featured in “Gatecrashers” – still, it seems, historically stranded. Indeed, several commentators have suggested that the basic concept of historical development has served contemporary art poorly. Julian Bell’s book Mirror of the World shows the extreme difficulty of constructing a world art history. Pepe Karmel’s Abstract Art demonstrates that abstraction lacks a fully contextualized chronology. Arthur Danto went so far as to argue that the history of art had ended. In a kindred vein, “Gatecrashers” suggests that some early 20th-century American painting has been denied clear recognition for and on the record. The show might just nudge art critics and historians to do something about it.

Gatecrashers. The Rise of the Self-Taught Artist in America,” The Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Greensburg, PA. Through February 5, 2023.

About the author: David Carrier is a former professor at Carnegie Mellon University and Princeton University; a Getty Scholar; and a Clark Fellow. He has lectured in China, Europe, India, Japan, New Zealand, and North America. He has published catalogue essays for many museums and art criticism for Apollo, artcritical, Artforum, Artus and Burlington Magazine. He has also been a guest editor for The Brooklyn Rail.


  1. The insistence on academic gatekeeping to the “art world” is rather baffling to me as a (self taught) painter and a computer engineer. The field of computers has rather insistently defined itself as a meritocracy, where education is valued for the knowledge and skills it imparts, and not for the connections and titles it conveys. Art seems like the opposite quite often.

    The creative impulse exists in so many of us. Certainly more than the impulse to give machines precise instructions to solve problems. I’m glad there’s a gatecrashers exhibit, but there’s a deeper question here, is gatekeeping really surviving our culture? There is always competition and limited resources, a need for thoughtful curation, a value to history and education, but there are a multitude of paths to getting there. Especially today with a whole world of knowledge and images in our pockets waiting for us to find, like this blog for instance.

    We are seeing this play out all over the labor market with a push to remove degree requirements for many positions. I respect the important role educational institutions play, the vast work they do to contribute to knowledge, but it is time to once again recognize the world is a bigger place, full of more ideas than any one path can hold.

    Ending hierarchies, acknowledging the value of varied paths through life, that makes for more opportunities for everyone, opens room for the new, and makes the production of culture and a place in our collective history available and relevant to all those choose to seriously follow that creative impulse.

    Well I feel a bit bored this afternoon, so I wrote this. I miss all those dreams from the 90s of what the internet could be.

  2. Shrine Gallery has opened its new space in LA with a show titled “Death of the Outsider” and it includes a deliberately mixed group. I enthusiastically joined the list even though I’m not sure of such a label for myself.
    Here is a quote from the Press Release:
    “The 28 artists included in Death of An Outsider come from extremely varied circumstances ranging from MFA-level training to literally starting from scratch in remote settings, but they are aligned in their fierce search for truth and originality. The exhibition is the gallery’s first in Los Angeles and ventures to put all artists, no matter their background, on a level playing field to be considered as equals.”
    Here are the artist names: Derek Aylward, Hayley Barker, Amy Bessone, Hawkins Bolden, Georgia Blizzard, Katherine Bradford, David Butler, Thomas Dillon, William Doleman, Minnie Evan Jameson Green, Matthew F Fisher, Frank Jones, Marina Kappos, KAWS, Susan Te Kahurangi King, Marlon Mullen, J.B. Murray, Rob Ober, Martin Ramirez, Prophet Royal Robertson, Jennifer Rochlin, Juanita Rogers, Jon Serl, Josh Smith, Marty T. Smith, Mose Tolliver, Bill Trailer, Frank Walter, Billy White, Ryan Wilde.

  3. A very interesting article that touches on an issue that has never been ( and probably never will) be fully resolved in the art world, writ large. As an arts journalist with a background in Anthropology I frequently write about self-taught and artists outside of the mainstream. I have seen an increasing amount of crossover exhibitions and galleries- ones who show work from all across the art world. And thanks to a handful of very smart and strategic dealers we have seen the development of a class of “blue chip” self-taught artists ( Bill Traylor, Howard Finster, Jon Serl, to name a few) whose work commands very high prices. I’m not sure that this genre of work needs to fit in anywhere. Rather I see it as a kind of parallel Universe, one that lives connected to, but separate from the mainstream art system. And maybe that’s ok…..

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