New York’s Americana week drew its usual gilt-edged collectors jockeying for prized Philadelphia Chippendale highboys and Paul Revere silver. Yet even amid choice traditional offerings at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and the inveterate Winter Show (through 2 February) so-called “outsider art”—long considered a niche category—is now far outstripping federal furniture as it increasingly attracts a new class of well-heeled clientele: pop-culture celebrities.
Christie’s third annual Outsider Art sale on 17 January brought in $3.3m, lead by a double-sided work on paper by self-taught artist Bill Traylor. His Man on White, Woman on Red / Man with Black Dog (around 1939-1942) went for $507,000, outstripping its $200,000-$400,000 estimate. The work boasted a Hollywood pedigree—film director Steven Spielberg had gifted it to author Alice Walker. It follows on the sale of Traylor’s Woman Pointing at Man With Cane, which soared to $396,500 on a $40,000 estimate at Christie’s last year, and a current show of the artist’s works on view at David Zwirner where works are priced between $60,000 and $500,000.
These sums are a far cry from the $300 the Chicago-based dealer Carl Hammer was first selling Traylor’s work for in the 1970s. Marcy Carsey, who heads up the California-based Just Folk gallery and sold the Man on White to Spielberg, says a celebrity studded clientele has helped propel prices. She notes Oprah, Jane Fonda, Jonathan Demme and Ellen de Generes (who apparently has added four works by Traylor to her collection) as major buyers. She adds that the last few years have seen a surge in interest in US self-taught artists among international collectors.
Cara Zimmerman, an outsider specialist at Christie’s concurs, saying that what was “remarkably” different this year is that “bidders and buyers hailed from far beyond these shores to Canada, throughout Europe and Asia, including China”.
This was also true for female artists Sister Gertrude, Minnie Evans and Clementine Hunter, who also struck price highs at the auction house’s sale, mirroring a wider collecting trend that has seen other artistic contributions by marginalised 20th century artists re-evaluated, according to Zimmerman.
“The fact that outsider art is no longer contextualised with folk art but rather immersed in the contemporary art world validates it in new ways,” says the New York-based dealer Andrew Edlin, who helms the city’s Outsider Art Fair, the 28th edition of which closed last week.
The fair saw a number of celebrity collectors in attendance, like actors Claire Danes and Matt Dillon and David Bryne of the Talking Heads—who emblazoned his 1985 album Little Creatures with a work by outsider artist Howard Finster—along with New Museum artistic director Massimiliano Gioni and numerous curators from MoMA. Sales were brisk, where Edlin sold an enormous collaged Henry Darger for around $850,000. The Chelsea Ricco/Maresca gallery sold four Martin Ramirez works on paper priced from $80,000 to $180,000 and 15 Leopold Srobel works on paper. The Columbus, Ohio-based Lindsay Gallery tallied 70 sales including a William Hawkins oil painting for $55,000.
Edlin also reined in art critic Paul Laster to curate Relishing the Raw, a special exhibition displayed salon-style devoted to outsider art owned by well-known contemporary artists like Maurizio Cattelan, KAWS, Lynda Benglis and James Siena and others.