artnet: Wave of New Buyers Flock to Art Brut as Collectors Seek to Expand Their Horizons at Accessible Prices

A bustling sale of Outsider art at Christie’s New York on Thursday morning totaled $2.2 million, with a 98% sell-through rate from 143 lots. Without any of the most spectacular numbers that have been achieved in this category in recent years, the sum just exceeded the $2.1 million the house brought in last year from 90 lots. (Final prices include buyer’s premium unless otherwise noted, pre-sale estimates do not.)

Still, interest was high with top lot Bill Traylor Untitled (Male and female), setting off a rapid bidding frenzy and an exclamation of “lots of paddles up!” from the grandstand. The hammer price was $140,000, beating the high estimate of $120,000.

Typically, the artists who attract the most impressive bids in this category remain a small group of American artists, including Traylor, Henry Darger, Thornton Dial and Mexican Martín Ramírez, who emigrated to California. The top lots came as no surprise, with Traylor’s works also topping sales in 2021 ($293,750) and 2020 ($507,000). In 2019, his best-selling work of $396,000 set a new record, but fell short of the $684,500 achieved by a two-sided watercolor by Darger.

But at Christie’s sale on February 3, two works by Traylor failed to sell while others fell short of their low estimates, including brown buzzard which hammered in at $28,000 (estimate: $30,000-50,000). Interest in the more established names has been muted compared to fierce competition for rising stars who have yet to gain widespread recognition.

David Butler, Walking stick with figurine (circa 1975). Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

Namely, the real star of the sale was David Butler, represented by sculptures from the collection of his champion, curator William A. Fagaly. Seven of them broke Butler’s existing record, with Walking stick with figure (circa 1975) hitting dizzying highs of $62,500, above a high estimate of $8,000. Also setting new records, at $32,500, Raymond Materson’s Until death do us part (1993) far exceeded its high estimate of $4,000 and the hammer price of $20,000 for Emery Blagdon’s Untitled (circa 1956-1984) was several times the high estimate of $5,000.

market hunger

Cara Zimmerman, head of Outsider and popular art at Christie, noted that the number of artists who have developed a stable enough market to be presented at auction is increasing. “Every year we find new records for artists who may not have been on our radar ten years ago,” she said.

It’s rarely the result of a meteoric rise, according to Andrew Edlin, a dealer-owner of the Outsider Art Fair. “Sometimes in the contemporary art world, artists fresh out of art school get scouted by a big gallery and there’s a lot of hype,” he said. “In the art brut world, the market for new artists is more reality-based. There are artists from the last five years or so who have established themselves and prices have increased exponentially, but they are still quite modest.”

This year’s sale featured more works by European artists, including Augustin Lesage, Anna Zemankova and Madge Gill, who were expected to attract more international interest in a category historically dominated by American collectors. At $125,000, French coal miner Lesage Untitled (1933) fetched the sale’s second-highest hammer price. Czech Art Brut heavyweight Anna Zemankova set a new record while drawing Untitled (Flowers) sold for $27,500.

A growing clamor for female artists has seen Nellie Mae Rowe and Sister Gertrude Morgan exceed all estimates. In 2020, Minnie Evans set a new auction record at $32,500, as did Judith Scott and Laura Craig McNellis last year at $52,500 and $5,250 respectively.

Sister Gertrude Morgan, Climbing high mountains trying to get home. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

An institutional boost

Zimmerman joined Christie’s in 2014 when the house noticed that contemporary sales of works by Outsider artists were attracting a rush of new entrants. The house’s inaugural sale for Outsider and Vernacular Art in 2016 immediately broke the category’s highest record with William Edmondson’s Boxer (1936) sculpture reaching a hammer price of $785,000. In recent years, sales have reliably reached sell-out rates in the 90s, even as the number of lots has increased from 68 in 2017 to 143 this year.

Fagaly’s offering of works testifies to the role of institutions in promoting Outsider artists. Major exhibits over the past year include Nellie Mae Rowe at the High Museum and, at MoMA, Joseph E. Yoakum, whose $22,500 final sale price for a 1964 drawing of a mountain range in Bolivia was the double its high estimate of $10,000.

Prime galleries have jumped on the trend, with James Castle currently on display at David Zwirner in New York and Blum & Poe announcing their representation of the Thornton Dial Estate in November. “These galleries don’t need to do the heavy lifting to get an obscure artist recognized,” Edlin said. “It’s already done. They have already been the subject of articles in the press and now, with their means, the galleries can intervene and show the work.”

As defining moments, Edlin names Klaus Biesenbach’s “Disasters of War” exhibition at PS1 in 2000, which placed Darger in the same context as Goya and The Chapman Brothers, and Massimiliano Gioni’s “The Encyclopaedic Palace” at the Venice Biennale. in 2013. a work by self-taught Italian-American artist Marino Auriti, the show mixed works by Outsider artists Shinichi Sawada, Friedrich Schröder-Sonnenstern and Arthur Bispo do Rosário with established names like Wade Guyton and Tacita Dean.

William Hawkins, Alamo. Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

Events like these changed the context in which audiences perceived Outsider artists from folk to contemporary. “I’m starting to associate more and more with our colleagues in post-war and contemporary art as our buyer bases become more and more connected,” Zimmerman said. “People are starting to see Outsider art as part of the bigger picture of what was happening in modern art.”

“Modernism and postmodernism both adopted this material for its formal and aesthetic kinship,” added Valérie Rousseau of the American Folk Art Museum, citing the schematic style and formal economy of Traylor and William Edmondson.

Efforts to expand the art historical canon, reflected in MoMA’s high-profile redesign in 2019, have collectors and curators thinking about the gaps they need to fill. “Just as the diversity of venues has increased, so has the diversity of audiences and clientele,” Zimmerman said. “What else was going on when Rauschenberg was working? People are looking for a bigger picture of popular culture. She anticipates more conversations around individual artists, as they receive their first major retrospectives.

As the art world struggles to revive overlooked female artists and the market for black artists thrives, outsider art has become a cross-collecting category. For those interested in modern and contemporary art, it has acquired rival cultural cachet at a much more accessible price.

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Christopher S. Washington