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Liberation through Expression: Making History for Outsider Art at Christie’s

On a cold January morning, William Edmondson’s “Boxer” stood with arms cocked and stance readied in a glass vitrine inside Christie’s New York salesroom at Rockefeller Plaza. Though dwarfed by the outsized auctioneer’s podium looming behind it, the limestone figure still coolly commanded attention. “Boxer” was the anticipated headliner of Christie’s Liberation through Expression sale, its first standalone outsider and vernacular art auction in over a decade. Joining works by Martín Ramírez, Bill Traylor, Thornton Dial, and other self-taught artists in a carefully curated, 50-lot sale, Edmondson’s sculpture sparked an early crescendo that morning, setting off a rally of bids that quickly trumped the artwork’s $250,000 high estimate price and sent the auctioneer’s hammer slamming down to the tune of $650,000 and a roomful of applause.

"Boxer," William Edmondson, Limestone, 17" x 7.25" x 9.25", c. 1936.  Image courtesy of Christie's.

“Boxer,” William Edmondson, Limestone, 17″ x 7.25″ x 9.25″, c. 1936. Image courtesy of Christie’s.

The sale made history, in the most traditional sense of the word. Having traveled from Edmondson’s Nashville backyard to museum exhibitions and private collections across the country, “Boxer” — which the African American artist chiseled from stone 80 years ago — will now make its way to a new home for the realized price of $785,000 (including the auction house’s premium), breaking the world auction record for outsider art set by Henry Darger’s “Sans titre” when it sold for $745,076 in 2014. These record-setting prices signal a growing interest in works by self-taught artists, whose once seemingly aberrant creations now appear right at home in fine art institutions like Christie’s.

"Three Figures with Dog, Bird and Fountain," Bill Traylor, Tempera and Graphite on Back of Heavy Card Dreams and Mounds Candy Poster, 12.25" x 6.75", c. 1939-1942. Image courtesy of Christie's.

“Three Figures with Dog, Bird and Fountain,” Bill Traylor, Tempera and Graphite on Back of Heavy Card Dreams and Mounds Candy Poster, 12.25″ x 6.75″, c. 1939-1942. Image courtesy of Christie’s.

Though Edmondson’s sculpture proved exceptional that morning, found-object drawings by Bill Traylor and enamel paintings by William Hawkins attracted similarly competitive bidding, some of them also surpassing their price estimates after prolonged exchanges among two or three bidders. These more climactic moments aside, there was something both thrilling and surreal about watching a bow-tied auctioneer refer so casually to James Castle’s soot and spit drawings and Clementine Hunter’s vibrant, oil-on-board paintings, treating the works not as eccentric newcomers to the art world but as unique and valuable objects belonging right alongside the christened masterworks that have passed through Christie’s auction rooms.

“I think increasingly museums and collectors are seeing these works as in conversation with modern and contemporary art,” said Cara Zimmerman, the outsider and folk art specialist who worked on organizing the Christie’s sale. Zimmerman attributes the increasing regard for works by self-taught artists to a growing interest in the ways in which outsider art straddles artistic categories and draws upon diverse cultural sources, mixing personal life and popular culture in remarkable ways. “People are looking at this stuff and seeing it as part of a modern and contemporary aesthetic,” said Zimmerman.

"Yaekle Building," William Hawkins, Enamel and Glitter on Thick Paper, 44" x 52.25", 1982. Property from the Marvill Collection. Image courtesy of Christie's.

“Yaekle Building,” William Hawkins, Enamel and Glitter on Thick Paper, 44″ x 52.25″, 1982. Property from the Marvill Collection. Image courtesy of Christie’s.

For Zimmerman and others, the term “outsider” no longer carries the force of separation that has kept self-taught artists at the periphery of the art world. “I don’t think that ‘outsider’ has much bearing on the objects themselves, but it’s a term that people use to identify this work. It’s a way to simplify,” she explained, acknowledging the elusive tread that holds these works together. “What’s important to remember is that outsider art is not trapped in a specific era, but that it was made and continues to be made in the last century or two. We have some living artists in this sale, and it’s important for us to remember that this field is ongoing, even though it is evolving constantly.”

"Hard Labor," Thornton Dial, Carpet Roping, Sheet Metal, Cut Fabric, Carpet, Industrial Modeling Compound and Paint on Plywood, 48" x 48" x 3", 1998. From the Collection of Stephen and Susan Pitkin. Image courtesy of Christie's.

“Hard Labor,” Thornton Dial, Carpet Roping, Sheet Metal, Cut Fabric, Carpet, Industrial Modeling Compound and Paint on Plywood, 48″ x 48″ x 3″, 1998. From the Collection of Stephen and Susan Pitkin. Image courtesy of Christie’s.

That these works — which span the twentieth century — are easily auctioning for thousands of dollars is but one sign of how the field has evolved since Jean Dubuffet began amassing and theorizing works by self-taught artists and mounting his alternative “Art Brut” exhibitions. In the 1950s, pioneers of the field like Dubuffet wrestled with how to contextualize and exhibit artworks produced under unfamiliar circumstances or through alternative methodologies. He and others were wary of the potential misunderstanding and backlash that threatened their somewhat radical critique of established art institutions.

More than half a century later, however, the climate of the art world has changed. Liberation through Expression is far less concerned with defining what belongs inside versus outside than with gaining exposure for what many now readily recognize as great works of art. “To me, it’s really about the objects,” said Zimmerman. “All the theory in the world is fun, but if an object isn’t great, then we aren’t going to sell it. It’s as simple as that.”