Sometimes, it takes an outsider to get the inside scoop.
Andrew Edlin, the director of the Outsider Art Fair and a gallery in Chelsea (moving to a location on the Bowery in the fall), began his career in the art world as much on the fringes as the artists he represents.
“I didn’t come into it with any art world pedigree,” he says. “In a way, it was a real advantage for me because clearly there was some path that was unfolding that I was mature enough to keep following despite being inundated with cautionary tales of how I was bound for failure.”
Edlin became one of the preeminent champions and a discerning curator of outsider art, even though he had no previous gallery experience and without having studied art history.
Instead, it all started with a personal quest.
His uncle, Paul Edlin, began creating art in his late 30s, specializing in collages created from tiny slivers of postage stamps. Because he was deaf, Andrew helped him communicate with gallery owners, and got his work placed in the American Primitive Gallery in the mid-nineties in a four-person show. The New York Times reviewed the show favorably, and Paul sold several pieces.
“Uncle Paul was 66 at the time and it really changed his life, and subsequently mine,” Andrew says.
The process of aiding his uncle’s career turned him on to outsider art. Having worked for his father in the food business, he had a background in entrepreneurship, and as a life-long musician, he had a natural affinity for a career with an aesthetic side. A guitarist and songwriter, he found a link between his musical taste and the qualities he sought in visual art.
In 2001, he opened Andrew Edlin Gallery, where he has, over the years, showcased everything from the psychedelic drawings of Victor Moscoso, to the work of non-verbal artist Susan Te Kahurangi King, and self-taught, resourceful artist James Castle, whose work is in the inaugural show at the new Whitney Museum. Edlin curates a new show every six weeks.
Perhaps the most prominent artist he has represented is Henry Darger (1892-1973), a reclusive artist and writer who worked as a hospital custodian in Chicago after being remanded to the Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in Lincoln, Illinois, where he ran away from at age 16. After his death, a 15,000-page manuscript and accompanying artworks were discovered. His detailed, imaginative illustrations can be seen in the gallery, and his drawings are in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, and the American Folk Art Museum among many other institutions.
“His work is stunningly beautiful, but it’s also mysterious given that he wasn’t around to articulate its meaning to anybody,” Edlin says. “For me, it just had everything: scale, great color and composition, and an incredible story.”
“I was taken with the narrative element that runs through all of it,” Edlin says. “Here was a guy who wrote this fantastical epic which spoke to me on the level of a former English major who loved reading Greek mythology and Romantic poetry. It almost has a Samuel Taylor Coleridge “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” feeling to it.
“And when you add to the picture what a heartbreaking life he led, it’s that much more poignant how he was trying to work that out in this way.”
Artworks often come to him and other outsider art aficionados, he says, through a third party – a family member, a historian, or even a landlord who finds a tenant’s work at the end of his life.
Among those he has championed are Vahakn Arslanian as well as Tom Duncan and Hans Krüsi, to whom Edlin gave his first show in North America.
Currently at the gallery are small, colorful sculptures of shacks by Beverly Buchanan, not a new find – her work is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum – but someone Edlin found deserving of rediscovery.
“I thought they were really rough, and beautiful at the same time,” Edlin says.
Edlin has carried over his passion and success to the Outsider Art Fair, which he took over running in 2012 after a period of turmoil that followed the 2008 financial crisis. As quality control became more lax, some prominent dealers dropped out.
“I took a gamble that my ownership would create enthusiasm amongst the dealers who had left and that they might come back,” he says. They did, and Edlin has since expanded the fair to Paris.
Galleries and artists are reviewed before they can be included in the fair. “With outsider art it’s not only important to evaluate the art qualitatively with a vetting committee, but the authenticity of the artist’s background is also crucial,” he says. This means that artists found to have M.F.A.s are excluded. Being self-taught, however, is not the only criterion. “Your grandma might make watercolors and never have attended art school but doing still lifes or landscapes doesn’t make her an outsider artist.”
“It’s more of a mindset,” he adds. “Most of these artists made work without even an audience as part of the equation. To me, what it suggests as much as anything, is non-conformity.”
The view relates directly to Edlin’s experience with music.
“I’ve always been attracted to these singular artists who, whether you like their work or not, are radically individualistic,” he says. “If you hear a line of a Neil Young song, there’s no mistaking who it is. Same with Bob Dylan, who didn’t study voice at Julliard, or the way Jerry Garcia or Hendrix played lead guitar.”
The visual artists he gravitates to have a similar signature style that’s immediately recognizable. “That’s a tall order for any artist but it seems more achievable in outsider art because it’s not based on art historical references,” Edlin says.
At the same time, he adds, “it’s also more accessible because it doesn’t rely on the commonly accepted canons within the art world, which only a small minority are privy to. It’s usually more overtly autobiographical and personal, and subsequently more universal.” This can make outsider art an approachable area of the art world, which like many people, he at first found intimidating.
Perhaps that relatability is partly responsible for what Edlin sees as the increasing inclusion of outsider art in the contemporary art arena, the walls between the two coming down. It’s a development he’s proud to support.
“I sort of relish the perspective of the underdog,” he says. “I’m trying to level the playing field for artists who are deeply talented yet have had a rougher time being seen by a wider audience. I take a lot of pleasure in feeling that it’s my job to represent them.”