When I arrive at Phil Demise Smith’s apartment in Jackson Heights, Queens, I am immediately greeted by a small, long-haired and very excited Chihuahua named Kandinsky. His moniker is an obvious homage to Vasily Kandinsky,1 the twentieth century Russian-born painter, musician, and art-theorist. Through his large figurative and expressive works, Kandinsky—the artist, not the dog—sought a world of emotion and spirit rather than materialism and realism. The same could be said for Phil Demise Smith. In each of his artistic endeavors—and over the years there have been many—Smith has remained a champion of expression beyond labels or establishment.
Kandinsky the dog is not Smith’s first Chihuahua. The pup’s predecessor was named Dubuffet, after Jean Dubuffet, who first coined the term “Art Brut” in 1945. As canine Kandinsky settles at my feet, Smith uses this fact as the launch pad for our conversation exploring Outsider Art as it applies to him.
“Dubuffet was very taken by and interested in people who made art who were not ‘touched by culture.’ These were people who had been locked away in psychiatric hospitals, or prisoners. ‘Art Brut’ literally means ‘Raw Art,’ in French,” Smith explains.
Dubuffet did not look at the work of these patients and prisoners as therapy, but rather as art in its truest form. At the same time, there were many other artists working in a similar way, untrained and outside the establishment, but who had some connection to culture. Thus, Dubuffet developed a second, more inclusive category of art that he called “Neuve Invention,” or New Invention. In 1972, arts critic Roger Cardinal took “Art Brut” and translated it, roughly, into the English broader term “Outsider Art.” According to Cardinal, the Outsider Artist “should be possessed of an expressive impulse and should then externalize that impulse in an unmonitored way which defies conventional art-historical contextualization.”2
As dubious as he is of definitions or labels, this seems as fitting a description for Smith as any.
By training, Smith is a poet; he got his MFA from Bowling Green State University in Ohio. “Poetry has been the foundation of all of my creative acts,” he says. Even with a master’s degree, Smith has always very much done his “own thing.” In 1972, as part of the new wave art scene in New York, Smith began a literary magazine called The Gegenschein Quarterly. This led him to open a performance loft in Chelsea named The Gegenschein Vaudeville Placenter, which he describes as the live version of the magazine. The space hosted collaborative performances by musicians, poets, and artists. Smith also ran poetry readings at CBGBs during the week. Around this time, Smith’s interests branched out into music. His style was, and continues to be, self-taught and primitive. He created the art rock/new wave band, the N. DoDo Band along with an artist named Herm Freeman.
“I always used to kid [Herm] about how lucky he was as a painter,” Smith says, “because I had poetry, and to get someone to read a poem is sometimes a lot of work. They have to see it, they have to read it, they have to try to figure out what you’re saying. But with a painting, you just say, ‘Hey look at this, this is good, huh?’ And they say, ‘Hey, yeah. That’s nice. I like that.’ I thought that was a real advantage artists and painters had.”
And so, in 1987, at forty years old, Smith began painting. “It’s something I just do, along with writing songs, along with writing poetry. To me, it’s just one act. I call it my uni-verse. The one poem I’m writing, including being a father…I do take being a good human being as an art.”
Smith says he never learned to draw, but he knew how to express himself. His work, in any medium from art markers to acrylic to found concrete, is about his expression and whatever inspires him. He has no one style. “Every painting I do is of that moment. I could have a group show myself,” he says with a laugh.
In 1995, Smith again began to organize events, this time focused around arts and crafts. He founded A Gallery @ Wares for Art in Greenwich Village, where he featured his own work as well as the work of other self-taught and folk artists. One day, a man named Willem Vugteveen from the Netherlands came into the gallery and liked what he saw. “Willem was very aware of Outsider Art, and I really started understanding that that was what I was doing,” says Smith.
Under his nonprofit The Mimer Foundation, Vugteveen had been working with psychiatric patients in the Netherlands to create art not as therapy, but, in the tradition of Dubuffet and Art Brut, simply as art. In 1996, Smith worked with Vugteveen as well as Atelier Harenplaats, the first art institute for the mentally handicapped in the Netherlands, to curate and present a group show at Wares for Art. The show was called “The Holland Tunnel.”
“Outsider Art is in actuality the purest form of art,” Smith says. “It is not to make money. It is not to be famous. It’s not to impress the establishment. It is art made from the heart, or from the necessity of just expressing something.”
When I ask him what he looks for when curating a show, representing an artist within his gallery, or even just viewing work, he pauses before saying, “There are really just two things. There are people who make art that I appreciate, and there are people who make art that inspires me. And that’s a different thing. There’s nothing that anyone does that I don’t like. I like that someone is doing it. I think that’s good.”
Pressed further, Smith elaborates that he looks for language, color, composition, and freedom in work. “I love really strange figures,” he says, “which I lean towards in almost everything I do myself.”
Rather than define the work he creates or represents with a category or title, he says it all falls under one, simple label: “Art that I like.” He doesn’t care if someone has training or not, as long as they are expressing themselves.
Of Smith’s work, Gérard Sendrey, also an Outsider Artist and the founder of Musée de la Création Franche in Bégles, France, says, “…there is, in Phil Smith’s conception of the practice of art in his personal, irreducible style, a rejection of all conventions whose precepts one would be expected to respect. Every strictly independent outlook proceeds, thus, from an opinionated resistance to the established order.”
Smith serves on the boards of Pure Vision Arts in New York and Musée de la Création Franche in Bégles, France. Pure Vision Arts is supported under the umbrella of The Shield Institute, and serves as Manhattan’s first specialized art studio and exhibition space for artists with autism and other developmental disabilities. “Création Franche” means “Fresh Creation,” and at Musée de la Création Franche, work is not called “art,” but rather “creation.” Smith finds this term more inclusive and appropriate for not only Outsider Artists, but for anyone who is making something new in a different way. In the fall of 2015, from September through December, Musée de la Création Franche will present a group exhibit entitled Visions et Créations Dissidentes, which will include Pure Vision Artists. As a board member for each organization, Smith was able to act as a matchmaker between the two.
Today, Smith’s gallery, Wares for Art, continues to exist in a virtual space. As a curator and gallery owner, Smith represents artists of Galerie Atelier Herenplaats (Netherlands), artists of Olof Gallery (Netherlands), Gérard Sendrey, Ross Brodar, Charles Keeling Lassiter, Sophie Orlicki and Hans Verschoor. He continues to create his own work at both his studio in Ridgefield, Connecticut and home in Jackson Heights, Queens. On the music front, he currently performs in a band with his two sons called anDna. For the past fifteen years, Smith has also developed and taught a unique curriculum at P.S. 41, The Greenwich Village School. He calls the course “Expression,” rather than art. Students study art history, but the focus is on being inspired and then expressing something original and human, in that moment.
Smith says that getting a label or name, such as Outsider Art, is an important aspect of selling art. That’s how the art world works; it’s part of the business. The term Outsider Art has proven valuable in garnering attention for nontraditional artists, galleries, and art fairs, such as the annual Outsider Art Fair in New York and Paris. However, for the work of a man like Smith, who creates as an artist, poet, musician, curator, teacher, and writer, a label like “Expression” might indeed be the best fit.
1. The artist’s name is sometimes also spelled Wassily Kandinsky.
2. Boyce, Niall. “The Art of Medicine: Outsider Art.” The Lancet. Volume 379. April 21, 2012.