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Evolving Identities: the Bonovitz Collection

Collectors can play many different roles in the art world – patron, tastemaker, advocate, investor. In the evolving world of outsider art, these roles hold an even greater significance. In a field largely at odds with how to discuss, describe, foster, and exhibit work, collectors play an enormous role in the future of how all outsider art is perceived. For Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz, a Philadelphia-based couple who collect outsider art, their embrace of this role originated in personal taste and has developed into a desire to share this kind of work with as many people as possible.

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Bill Traylor, “Runaway Goat Cart,” Opaque Watercolor and Graphite on Cream Card, 1939-1942. Image courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In 1982, the Bonovitzes visited “Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1982,” an exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery. Particularly moved by the work of Bill Traylor and Sister Gertrude Morgan, they began casually acquiring outsider art. “We had never thought of the pieces as some coherent collection,” Jill Bonovitz says. It wasn’t until a friend pointedly asked if they were becoming collectors that they began to focus more on what they were acquiring, she said. “We only buy the best examples of each person’s work.”

Thirty years later, their collection of American outsider art stands as one of the best in the world, and a promised gift to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Reflecting a fascination with narrative, ecstatic detail, and unique approaches to figuration, the Bonovitz collection is a testament to the powerful vision of a select group of artists – from James Castle to Joseph Yoakum and Martin Ramirez to Lee Godie. It is also a wonderful example of a selective and organic process of collection. Absent are some big names, like Henry Darger, who for whatever reason did not strike a chord. For the Bonovitzes, amassing the work was a natural process. They describe feeling a “resonance” with the pieces they chose to acquire, and are largely motivated by personal attraction. Jill’s background in the arts (a ceramic artist, she is the daughter of Philadelphia collector Janet Fleisher) and Sheldon’s enthusiasm for purchasing art (“Sheldon’s a real collector – he’s got that bug,” Jill says) motivated the growth of the collection, most of which is currently housed in the law offices of Duane Morris (where Sheldon is Chairman Emeritus) and in their Philadelphia apartment.

James Castle, "Blue Handled Pitcher" © (side), Thin Cardboard, String, Washes, Wax Crayon, and Traces of Graphite. Image Courtesy of James Castle Collection and Archive.

James Castle, “Blue Handled Pitcher” (side), Thin Cardboard, String, Washes, Wax Crayon, and Traces of Graphite. Image Courtesy of James Castle Collection. © 2013 James Castle Collection and Archive LP, All Rights Reserved.

This speaks to their approach to the work, seen as something relational rather than purely objects of admiration. Waiting for the elevator at 30 South 17th street – a massive office building in downtown Philadelphia – visitors find themselves face-to-face with an epic kantha, a traditional Bengali embroidered quilt, one of the only non-American artworks in their collection. Upstairs, a conference room houses Simon Sparrow’s Assemblage of Faces, a nine-foot long bas relief composed of a riot of tiny materials – shells, beads, plastic figurines, glass ephemera – which come together in a number of strange, expressive faces. “They just didn’t know what was what when it first got there,” Jill describes. “Slowly they grew to really appreciate it. One lawyer in particular started collecting and has a huge collection now. Several of Sheldon’s clients started collecting after seeing it there. It opened a lot of eyes.” A few Sam Doyle paintings are arranged near a cluster of cubicles, along with James Castle bundles. John Serl’s “Family Band” greets office visitors in the reception area above a cluster of chairs.

Jon Serl, "Four Birds," Oil Paint on Reverse of Color Printed (Forest Scene) Fiberboard. Image courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Jon Serl, “Four Birds,” Oil Paint on Reverse of Color Printed (Forest Scene) Fiberboard. Image courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Beyond a desire to have the work exhibited, the Bonovitzes have also worked to raise awareness of outsider artists and encourage scholarly investigation of the work. They opened the Foundation for Self-Taught American Artists in 2006 with a desire to produce documentary films on the artists they collect. Only one film was completed before the Foundation was dissolved in 2013, but the resulting project is an in-depth, comprehensive look into the life of James Castle. The film visits Castle’s home in rural Idaho, introduces us to his remaining relatives, and illustrates firsthand the environment that his work came out of.

In 2013, to welcome the Bonovitz’ planned gift to the museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art showcased their collection in Great and Mighty Things. Thoughtfully and meticulously curated by Cara Zimmerman of the Bonovitz’ foundation and the PMA’s Ann Percy, the exhibition showcased the work of twenty seven artists, broken up by artist into a series of alcoves in a large, long gallery space. The first room contained the impossibly fragile oven-baked ceramic and chicken bone sculptures of Eugene Von Bruenchenheim, lit dramatically to emphasize their distinctive, unique silhouettes. These intricate delicate pieces were juxtaposed with S.L. Jones’ “Preacher and His Wife”, hardy, rough-hewn painted wood sculptures. This evocative pairing set the stage for the entirety of Great and Mighty Things, which housed such a wide range of materials, techniques, and artistic sensibilities that it was easy to wonder how they might belong to the same exhibition at all. The intentionally modern and stripped-down exhibition display was only embellished by large placards next to each artist’s work with well-researched biographies. “We wanted it to be an issue of discovery,” Zimmerman writes in the exhibition materials. “For most people, these artists aren’t known and we wanted people to be able to just encounter them as they wanted to.”

Eugene Von Bruenchenhein. "Chicken Bone Tower," Chicken and Turkey Bones, Seeds, Paint, Wire, and Glue 34" x 11" x 9 1/2". Image courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. © Estate of Eugene Von Bruenchenhein.

Eugene Von Bruenchenhein. “Chicken Bone Tower,” Chicken and Turkey Bones, Seeds, Paint, Wire, and Glue 34″ x 11″ x 9 1/2″. Image courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. © Estate of Eugene Von Bruenchenhein.

The decision to organize the collection by artist, and to include a wealth of biographical information on the artists alongside their work, was mulled over by all involved. “We wanted to keep each artist separate,” Zimmerman says of the installation. “The artists are very distinct. They don’t conform to style or particular movements, and beyond that have nothing to do with each other. Many people think bringing the biography to the forefront obscures the work, but I don’t happen to believe this. People don’t know about these artists, and a lot of the way the market developed was through an interest in their stories.”

Nonetheless, as a collector Jill Bonovitz believes the work preempts the biographies of the creators. “I think the most important thing is the work,” she says. “I think that knowing the stories of the artists makes it more meaningful for a lot of people, and the stories are certainly fascinating but I think the art has to stand up on its own, regardless of seeing where it was made.

This contradiction is at the heart of some major stumbling blocks in the handling of outsider art – is knowing the stories of artists contributing to an understanding of their work, or is it overshadowing the powerful aesthetics of the art itself? Is it feeding into a pseudo-anthropological interest in the spectacle of often troubled life stories, sensationalizing the artist in a way that is ultimately harmful to the work itself? Curator Percy bemoans the inadequacies of the term “outsider” for the artists represented in the exhibition. “We bounce around all kind of terminology, but nothing really works.” Percy says. “These artists are in a kind of parallel, but not identical, stream of operations to contemporary artists. It is problematic for this work to be defined by the biographies of its makers. Identities evolve; labels can be outgrown.” In a symposium called “Outsider Art and the Mainstream,” held at the PMA during the run of the exhibition, Smithsonian curator Leslie Umberger described her own experience with exhibiting outsider art at the Kohler Art Center in Sheboygan, WI. While describing the term outsider as a “bitter pill” that is collectively accepted, she maintains that her experience at Kohler proved the importance of articulating an artists’ backgrounds in a discussion of their work. Neglecting to do so would compromise the work in some ways because what drives an artist to work, or how they conceptualize it to themselves, is integral to the work, she argued.

William Edmondson, "Horse with Short Tail," Limestone. Image courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

William Edmondson, “Horse with Short Tail,” Limestone. Image courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Aside from being a strong selection of artists and a remarkable display of talent and ingenuity, the Bonovitz collection has the potential to change the way outsider art is understood in contemporary museum culture. Its future ownership by the PMA comes along with an agreement that the work will be regularly exhibited alongside other artists in their broad collection. In other words, the work may never again be exhibited as part of an “outsiders only” exhibition. “It was important that it not be segregated out, only shown as outsider art, that it be shown as any art would be,” Jill says of that decision.

Although the collection is a really great articulation of 19th century outsider art, there is only one piece here by a living artist, George Widener, who is by far the most contemporary of all the artists included. This is due to the widespread perception that there are no more outsider artists to discover. In the past this has been attributed to the advance of technology and the impossibility of complete cultural isolation.

Sheldon and Jill Bonovitz in their living room in Philadelphia, 2009. Photograph by Graydon Wood. Image courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Sheldon and Jill Bonovitz in their living room in Philadelphia, 2009. Photograph by Graydon Wood. Image courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

“It’s really hard to be a self-taught artist now. When these artists were working they had no means of knowing what was going on in the world and now there’s no way not to know what’s going on,” Jill Bonovitz says. “There are people who are making wonderful art, like Judith Scott or George Widener. But it was the real thing before. Now, I’m a little suspicious of it.”

These questions make the future of outsider art unclear – whether it will be led by artists like Widener and Scott, or whether the label could be degraded into a catch-all style that could become its own marketing tool. But in whatever direction it leads, its development in the 20th century will remain clearer thanks to the labors of collectors like the Bonovitzes.