There are only a few more hours of the presidency of Barack Obama, so why not go by the Outsider Art Fair, now in its 25th year in New York, and take in the gathering of galleries showing work by under-appreciated and self-taught artists? A brisk walkthrough today, during the VIP early access preview, allowed for a fleeting sense of relief that—even as the incoming administration is threatening to cut the budgets of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities—a merry band of outré art dealers from the world over can still come together to celebrate this gloriously fringe, decidedly more anti-market slice of the fair landscape.
“It’s the only fair of its kind,” said Andrew Edlin, the dealer who purchased the fair in 2012, and maintains a booth there for his Bowery space, Andrew Edlin Gallery.
“All the satellite fairs, they show work that’s more or less interchangeable,” he went on. “The artists here aren’t indebted to the influence of the art market, they aren’t indebted to certain art schools. These artists never had access to that—and, if you look around, clearly they didn’t needed it.”
Edlin was standing outside of his booth, at the far end of the Metropolitan Pavilion, an event space on the eastern outskirts of Chelsea. On offer were works by Henry Darger—perhaps the most prominent figure in the folk art universe—as well as a large work by Ralph Fasenella, who found fame in 1972 when New York magazine put him on the cover with this display copy: “This man pumps gas in the Bronx for a living. He may also be the best primitive painter since Grandma Moses.”
The Fasenella, Lane Goddess (1964), was on sale for $215,000, and a work by Adolph Wölfli—the Swiss laborer and farmhand who became one of the most important Art Brut figures—was on sale for $145,000.
Also in the Andrew Edlin booth: the artist and provocateur Maurizio Cattelan, who is not an outsider artist by any measure. Not only is he world-famous, he tends to make objects of a slightly different tenor. There are no toilets made out of pure gold at the Outsider Art Fair.
“I’ve seen some very interesting stuff, but haven’t bought anything yet,” Cattelan told me. “Catch me at the end of the fair!”
And then he zipped off in his bright-colored sneakers.
(Cattelan’s dealer, Marian Goodman, was also making the rounds, though it looked like they arrived separately.)
Elsewhere at the fair, Carl Solway Gallery of Cincinnati had a few works by the 1960s psychedelic art pioneer Isaac Abrams, wonderfully loopy depictions of your brain on drugs, specifically LSD. One work, Apres Hello Dali (1965), was on sale for $50,000, and is the companion work to Hello Dalí (1965), which Abrams made after running into Salvador Dalí at the Chelsea Hotel. Sounds like a party.
Apres Hello Dali was still available Thursday afternoon, while Hello Dalí is currently touring the country with “Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia,” which opens at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive in California in February.
It seemed inevitable that some work here would address the incoming presidential administration. Plenty did, directly or obliquely, including a work by Harry Underwood, He’s Not My President, which was on sale at the Lindsay Gallery booth for $4,500. It shows men and woman jumbled together, some in various states of undress, accompanied by written political statements. A few: “Save the EPA save the children,” “Stop Trump Out Out Out!,” “Shrinking land mass,” “DO NOT OBEY.”
On the lighter side of things were Michael Pellew’s always charming caricatures over at the LAND Gallery booth, which this year included a sketch of the actor and Broadway legend Harvey Fierstein. “Harvey Firestein’s [sic] here, rock on,” the text in a speech bubble reads. And then, strangely enough… Harvey Fierstein was there.
“I’m circling, I’m circling, but haven’t bought anything yet,” he said in his legendary gravel voice. “I paint, and I collect stuff from Coney Island—folk art, carnival stuff, stuff like that. And this is all wonderful.”
I asked if he had seen the drawing of himself.
“It was pointed out to me,” he said, and let out that iconic cackle. “I’m just glad they spelled my name wrong!”