The Outsider Art Fair 2020: 7 Must-See Exhibits

The Outsider Art Fair 2020: 7 Must-See Exhibits

The Outsider Art Fair, up at the Metropolitan Pavilion in Chelsea until Sunday, is still one of the best deals in New York: compact, but filled from edge to edge with things to see. You can brush up on the heroes of the genre — work by self-taught artists — with a stunning Henry Darger panorama at Andrew Edlin at booth D14, and a gorgeous, never-before-shown Martín Ramírez drawing of a cowboy on a rearing purple horse at Ricco/Maresca (A11). You can make new discoveries, like the off-center flower paintings of John Maull at Tierra del Sol (B1), or the eye-grabbing shopping-bag paintings of a retired Peruvian parachute trooper who goes by Judá Ben Hur at Gabby Yamamoto/Espacio (B5).

This year, its 28th in New York, the fair has also introduced a diffident handful of curated booths, including the writer and curator Paul Laster’s Relishing the Raw: Contemporary Artists Collecting Outsider Art (A8), in which Mr. Laster teases out suggestive connections between contemporary artists and their own personal collections: It’s like listening to a British Invasion rocker talk about his favorite blues records. Below are seven of my own favorite booths to get you started, but you’re almost guaranteed, just by setting foot in the door, to find something I overlooked.

Philadelphia’s outsider-art titan anchors the front of the house with a formidable selection of work by well-known artists, most notably a spectacular large drawing by the Swiss legend Adolf Wölfli and a group of pastels by the contemporary Australian artist Julian Martin. Pressing so hard that he builds up a layer of brightly-colored dust, Mr. Martin draws bulbous, organic shapes that call to mind an alien typesetter’s case, or pleasantly squishy toys. The top fifth of Wölfli’s circa 1916 colored-pencil drawing is covered in the curious points and loops of old German cursive, but the rest, filled with roads, color wheels, crosses and masked angels, is like a cutaway cross-section of the view under New Jerusalem. The whole universe is there, but it may not be the universe you know.


Everyone’s moving in Yuichiro Ukai’s pen-and-marker crowd scenes. Dinosaurs are marching left; samurai are walking, riding, or being carried to the right. Only the occasional cartoon character with a head full of red-bean jelly really stops to take in the scene. It makes for a wonderfully varied texture, but also for a surprisingly nuanced and cynical take on the world’s richness: With multiple, overlapping cultures unfolding at the same time, more is going on around you than you imagine — but good luck ever noticing more than a fraction of it.

Most of the fair’s exhibitors are showing multiple artists, but Barron stands out for the self-contained strength of its presentations, most of which could have stood alone: loopy, brilliant acrylics of naked centaurs and coffee cups with breasts by the Tehran-based former professional wrestler Reza Shafahi. The Genoese painter Vera Girivi’s forthright, emotional nudes, in which loose acrylic brushwork orbits precisely expressive eyes. Bold compositions by Winfred Rembert, who learned to tone leather in an Alabama jail. In Mr. Rembert’s rippling panels, crowds of colorfully dressed field hands pick cotton, and men swing hammers on a chain gang. They’re all the heroes of their own stories, but also one another’s context, raising the impulse to fill all available space — a common characteristic of outsider art — to a philosophical pitch.


A few years ago, an antique picker sold the gallerist Duff Lindsay a box of carved wooden figures, blocky but weirdly compelling little men and women with unchanging faces and a range of attitudes and clothes. The picker couldn’t identify them. But eventually, thanks to a single French word carved into one piece and an intuition that the work wasn’t European, Mr. Lindsay traced them to Canada, where a retiree named Cléophas Lachance had built an entire village in his backyard in Lafontaine, Quebec, complete with 300 wooden residents, working streetlights and a brothel. From their wood-shaving hair to their little metal glasses, this booth’s selection of visitors from “Le Village Historique du Nord” is not be missed.

I was surprised to find Vivian Maier at the fair, but of course I shouldn’t have been. Maier, who worked as a nanny in Chicago for most of her adult life, shot thousands of photographs of street scenes, architecture and herself, but she left most of them undeveloped and died in 2009 unknown. It’s the quintessential outsider story. But you’d be hard pressed to find anything naïve or unpolished about the work itself. An empty milk glass sitting on a stoop alongside a takeout soup container, in one gorgeous black-and-white shot, seems like a high-concept meditation on the nature of marriage; an image of a dispirited young couple leaning against the wall at a party, looking in opposite directions as she fiddles with the strings of three balloons, has at least one novel in it, if not a whole series. (According to the gallery director Karen Marks, a lawsuit about Maier’s estate has been settled, and the photographs are back on the market, with a commission from each sale going into an escrow account managed by Cook County, Ill.)


After retiring as a San Francisco municipal bus driver, Robert Kippur (1944-2015) moved to New York and began making enormous, expressionist paintings in a Chelsea loft, ultimately landing on an extreme style of volatile colors and inch-thick, grainy impasto. Four of the five large canvases in this booth’s compelling exhibit date back to the 1980s, though, when the painter’s clanging hellscapes were thinner and more fresh. Motley figures wrestle and dance on what look like blood-red stages and walkways of ice, their colors and features not exactly clashing, but not quite in harmony, either: They’re riots of autonomous details.

The Shipibo artists Sara Flores and Celia Vasquez Yui, both of whom live in the Peruvian Amazon, work with patterns traditionally used for clothing and associated with various healing plants. Ms. Flores’s four large ink-on-cotton paintings, covered in repetitive mazes of thin black lines, are strangely soothing, like quiet serial music. Ten gorgeous ceramic animals, made by Ms. Vasquez Yui, are charming and mysterious, particularly a self-possessed black snake and a dignified squirrel holding out one paw. You want to get to know them better, but you’re not sure they return the feeling. (Curated by the Noguchi Museum’s Brett Littman and the Shipibo Conibo Center.)

Outsider Art Fair

Friday through Sunday, Metropolitan Pavilion, 125 West 18th Street, 212-463-0071;

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