Outsider Art: An Issue of Nomenclature

Why (not) Chicago?

Chicago has evolved into the center for the recognition, scholarship, promotion, collection, and exhibition of non-mainstream art, historically and institutionally as well as geographically [Ed. Note: Such recognition and collection began in earnest in the 1980s].

The city is the southern node of an axis of artistic inclusion along Lake Michigan’s western shoreline, culturally and regionally connected to Milwaukee and Sheboygan, Wisconsin. The Milwaukee Art Museum and John Michael Kohler Arts Center, respectively, have embraced folk, self-taught and vernacular art through exceptional collections and exhibitions.

A brief overview of Chicago’s postwar-to-the-present art history helps set the stage for Chicago’s receptivity to art from outside the academic mainstream. In his exhibition, “Art in Chicago: Resisting Regionalism, Transforming Modernism” (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 2006) Robert Cozzolino wrote about artists, and the city, and succinct summation, “anti-mainstream instincts” as “the leitmotif of 20th century art in Chicago.”

While Chicagoans had firsthand access to what has been considered canonical modernism, its art world consistently fostered assertive individuality rather than a codified style as a measure of modernity. Chicago artists, critics, and collectors valued risk-taking and a dedication to authentic self-expression as evidence of an avant-garde mindset. Many of the city’s artists derided the emulation of fashionable trends and established styles, organizing alternative groups to aggressively reject the status quo. They expected innovative form but demanded that art convey an emotional intensity that approached the visceral.1

We can look to the histories and legacies of the Art Institute of Chicago and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), and the city’s cultural climate of risk-taking. Origins of the environment of inclusion must include the renowned art historian and educator, Helen Gardner (1878–1946), known for her radical Art Through the Ages, the first history of world art in one volume, published in 1926 (with many successive versions).

In teaching the history of art at SAIC, her approach was to encourage artists to focus on the aesthetic details of the art of the past before learning the historical details and to study art history so they could be their own art critics. Professor Harold Allen recalled his beloved teacher and colleague in his essay “Helen Gardner: Quiet Rebel”:

“Gardner was in the vanguard of a generation of art historians who learned to appreciate not only modern art with all its surprises but also primitive, aboriginal, and folk art, and the previously overlooked arts of Russia and Hispanic America, which, in spite of high aesthetic quality, had been largely disdained by earlier scholars.”2

In the same essay, Allen described Gardner’s protégé, artist and art historian Kathleen Blackshear, who taught at SAIC from 1926 to 1961:

“Where Miss Gardner was solid in Classical and Renaissance, Miss Blackshear was an enthusiastic missionary for Modern and Primitive. Together they taught History of Art to a generation of SAIC students.”3

Blackshear was a progressive teacher who encouraged her students in expansive studies and to explore cultures and genres outside their own, particularly non-Western cultures. Following in Gardner’s and Blackshear’s footsteps, artist/art historian Whitney Halstead and artist Ray Yoshida were profoundly influential as artists, teachers, prescient thinkers, and collectors who exposed students to a wealth of non-mainstream art as art, unqualified.

Longtime art critic and booster of Chicago art, James Yood (1952–2018), encapsulated the cultural, intellectual, art historical placeness of Chicago to which these educators and many others contributed, writing:

“…it all comes down to an expanded consciousness of what constitutes culture here, the sense that its possibilities are everywhere embedded in lives all around us, that culture is not something that sits on its ass in a museum, its status confirmed by professional cognoscenti, but can happen anytime anywhere, with its greatest energies coming from the streets, not the boulevards.”4



Reflecting on the historical receptivity of Chicago’s people and institutions to art from beyond the academically-sanctioned, self-identified center, the question, “Why so many great self-taught artists lived and worked in Chicago?” is often raised. The short answer is: non-mainstream artists live and work in many ­places, but art from outside the academic mainstream has been recognized and, to varying degrees, robustly embraced in Chicago and the Midwest. The exhibition history supports this receptivity.

An extensive (albeit likely incomplete) exhibition chronology, from 1941 to 2018, can be found in Chicago Calling: Art Against the Flow (2018, Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, 158–169). An incomplete list of extraordinarily original non-mainstream artists that lived and worked in Chicago and the vicinity includes Henry Darger, William Dawson, Lee Godie, David Philpot, Aldo Piacenza, Pauline Simon, Drossos Skyllas, Gregory Warmack (known as Mr. Imagination), Derek Webster, Wesley Willis, and Joseph Yoakum.

This is not to mention the large number of artists from beyond Chicago whose work has been exhibited, interpreted, and collected in the city, including the internationally acclaimed artists Emery Blagdon, James Castle, Sister Gertrude Morgan, Horace Pippin, Bill Traylor, Martin Ramiréz, and Adolf Wölfli, to name just a few. Many of the Chicago-area artists became ensconced, to varying degrees, in Chicago’s elastic art scene, and several have become known, appreciated, exhibited, and collected in wider national and international spheres. Being outside the mainstream need not always imply ignorance of it. A few of the above-mentioned artists, particularly Godie, Skyllas, and Simon, had magnetic relationships to the Art Institute of Chicago, reframing the supposed impassible chasm between non-mainstream artists and the academy.


The Collectors and Collections

Many Chicago artists have engaged with all manner of folk art, objects from material culture, and non-mainstream art. A kind of “artist’s museum” collecting sensibility emanated from the SAIC, where assembling collections of source materials and living with objects of interest in great density was encouraged. In Chicago, this legacy is preserved and still performing at SAIC’s Roger Brown Study Collection, which Brown referred to as the Artists’ Museum of Chicago.

Yoshida, who preferred the identity of responder, rather than collector, assembled an outstanding home collection, which he dubbed the Museum of Extraordinary Values. Yoshida’s collection was the progenitor of Roger Brown’s and likely many other artists’ collections and is preserved at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center (Sheboygan, Wisconsin).

Collectors have played and continue to play a critical role in the self-taught scene in Chicago. Myriad private collections are filled with work by self-taught, outsider, and folk art from many cultures. There’s a very non-formal, non-Miesian, living-with-art approach that favors salon-style, more-is-more arrangements, where genres are mixed and objects are in conversation.


What to call it

Definitions for non-mainstream art vary widely and have recently evolved, as the approach to art from places other than the academy, or not specifically made for a mainstream art audience, is being reconsidered and recalibrated in an attempt to rectify the many descriptors. While it would simplify matters to sidestep the issue of designation, a discussion of the terms is necessary to understanding this tradition's history in Chicago. “Self-taught” and “outsider” have been the most widely used and debated.

The term “self-taught,” introduced by the New York art dealer, Sidney Janis, in his 1942 book, They Taught Themselves,5 is the most benign of the many terms in use. It’s arguable that all artists are to a certain extent self-taught, and those with academic training aren’t fully formed and determined by their studies or their exposure to the history of art and contemporary practices. Indeed, the artistic process itself is not inherently formulaic, and all good artists rely on internal wellsprings of individuality and intuition.

The term “outsider,” introduced unwittingly by the British art historian Roger Cardinal in 1972,6 was intended as an English equivalent for Jean Dubuffet’s term art brut, referring to artists who are uninformed by mainstream culture due to a variety of circumstances, in many cases confinement due to psychiatric illness or developmental disability. The term has been used indiscriminately and comes under particular fire as an exclusionary term, implying a false dichotomy devised by self-identified insiders, who control the terms of engagement, and so-called outsiders, who in most cases neither choose to engage nor self-identify as outsiders.

Most art from other genres isn’t hobbled by the question of what to call it or where to place it in the scheme of the larger art world(s), and nor do definitions for other genres and categories cause more confusion than clarity. The firewall between self-taught and academic art, never completely effective, is becoming more porous. Currently condoned terms include “non-mainstream,” “outlier,” and just plain art/artists, which I prefer. Peter Schjeldahl, in his New Yorker review “Old South: The extraordinary work of Bill Traylor” (October 8, 2018, p. 76) wrote:

“How should Traylor’s art be categorized? What won’t do are the romantic or patronizing epithets of ‘outsider’ or ‘self-taught,’ which belong to a fading time of urges to police the frontiers of high culture. These terms are philosophically incoherent. All authentic artists buck prevailing norms and develop, on their own, what matters in their art.”


Curator Lynne Cooke wrote:

“No all-embracing, neutral descriptor fits its wildly eclectic creators. ‘Self-taught’ has been ubiquitous largely because of its straightforward descriptive tenor… Each of the monikers identifying it subsets—folk, ‘modern primitive,’ naïve, visionary, vernacular, isolate, outsider, and more—is also problematic or inadequate. Why then, do I introduce, as I propose to do, yet another—‘outlier’—into this minefield of nomenclature? The specifics of time and place are always relevant to both the choice of a term and how it is expected to perform. To the basic dictionary definition of ‘beyond the statistical norm’ should be added colloquial inflections in current usage: typically today’s outlier is a mobile individual who has gained recognition by means at variance with expected channels and protocols. Having no past usage in the field and so not freighted with negative associations that cling to so many earlier terms, ‘outlier’ is also unmistakably of our era; it situations the project in the present.7

Outlier/Outliers was formally introduced 10 months ago, and it’s too early to determine if it will supplant any or all of the other terms. I have argued for years to use “artist” unqualified, and then consider an artist’s work and situate in contexts, as is necessary, to understand and interpret it. I would make one exception and refer to Chicago’s own Lee Godie—as she described herself—as a French Impressionist.


This essay is culled from the longer essay, “Chicago Called, Artists Answered,” co-authored by Stone and Kenneth C. Burkhart, in the exhibition catalogue, Chicago Calling: Art Against the Flow, accompanying the exhibition of the same title now at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, through January 6, 2019, which then travels to Paris, Heidelberg, Lausanne, and Amsterdam.


Lisa Stone is curator of the Roger Brown Study Collection and senior lecturer in the Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism, both at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.



1  Robert Cozzolino, “Chicago’s Modernism,” Art in Chicago: Resisting Regionalism, Transforming Modernism (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 2007), 10.

2  Harold Allen, “Helen Gardner: Quiet Rebel,” Lisa Stone and Jim Zanzi, Sacred Spaces and Other Places: A Guide to the Grottos and Sculptural Environments of the Upper Midwest, (Chicago: The School of the Art Institute of Chicago Press, 1993), 158-9.

3  Ibid.

4  James Yood, “Chicago The Place,” Take Me To The River (Chicago: Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, 2006), unpaginated.

5  Sidney Janis, They Taught Themselves: American Primitive Painters in the 20th Century (New York: Dial Press, 1942).

6  Roger Cardinal, Outsider Art (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1972).

7  Lynne Cooke, “Boundary Trouble: Navigating Margin and Mainstream,” Outliers and American Vanguard Art. (2018, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, National Gallery of Art), 3-4.



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