When I learned that this year’s Outsider Art Fair was going to happen in person as well as online, little feelings of hope started to rise inside me. This past year, despair was a word that could describe the art world—well, the whole world. As months passed after the complete shutdown of Broadway, the Museum of Modern Art, the New York City Ballet and many other cultural institutions in New York and around the country, the idea of having an art fair in person felt like a fantasy. One by one, the biggest art fairs in the world went online. Then, a slightly smaller, more independent art fair did the impossible: It opened in New York City, in person (and online, too).
Founded in New York in 1993, the Outsider Art Fair concentrates specifically on self-taught art, presenting works by acknowledged masters as well as living artists. In 2012, gallerist Andrew Edlin acquired the fair, and, for many years, the Outsider Art Fair took place at the Metropolitan Pavilion in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood. This year, instead of the pavilion, the fair took place in five different locations around town, with reserved timeslots required.
Thursday, January 28, the day came. Rather than just changing my pajama shirt to look like I’m wearing real clothes on Zoom, I changed my whole outfit. Who would have thought my skinny jeans still fit after ten months of constant eating? I got ready as if I was on my way to the hottest party in the city. Well, when you think about it, I was on my way to the hottest party in the city.
My first stop was the Andrew Edlin Gallery. After all, he is the mastermind behind the fair. I was way too early, so I walked around the block a few times just to arrive at the door exactly at noon when the fair officially opened. The first room presented Figure Out: Abstraction in Self-Taught Art. The exhibition challenged the preconception that outsider artists solely work representationally as storytellers. Abstract shapes and colors covered the walls. Immediately, I was drawn to a piece by Don Miller, Untitled, Ink on paper.
I felt like this is where I start, this is where I am, this is where we all are. The paper was crumpled in a way that added many layers to the work. As I wandered through the gallery, more of Miller’s art filled me with happiness. I saw a piece by Tom Bronk that made me smile, as well. Even the works that were less colorful were full of excitement. Eugene Von Bruenchenhein created a beautiful story with his drawing. I could stand there for long minutes staring at his masterpiece.
The next stop was just across the street at Freeman’s Alley. At the end of the alley, there is a small gallery called Salon 94. For the fair, the gallery, which usually shows contemporary art, presented Semiotic Terrain: Art from Australia and New Zealand. The gallery associate at the reception told me the founder is a friend of Andrew Edlin and when he suggested she host a show for the Outsider Art Fair, she immediately said yes. If this is an opportunity to bring people back to the art, everyone seems to be all for it. While the associate chatted, I took in the art.
My attention was snagged by a sun, a work by Yukultjl Napangati, Untitled, Acrylic on linen. This piece was so vibrant it seemed to light up the entire room. Alongside it, there were works by Julian Martin that brought out the outsider sense: paintings of a baby bottle, an egg, a doll and a heart. I loved the simplicity, but I loved more that it brought me joy. Finally, there was work by Susan Te Kahurangi King, an artist who stopped speaking at the age of four. Her drawings are part whimsical, part haunting, but, hey, this is exactly where our world is right now.
Off to the next stop, I took the subway for the first time in who knows how long. It felt good and surprisingly safe. Just when the Beatles’ song Come Together started playing in my earphones, I arrived at Shin Gallery.
The gallery presented three different exhibitions for the fair. The main one, Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning, featured art by Gee’s Bend quilters, Thornton Dial, Emitte Hych and more. One piece immediately captured my eye, an untitled work by Rosena Finister. Although obvious in its subject matter, it warmed my heart to see how the artist captured the “home” in a way that fit perfectly these days. The gloomy winter became a floral spring where, in between, a warm yellow home will keep you safe. I also liked an untitled wooden sculpture by Bessie Harvey; it was covered with glitter. Who could resist glitter on such a day?
The second exhibition, The Realm of Minnie Evans, featured a body of work from the ‘60s, and it drew inspiration from the art of China and incorporated motifs from the art of the Caribbean. The beautiful display gave the exhibition a feel of something spiritual and heavenly. The paintings were rich with colors and texture that it was hard to believe they were made by hand.
The third exhibition—I didn’t realize the Lower East Side had such large galleries—was called Small World; it was a group exhibition featuring dozens of self-taught artists with works that were six inches or less in scale. The display looked like many collections at once. On one side was a group of works depicting women and, on the other side, what looked to me like a wooden battlefield.
Next, I jumped in a cab to my final exhibition of the day: Daniel Johnston: Psychedelic Drawings. I knew this block on 8th Street, and I knew there was no gallery there. I couldn’t wait to see what space was showing the exhibition. Electric Lady Studios is a legendary recording studio in New York City; Jimi Hendrix founded the studio in 1969. I was in disbelief. There I was, walking the hallways of the renowned studio. I explored the control room, the recording area and the green room. For the week of the fair, the studio walls featured 30 works by the late musician and self-taught artist Daniel Johnston. Johnston’s drawings were full of humor but did not neglect social meaning. His art had a definitive voice; you could almost hear him speak through his drawings. They fit perfectly with the rock ‘n’ roll vibes in the studio.
Before I knew it, it was time for me to return home. The experience felt a bit like a Cinderella ending to a perfect day. I went out to the street to find my pumpkin carriage to take me back home. But, unlike Cinderella, this ride felt hopeful. New York City is alive, strong and standing. The arts will be back in one way or the other, and we have artists to lift us up. We have the arts to keep the world moving, pushing forward even if, at the moment, you only have one glass slipper on and the other foot is stepping on the cold, dirty sidewalk.
Written by administrative intern Udi Urman, who lives in and works for Intuit remotely from New York City, New York.
Intuit was an institutional partner of the Outsider Art Fair New York 2021. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the fair included limited in-person experiences at five New York host galleries in addition to a robust online platform. The Outsider Art Fair opened to VIP attendees on Thursday, January 28, and the public on Friday, January 29, and closed to all on Sunday, February 7.