Art Brut gets deeper into the market



It might seem paradoxical, but Art Brut (or Outsider Art) is increasingly moving in from the art world’s margins to become an emerging segment of the art market in its own right. Caught up by history, embraced by numerous art professionals (gallerists, critics and curators) and released from the straightjacket of dedicated museums (Paris’s Pompidou Center has a work by Séraphine DE SENLIS in its permanent exhibition), Art Brut has significantly expanded its audience of enthusiasts.
New York’s Outsider Art Fair – the latest edition of which just closed (21-24 January 2016) – has undoubtedly contributed much to the emergence of this category. Now in its 24th year, the Fair is well established in the New York schedule and has even sprouted a Parisian branch that is now in its third year.
At the end of January, Christie’s decided to harmonise its calendar with the Outsider Art Fair by organising its first-ever sale dedicated to the genre under the title Liberation Through Expression: Outsider and Vernacular Art (New York, 22 January 2016). Considering Christie’s position as the world’s most powerful auction company, its decision to develop this market (the announcement of the sale also revealed plans for a similar dedicated sale in Paris) represents a mini-revolution in the art market.

A selection of artists to follow…

Art Brut already has its auction stars, particularly Henry J. DARGER, Adolf WÖLFLI, Bill TRAYLOR, Martin RAMIREZ, William L. HAWKINS and James CASTLE. On 2 December 2014 a drawing by Darger electrified Christie’s Parisian sales room when it exceeded its high estimate by no less than $400,000. The large scale double-sided drawing (3.3 metres long) fetched the equivalent of $749,500, a new record in the Art Brut category. But Christie’s did even better this year in New York with a limestone sculpture by William EDMONDSON that sold for $785,000 against an estimate of $150,000 – 250,000 (Boxer, c. 1936). So Outsider Art is gradually getting closer to the million-dollar threshold. However, Christie’s has no plans to “flood” the market; its January 22 sale was intended as a test with only 44 lots in the catalogue. At $1.5 million, its total turnover was nowhere near the totals generated by its major prestige sales, but it was a good start. Some of the works elicited genuine bidding battles including a drawing by George WIDENER (an American artist diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome) which doubled its estimate to fetch $22,500. That was his first work ever submitted to auction. Widener was particularly fascinated by dates and numbers and the drawing suggests a complex network of temporal interconnections surrounding the sinking of the Titanic, whose 100th birthday would have coincided with his 50th birthday. Given his contribution in the field of Art Brut, the emergence of George Widener seems quite logical. Two other artists (with previous auction exposure) posted respectable results in the light of their already high price standings: a drawing by Martín Ramírez sold within its estimate for $75,000 and a work by Bill Traylor fetched $50,000 (Three Figures with Dog, Bird and Construction).

The other advantage of the Christie’s sale was of course its general affordability: a drawing by Scottie WILSON sold within its estimated range at $2,250 (Untitled, c. 1945) and another by Justin MCCARTHY fetched $1,500 (Tournament of Roses, c. 1965). In fact 10 lots sold for under $5,000.

Nowadays Outsider artists – who didn’t seek to be recognized as such in the art world – have become part of the art universe, carried by the genuine enthusiasm of American and European collectors. Buyers of Art Brut are no longer exclusively focused on that category, and collections are becoming increasingly mixed, enhancing the quality of an intuitive relationship to the world.