RAW VISIONS THE AMERICAN VISIONARY ART MUSEUM; Outsider art: Museum raises the question: What is visionary art, and who makes it?


Visionary art is hot in America today. Museums buy it. Major collectors have sprung up. Prices have risen. And on Friday, the American Visionary Art Museum will open at the Inner Harbor.

The product of a decade of hopes and hard work by Baltimorean Rebecca Hoffberger, AVAM stands to be prominent internationally. "It will be world famous," predicts John Maizels, who publishes the London-based magazine of visionary art Raw Vision.

But even as it opens, probably most Americans have never heard of visionary art, and few could define it. What is visionary art, anyway, and who makes it?

A museum definition calls it the "art produced by self-taught individuals independent of the influence of mainstream art.... The visual product is a striking personal statement possessing a powerful, often spiritual quality. Prominent among the creators of visionary art are the mentally ill, the disabled, and the elderly. Their art exemplifies the human capacity to overcome difficulty through creative response."

Maizels defines it as an art produced by "self-taught, untutored people who work from a compulsion to create, not to sell. It's a sort of creation that comes genuinely from within, without any external stimulus."

"Visionary art comes from people who suddenly feel an inexplicable need to make something, and don't know why they're doing it," says Roger Manley, curator of the AVAM's first show, "The Tree of Life."

L Maybe definitions can't explain it as well as real examples.

It's the art of Martin Ramirez, a destitute Mexican immigrant who lost the power of speech and in 1930 was placed in a California mental institution. Twenty years later he began to draw on

scraps of paper pasted together with mashed potatoes. His intricate, colored drawings depicted tunnels, trains, animals and cowboys on stage-like spaces. For a while he had to hide his work from the hospital staff, who would destroy it.

But it came to the attention of a doctor, and later of Chicago artist Jim Nutt, who organized a show. Ramirez died in 1960, leaving behind 300 drawings that have made him one of the best known visionary artists.

It's the art of Joseph Yoakum, born on a Navajo Indian reservation about 1888. At 15, he ran away and subsequently traveled the world as a stowaway, finally ending up in Chicago in 1962. There, in his 70s, inspired by a dream, he began making drawings of landscapes that were a blend of travel memories and imagination. After he died in 1972, he was given an exhibition at New York's Whitney Museum.

It's the art of Howard Finster, who produces what are called "environments" - large works that may cover acres. Beginning in the 1960s, Finster created a "Paradise Garden" in Pennville, Ga., which includes everything from plants to religious statuettes and hubcaps. Unlike many visionary artists, Finster, now 79, has become famous in his lifetime, even appearing on "The Tonight Show."

The most famous environment in America, however, is the work of Simon Rodia, an Italian immigrant construction worker who lived in California. In 1921 he bought a lot in the Watts section of Los Angeles, and over 33 years he created an environment of towers almost 100 feet tall, made of reinforced concrete and decorated with ceramics, glass and tile. In 1954 he walked away from his creation. He died in 1965 and his work is now famous as the Watts Towers. It's listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Like Rodia, visionary artists typically have no formal training, no thought of selling their work, and can't help making art. Sometimes they are institutionalized, but often they are not.

Tangible work

"It most often comes from people who had some kind of job where you could see a tangible result at the end of a day's work - a logger or farmer or textile worker," says Manley. "People whose sense of self is identified with the amount of work they do. Then something happens - the person gets laid off or felled by a disease, say - and that source of self-valuation is taken away.

"Most of the people to whom this happens either look for other work, or take to alcohol, or kill themselves or something else. But some of them one day get the urge to make something to fill up that gap in their lives and give them a new identification. There is a sudden discovery of a power within themselves."

Since visionary artists typically work alone, isolated from knowledge of other art, this is an art original to each artist. But there are common characteristics.

"There is a lot of horror vacui," says Anthony Petullo, a leading collector from Milwaukee, referring to an aversion to empty spaces. "They are obsessive-compulsive, repetitive images, the same thing with slight variations."

Manley says visionary artists generally work with materials readily available to them. "They make do with what's at hand. And the art tends to be very narrative."

Although visionary artists work for themselves, their work speaks to the viewer.

"This is art from deep inside, and it touches something within me," says Sam Farber, a New Yorker who has been collecting visionary art for 12 years. "We feel the intensity."

People also respond to the artists' life stories, says fellow collector Petullo, such as "a Ramirez, who was hiding work under his bed so people wouldn't take it away and destroy it."

Ordinary people

Manley will include texts on the artists in the museum's inaugural show. "I hope people will come in and read these texts and say, 'Well, there is work by Ronald Lockett; he was a gas station attendant and his work is in this museum.' These were ordinary people, and I hope ordinary people come in here and in a way feel empowered."

Visionary art has probably been around forever, but only in this century has it been recognized as legitimate art. This occurred ,, first in Europe, when psychiatrists began to study the art of mental patients to learn about their illnesses. Among those psychiatrists was Dr. Walter Morgenthau, who discovered the man who may be the most famous visionary artist - Adolf Wolfli - at Waldau Psychiatric Clinic in Bern, Switzerland.

Wolfli, born in 1864, was an orphan who grew up in poverty. He became a molester of young girls who was placed in Waldau in 1895, where he remained until he died 35 years later. He began to draw in 1904, eventually creating a 25,000-page autobiography that includes poetry, music and thousands of icon-like drawings combining text and image in repeated motifs.

Wolfli's work has been shown throughout the world, and is now in the Kunstmuseum in Bern.

Another psychiatrist prominent in the field was Dr. Hans Prinzhorn, who amassed a collection of art by mental patients in Heidelberg, Germany. In 1922, he wrote a book, "Artistry of the Mentally Ill."

Clinical view

Psychiatrists, however, looked at this art largely from a clinical point of view. It was artists and intellectuals, such as painter Paul Klee and the writer Andre Breton, who began to recognize

visionary work as legitimate art. The time - the first half of the 20th century - was ripe for it, thinks Manley.

"In the 19th century, Europeans were colonizing the world, and ++ thought that European culture would dominate the world and technological advances would solve all our problems," he says. "Then came the First World War and its aftermath, the Depression and the Nazis, and people thought, 'This is where all of it has led us.' So they began to look at extra-cultural things - the surrealists at dreams, the expressionists at 'primitive' art."

The discovery of visionary art was a natural result of this search.

One reason it happened in Europe earlier than America, Manley thinks, is because "the wars weren't fought here" - disillusionment came later to America.

But it was also because we had no visionary art champion like the French artist Jean Dubuffet, who started collecting what he called "art brut," or raw art, after World War II. He found a home for his collection in Lausanne, Switzerland, and it opened in 1976 as the Collection de l'Art Brut. Since then, visionary art museums have proliferated in Europe.

Strong vision

By the 1970s, recognition was coming in America, where the definition of the form has been somewhat broader than in Europe. The terms Art Brut and its English equivalent Outsider Art referred primarily to institutionalized people. In America, the tendency is to refer to self-taught artists of strong individual vision.

"It's more a product of the American ideals - life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," says Philadelphia art dealer John Ollman. "If I want to do it I can do it and people may not like it but they won't stop me."

In the 1960s a group of Chicago artists known as the Chicago imagists, including Jim Nutt, Roger Brown and Christina Ramberg, became aware of artists such as Ramirez and Yoakum. They in turn introduced the work to dealers, who began to show the work with enthusiasm.

Gradually, interest built among curators, collectors and museums. Petullo and Farber, two of America's leading collectors, began collecting in depth in the 1980s. Now, visionary art is collected by museums in New Orleans, Atlanta, Washington (the National Museum of American Art), Philadelphia and Milwaukee. Despite all this interest, prices have remained low relative to mainstream art. True, a top work by Ramirez may bring as much as $150,000, but overall the works are comparatively inexpensive, says Maizels.

"It's an undervalued field," says Ollman, director of the Janet Fleisher Gallery in Philadelphia and a leading dealer in visionary art. "In the contemporary art world, there's serious garbage you couldn't touch for $150,000."

"Good to superior" visionary works can be purchased for $5,000 to $10,000, he says.

First U.S. museum

With the interest in visionary art rising, the AVAM opens at a good time. It will be this country's first major museum devoted to visionary art, and was designated as the official national museum for such art by Congressional resolution in 1992.

The museum has been Rebecca Hoffberger's dream for a decade or more, and she has worked untiringly to raise the $7 million required to build it.

Although the museum - a main building and sculpture barn - has a permanent collection, Hoffberger plans to stage large, long-term temporary exhibitions; exhibits in which some of the -- permanent collection will be shown from time to time.

Maizels hails this idea. "It seems like it's going to be a revolutionary museum. Not one permanent collection as in Lausanne, but huge blockbusting exhibitions lasting almost a year. It's really quite fascinating."

Petullo also welcomes a museum. "There's no place to show all this stuff," he says. As of Friday, there will be.

Museum details

Where: 800 Key Highway

When: Opens to the public Nov. 14. It will be open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays; and from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

Admission: $6 for adults, $4 for seniors and students, $3 for people in groups of 10 or more.

Call: (410) 244-1900

Creative Visions

When the American Visionart Art Museum opens Friday, more tha 400 pieces of artwork will be displayed in its inaugural exhibit, "The Tree of Life," which runs through Sept. 2, 1996.

At least 10 more shows have been proposed to follow that, each of which would last at least six months.

Among the exhibits under consideration.

* "The Wind in My Hair." This show about speed and flight looks at man's desire to go faster and higher. It will range from Leonardo's designs for a one-man flying machine to hand-embellished art cars. Planned to open in the fall of 1996.

* "The End Is Near: Apocalyptic and Post-Millennium Visions of Century 21." A show about the obsession of some visionaries with the apocalypse and the millennium.

* "Lifestyles of the Down and Out: The Housing, Dress and Street Survival Techniques of the Imaginative." Handmade clothes, dwellings and personal environments of the mentally ill, the homeless and the poor.

* "Golden Blessings of Old Age." Examples of the onset of creativity in old age.

* "Soldiers' Artistic Response to War." Works that range from the comical and clever to the angry and despairing, and reflect how people at war cope.

* "Out of the Mouths of Babes/Through the Eyes of Children." The art and written words of children, including the work of autistic children and the prophetic art of children with terminal illnesses.

* "History of Addiction: Colonial America Through Today." An exhibit intended to view drug use and abuse in a historical context, to show what an addictive race human beings are.

* "Dear Diary: The Illustrated and Written Word." Focuses on the extensive written works of such visionaries as Henry Darger (whose saga, "The Realms of the Unreal," ran to 15,000 pages) and Adolf Wolfli (whose autobiographical epic ran to 45 volumes and 25,000 pages).

* "Angels & Other Aliens." A show on those artists who have imagined alien worlds and fantastic beings -- elves, angels, devils, imps, guardians and others.

* "Error & Eros: Love Profane and Divine." An examination of love and romance in visionary art, from the erotica of Friedrich Schroeder-Sonnenstein to the doll children of Morton Barlett.

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