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The Enduring Appeal of the Self-Taught Artist

ART SCHOOL, AT least as it exists in the U.S., is a relatively new invention. The availability of a degree in fine arts, and the expectation that an artist earn one, became typical around the end of World War II, when the G.I. Bill afforded veterans the ability to attend colleges and universities. Before then, aspirants to the art world largely figured out the mechanics themselves, through apprenticeships, maybe, or informal classes at independent schools like the Art Students League of New York, where working artists like the painter Thomas Hart Benton instructed Jackson Pollock, even if the instruction shaded toward the antagonistic (Benton despised abstraction; Pollock said the only thing that he learned from the older artist was how to drink a fifth of whiskey a day).

The popularization of a more rigorously structured art education and its formation of a body of professionalized graduates also created an oppositional group: everyone else. Artists who weren’t formally trained suddenly became known as self-taught, a fuzzy bit of nomenclature that’s probably too nuanced for its own good. The term seems to refer to autodidacts, the annoyingly adept among us who decide one day to learn how to paint or pick up Italian or repair a carburetor, and then manage to do exactly that, which, while not an inaccurate depiction, is incomplete. “Self-taught” is also a euphemism, one eliding the structural reasons why an artist might have gone without formal education. The idea folds in “outsider art,” meaning art outside the canon (itself the construct of historians, museums and critics) that’s typically made by nonwhite or non-male artists, and can sometimes also include folk art. Art Brut, Jean Dubuffet’s taxonomy of “raw art,” from which the idea of the outsider stems, defined a narrower idea — art out of bounds of mainstream culture, made by prisoners, patients of psychiatric centers and others existing on society’s margins and considered impolite by its center.

That rubric would include the graffiti writers who emerged in late-1970s and early-’80s New York City — kids, mostly, living in the city’s outer boroughs, who worked in unlit tunnels and under threat of arrest and bodily harm to invent a totally original form of American expressionism. Graffiti wasn’t a mode of art making being taught in schools, and it still isn’t, even though its practitioners eventually received gallery shows and had their visual language subsumed by mainstream design and advertising. The classification also encompasses the Highwaymen, a collective of self-taught Black painters who in the 1950s created Fauvist landscapes of subtropical Floridian splendor, painting on roofing boards and carting them up and down Route 1 along the Florida coast, often selling them before the paint was dry. Their method was not totally born of choice. Barred from gallery representation in the Jim Crow South, they willed their own market into existence. This is part of the subtext of the idea of being self-taught. Often what we’re really talking about is self-determination.

The bitter flavor of exclusion, the willful ignorance of art’s gatekeepers manicuring the pasture of a well-mannered in-group, is a very real history that the art world continues to reckon with. But today, being self-taught has become less something to overcome than something to advertise. The concept is still loaded, but its weight tips it toward the desirable. It finds attractive the artists who simply decline to adhere to a straight path, nonconformists who reject the niceties of the school system or are allergic to its structures, or who simply can’t be bothered to participate, people whom Dubuffet referred to as refusers — “individuals who refuse to eat with a spoon, who refuse to use the usual language, who refuse to behave like other people, who refuse to put shoes on their feet and a hat on their head. They refuse everything. And if they get involved in making art, then they go very far in their refusal, further away than others.” Just how far a given self-taught artist’s refusal goes varies wildly, of course. But at the very least, it almost certainly involves less debt.

TWO YEARS AGO, the Georgian artist Tamo Jugeli was accepted into the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in Germany, where she’d applied mostly to get out of Georgia. After a brief visit, she declined to attend. “It was amazing, but it was not for me,” she said. “I’m not a loner, but I don’t belong in groups. I could not see myself there.” (This experience mirrored an earlier one, when Jugeli was 8 years old and her parents enrolled her in a painting class. “Everyone says they loved painting and drawing when they were a child, but I never had any interest,” she said. “I hated it. The teacher pressured me to paint realistically. And I just left.”) Now 28, Jugeli, whose washy, globular abstracts were recently on view at Polina Berlin Gallery on New York’s Upper East Side, entered the art world through a side door. She had set out to study journalism and found work editing video for television, with which she soon grew dissatisfied. She bought some sketchbooks and “shitty pencils” and began drawing at work, and for a year made what she described as unimpressive illustrations. She wrote to the Georgian artist Gia Edzgveradze, who agreed to meet her. “That was the first time I was seeing [his] real art and not Instagram tiles,” she said of flipping through his portfolio. “I felt so happy, but also so devastated,” she explained, because she saw how far she had to go to be successful. He was polite, but there wasn’t much to say. Only after Jugeli began painting with oils — “breaking though my old style” — did Edzgveradze become a kind of informal mentor, not teaching her the mechanics of painting, exactly, but pointing her to texts and biographies of artists so she could do her own reading.

“If you ask me, everyone is self-taught,” said Jugeli. “I don’t want to say I was all alone and did everything by myself, because I had great support, but I don’t believe you can learn how to make art — you have it or you don’t have it.”

The prolific artist Raymond Pettibon, 65, whose drawings have been exhibited since the 1980s, described art school as “just contrary to my personality, I guess.” “Art schooling,” he continued, “it’s a socialization process, and there is a lot of unspoken, tacit knowledge. I wasn’t interested in the careerism part of it, getting ahead. My trajectory isn’t a model of values you should approach in career building.”

Pettibon did like to draw as a child, a habit waylaid while he earned a degree in economics at U.C.L.A., which he obtained in 1977, and then for a bit longer while he taught junior high and high school math. By the time he was fully committed to his career, “I had rather lost interest, as far as pursuing a Ph.D. or teaching or going into the corporate world,” he said. “I think art school encourages, much more than it used to, the encroachment of business. It’s gravitated more that way. I don’t want to say it’s frowned upon — I hope not — to be more of a generalist, self-educated or self-taught, but I think it’s rather rare. That did hold me back for some time. The bureaucracies of the museum world, universities, academics, that sort of professionalism I don’t think did me any good. But in the end, they don’t run the show.”

There’s also the question of who gets exposed to the idea of art school in the first place. The artist Jammie Holmes, who paints nuanced depictions of Black life in the Deep South, and who didn’t visit a museum until he was in his 30s, became adept at drawing partly out of necessity. “We didn’t have access to nothing,” he said of his childhood in Thibodaux, Louisiana. “We didn’t know what a printer was; when I was in the seventh grade, my grandmother had one picture of my great-grandmother that nobody had, and I was the copier. You didn’t have posters on your wall, so you made your own posters. I feel like that’s what I do in my studio. Think about it: It has to start some way, and it’s not always going to be taught.”

Holmes, now 38, recalls spending a lot of time alone, studying Gordon Parks photographs, figuring out shading and composition and trying to translate images to paint. Faces gave him trouble for a while, so he would stare at them until their features unlocked in his mind: “The thing that helped me was just traveling and looking at people’s faces, like, ‘Damn, I want to sketch that dude.’ And taking photos. Every night I look at pictures and I try to burn it here,” he said, pointing to his temple. Fittingly, Holmes said his color palette comes from the graffitied freight trains that used to pass through his neighborhood, which he described as the first art exhibition he ever saw.

Did he consider going to art school? The answer begins to sound familiar. “At first I thought about it. And then I was like, ‘For what, though?’ I felt like the Egyptians didn’t go to art school. I felt like African tribes didn’t do it.” He echoed an idea I heard from Jugeli: “You know when you’re an artist.”

This idea suggests a preternatural gift and either a subconscious understanding of it or its eventual, inevitable release. But some self-taught artists acknowledge that their development has been less about innate talent than about practice. Marcus Brutus, 30, who took up painting 10 years ago, is frank about how he taught himself: by watching YouTube tutorials. “I’m very aware things don’t come naturally to me. I have to actually work very hard,” he explained. Dissatisfied with an earlier career in fashion and art public relations, Brutus, whose imagined portraits of Black American life are charged with a magnetic color sense and meditative ease, said he thought about formal study “for one second — I was coming late to a thing that I thought would be my passion and I didn’t want to interrupt that by being discouraged.” Instead, he looked to the work of Jack Whitten and William Eggleston, what he calls “secondhand information.” “I’m not the originator of the curriculum, is how I view it,” he said.

THE SELF-TAUGHT ARTIST who toils in obscurity for years before finding mainstream success makes for an irresistible story. “How Septuagenarian Artist Scott Kahn Went from Living in His Cousin’s Attic to Selling Out Solo Shows in Just Three Years,” read a recent Artnet News headline. (As the poet Rene Ricard once wrote: “No one wants to be part of a generation that ignores another Van Gogh.”). It also helps that there’s never been more money flowing through the art world. A cynical reading would point to the existence of a collector base whose appetite for things to buy has yet to be sated, try as they may. In 2019, Christie’s dedicated auction of outsider art yielded $4.2 million — not Basquiat money, but not yard sale prices, either.

Like many concepts, the idea of the self-taught artist is often wielded as a marketing tool. Rather than being kept out of view, self-taught artists regularly fill out the rosters of blue-chip galleries, and quite visibly: The phrase appears frequently at the top of press releases, less a disclaimer than a value judgment, as though the fact illuminates some ineffable quality about an artist’s work, as if to say, “Isn’t that something?” There’s a bit of mysticism attached to the concept, as though the visual information has been beamed in from some spiritual, unknown place and so is in some way more honest. As Dubuffet (who attended art school) wrote: “Those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses — where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere — are, because of these very facts, more precious than the productions of professionals.” An education, in other words, only dilutes true expression.

This is the kind of mythology that still sticks to Van Gogh, though he was hardly a rube (he worked as an art dealer for years before beginning to paint). Similarly, there’s a notion of Jean-Michel Basquiat as a feral genius who emerged fully formed from a cardboard box in New York’s Washington Square Park, even though he grew up in a Boerum Hill brownstone and was a junior member of the Brooklyn Museum from the time he was six. (Ricard again: “The idea of the unrecognized genius slaving away in a garret is a deliciously foolish one.”)

The promotion of artists as self-taught still reads as a corrective. The label presupposes a kind of radical bravery in curation, as if a gallery or museum that shows a self-taught artist is sticking its neck out to do so, even if that’s not necessarily true. The Museum of Modern Art’s first solo exhibition devoted to the work of a Black artist, in 1937, was of sculptures by the self-taught William Edmondson, whom the New York museum described, appallingly, as a “modern primitive.” Dr. Valérie Rousseau, senior curator of self-taught art and Art Brut at the American Folk Art Museum in New York, who is preparing a show of work by the celebrated self-taught painter Morris Hirshfield opening this September, said that while it’s true there’s a certain appreciation now for the marginalized, that sensibility was also present throughout the 20th century. “There are many reasons why I feel galleries or larger museums are embracing these artists,” she said. “Sometimes it can be political, but it’s not followed by concrete action, in terms of collecting, advocacy, what can be still discovered, even with artists that were very well known.”

Hirshfield’s story, in particular, is instructive. A Polish émigré to New York, he was a successful manufacturer of women’s slippers. After retiring from business because of failing health, he began in the late 1930s to paint flat, enigmatic pictures (“Angora Cat” [1937-39], depicting a white fluffy menace with searing eyes that can seem to vibrate on the canvas, is particularly mesmeric). In less than a decade, he was embraced by the Surrealists, collected by Peggy Guggenheim and given a solo show at MoMA, the press for which was so negative it contributed to Alfred H. Barr Jr.’s dismissal as director. Hirshfield was then largely forgotten. “How can we explain this kind of vacuum?” Rousseau said. “It’s exactly what we are witnessing today: You have these moments of recognition that are followed by moments of emptiness.”

What if you can account for taste? What if the stranger the time, the more the hearts and minds of the viewing public open? “If we look at what people were receptive to at different moments, it’s clear to me that changes came in moments of crisis,” Rousseau said. “When I think about what Barr was able to achieve during his tenure at MoMA, it really started during the financial crisis, where there’s a reassessment of values, of the institution taking a different role — it becomes more educational, and then more experimental. But it comes in moments of uncertainty. I think there is something that talks to the present time, about how we feel now. It’s true that there’s a growing sensitivity and interest that is not just on the surface: It’s more visceral, it’s about our own humanity reflecting on itself in the context of the pandemic, the demonstrations, deep societal revisions.” As cataclysms compound and the proposition of being in the world becomes more intense, the self-taught artist might suggest a way forward, the shape of their education being neither a hindrance nor a boon to their success but the whole point. Sometimes, being ungovernable is its own reward.

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