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Transcript: Art world outliers, with Lynne Cooke

Guest Lynne Cooke and host Charlotte Burns in front of Barbara Rossi, Male of Sorrows (1971) in the Outliers exhibition

BY Charlotte Burns
executive editor of In Other Words

Published
In Podcast Transcripts

“A great deal of this work was made by African-American artists. And their work is simply not entered into the circuits and orbits of the contemporary art world for lack of opportunity, for lack of education, for lack of money. As I said, class, race.”

“I want to borrow a phrase from Suzanne Hudson, who is a critic and art historian who has written on this. When she was thinking about the role of curators, she used the phrase: ‘the dispensation of privilege’.”

“It called into question a whole set of ideas about creativity and the basis on which innovation and originality and exploration take place.”

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Charlotte Burns: Hello and welcome to In Other Words. I’m your host, Charlotte Burns and joining me today is Lynne Cooke, who is the senior curator for special projects at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Lynne, thank you so much for being my guest today. 

Lynne Cooke: It’s my pleasure. 

Charlotte Burns: Lynne has just taken me on a tour of the exhibition “Outliers and American Vanguard Art“, which is on show at the National Gallery until 13 May before traveling to the High Museum in Atlanta in June until September, and then going on to LACMA from the 18 November until the 18 March 2019. This is an exhibition with around 270 works by more than 80 artists, and it’s a really phenomenal exhibition. I have so loved going around it. Lynne, how many years has this taken you to pull together?

Lynne Cooke: It’s almost five years of research and preparation. It’s the longest I have ever worked on any exhibition, or any one exhibition, at least. And it’s partly a product of the fact that the material is less known, perhaps, than many areas of mainstream art history.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Lynne Cooke: And it’s also that I didn’t have a background in this, so my learning curve was a steep one.

Charlotte Burns: For those in the audience who haven’t seen the show, can you explain exactly what the premise is?

Lynne Cooke: The idea is that work by self-taught artists—and “self-taught” is a problematic term, but it’s arguably the most neutral and objective of a range of a terms that includes folk artist, Outsider artist, isolate, naive or visionary. So, I’m using the term self-taught to mean a creator who did not have formal academic training in an art school who is making work, likely with little or no knowledge of art history or the art world, and who therefore doesn’t anticipate having a career in the art world. That said, there are exceptions.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Lynne Cooke: So, the argument of the exhibition is that contemporary artists in the vanguard art world have, in the Modernist era and beyond, have always been interested in the work of self-taught artists. And that this engagement has happened in the United States, at least, in most dynamic ways. The intersection has been at its richest and most profound in three different historical moments beginning with the end of the First World War.

Charlotte Burns: So, the exhibition is chronological. It’s divided into three distinct periods of engagement and encounter between more conventionally educated and connected artists, and self-taught. 

So, 1924 to 1943, in which there was a period of interaction fueled by the Great Depression and government funding of artists through programs like the Works Project Administration. And then in 1968 to 1992, propelled by the Civil Rights movement and various pushes for equality from different factions of society. And then in 1998 to 2013 with globalization. Can you elaborate more on those? So, tell me about the first period, the 1924 to 1943. What happened here?

Lynne Cooke: Well, all of these dates are somewhat elastic.

Charlotte Burns: Of course. 

Lynne Cooke: And what you could say is common to the three different periods is that they are moments of social, political, economic and cultural upheaval when values are in question. Where the traditional or the canonical segregation between self-taught, marginalized artists and the avant-garde, where those boundaries become porous, where there is more interchange, there is more receptivity from the center towards the margins. Because values are being questioned, new kinds of art making are being welcomed. And they’re considered much more on an even playing field. Often these artists who come from the margins gain a measure of agency that they would not normally have.

So, to go back to your question about the first period: broadly speaking, it starts when American vanguard artists who are in Europe come back because of the outbreak of World War I, and start to think about an American identity or what makes American art American.

Charlotte Burns: Right. 

Lynne Cooke: And one of the points of inspiration and affinity is quickly identified as historic folk art. That is, work that’s been made mostly before the turn of the 20th-century, which up until that point had not been considered to have any aesthetic value. But some of these artists, like Charles Sheeler, recognize an affinity.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Lynne Cooke: And have an admiration for them.

Charlotte Burns: How did they discover them? How does that even happen?

Lynne Cooke: Some of them encounter this work at an artist colony, a summer colony at Ogunquit in Maine, where the organizer decides to decorate the bungalows—

Charlotte Burns: Oh, so interesting.

Lynne Cooke: —with this material. Others like Charles Sheeler, who spends time in Doylestown outside Philadelphia, becomes very interest in vernacular architecture and in Shaker artifacts. And if one person brings shaker work to the purview of the art world—if we can identify one—we’d have to say that it was Sheeler whose interests are that it’s extraordinarily beautiful in its economy, in the craftsmanship, in the relationship between function and object.

Charlotte Burns: Yes. 

Lynne Cooke: And, for him, those are qualities he appreciates in other forms, too—

Charlotte Burns: Right, of course.

Lynne Cooke: —but identifies as essentially Modern. He, in particular, said if these works had been done a decade ago or a hundred years ago, it wouldn’t make a difference to me. For others, it’s very much an argument about American identity and nativist values.

Charlotte Burns: Walking around the show, obviously the exhibition is focused on America. You’re looking very much at this nation. But there is something so American about the art that I don’t think I expected. Whether it’s to do with agriculture or produce and the kind of scale—the volume of production in America—or religion, faith, the land, that kind of spirit of America to do with the adventuresome-ness of America and the great wide landscapes. The pioneer spirit. The interplay between the more conventionally considered artists and those outliers, in terms of thinking about American identity, it’s just really fascinating. I’m not sure, ultimately, that it’s considered in such a strong way in Europe.

Lynne Cooke: When I first started looking at the intersection between vanguard artists and self-taught artists, it quickly became apparent that European narratives are better known. There is much less study of this material in this country—or this dynamic in this country at least—and that in Europe in large part, excepting Henri Rousseau, who is obviously an enormous figure and a very influential artist for Europeans in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Aside from that, most of the work that we think of as self-taught, that really excites credentialed artists—like the Surrealists or CoBrA or Dubuffet or Pandemonium, Georg Baselitz and others—was work that was called at the time the art of the insane, or psychotic art.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Lynne Cooke: It was made by people who were in institutions, people with mental and developmental disabilities. Occasionally, some of this work came out of prisons.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Lynne Cooke: And a little of it came from visionaries who were socially functioning individuals. But the larger part of the narrative is around the art of the insane, so-called.

In my research for this project, I have come to see that the demographic of the self-taught artist in this country is quite different. In terms of the well-known artists, or the artists whose works attracted attention by credentialed artists, there is very little that was made in institutions. And often the marginalized creator is someone whose position on the periphery was determined by questions of race, ethnicity, class, gender and age, not so much mental and developmental difficulties.

Charlotte Burns: That’s so interesting. Why do you think that is?

Lynne Cooke: The history of this country in the 20th-century is so determined by the legacies of slavery.

Charlotte Burns: Right, of course.

Lynne Cooke: And a great deal of this work was made by African-American artists. And their work is simply not entered into the circuits and orbits of the contemporary art world for lack of opportunity, for lack of education, for lack of money. As I said, class, race.

Charlotte Burns: Because it’s ultimately a story, really, of who is inside and who is outside of the various systems that promulgate success, which are the market, partly, and also the market of museums, essentially.

Lynne Cooke: Well, tastemakers can be contemporary artists, too.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Lynne Cooke: Whatever contemporary means at a different point, but —which is part of my point in this exhibition—those who embrace the work of self-taught artists are often their fellow artists.

Charlotte Burns: Fellow artists.

Lynne Cooke: And they do so, in many cases, without making distinctions. As simply seeing it as wonderful work. Whereas the museums and the critics and others consequently, once it enters the public arena through exhibitions, they’re the ones who are concerned with taxonomies; classification; hierarchies; definition.

Charlotte Burns: That’s so interesting, because in this exhibition you show the work together, and you don’t segregate. You have your chronology, which is sort of the spine of the show. But the work is hung… it’s only really as you’re walking around that you’re like: “Oh, I know that name, I don’t know that name.” Which is a much more democratic way of looking at this art than we’ve typically seen.

You said somewhere that this is a field whose history has fundamentally been shaped by exhibitions. And so going into preparing for the show, you were obviously aware of the fact that this is going to be part of that history. That’s a responsibility to take. How did you approach that? What were your goals? What did you want to change? If you were going to steer the course of this history in another direction, what was that?

Lynne Cooke: Well, exhibitions have been the primary vehicle, as you say, for bringing this into the public arena. Because in the context of a museum, the ideology, the critical framework that shaped the genesis of the show and its manifestation—its presentation—then shapes, to a degree, how people receive it.

And so, that’s a responsibility. I want to borrow a phrase from Suzanne Hudson, who is a critic and art historian who has written on this. When she was thinking about the role of curators, she used the phrase: “the dispensation of privilege”.

Charlotte Burns: That’s so interesting.

Lynne Cooke: It’s a very astute comment. And I think it speaks to responsibility and the kind of professional role of the curator—who is only one of a number of agents in all of this—but curating has often brought this work into visibility.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Lynne Cooke: That responsibility was definitely in my mind. Another key consideration is: if one is making an argument that this work can and needs to be seen in dialogue with more credentialed work, then how do we do this? In recent years, there has been an argument for establishing what’s called a level playing field, in which work is brought together without distinction, that is, without labels. Simply put together. And that seems to me to have its own problems. There are factors of difference which need to be recognized and a part of the narratives that—

Charlotte Burns: Right, homogenizing may not be the answer.

Lynne Cooke: No, exactly, and it can also lead to reinforcement of normativity. And one of the reasons I chose the term “outlier” as distinct from the center-margin model, which is the canonical Modernist art model by which the center is powerful and it appropriates from the periphery—

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Lynne Cooke: An outlier, as we use the term today, is an individual or an agent or an entity that is at a distance from an aggregate, so from the norm. But that distance isn’t fixed. It’s negotiable, and it changes.

Charlotte Burns: And it’s not necessarily negative, either.

Lynne Cooke: No, no.

Charlotte Burns: Peripheral often implies some form of… it suggests a disadvantage, whereas an outlier, for many people, it will make them think of the Malcolm Gladwell book in which there [are the questions:] “How do you get to be the best sportsman in your year?” “How do you get to be an outlier in terms of a great success?” So, there is less of a negative connotation to the word, I think.

Lynne Cooke: Yes, absolutely. And it’s also not bounded in the past. It hasn’t been used in this field before and therefore, I think, is clearly a term of the present. And the perspective of this show is a show that looks back to the past to see what precedents there have been and to see what may be gained from re-evaluating that. But it’s very firmly located and locked into the present. 

And because, I think, issues of diversity, equality, and inclusion are facing all of us who work in cultural institutions—they’re very urgent—as we look back, we find that those questions have come up at times. In this show in particular, in the late ‘30s and ‘40s where Alfred Barr, who was the director of The Museum of Modern Art, really made an argument for the quintessential part played in narratives of Modern art by this tributary of the self-taught, the modern primitive.

Charlotte Burns: I was going to ask you about Barr. He’s one of the heroes of the show, in many ways. He championed Outsiders, self-taught, outliers. He saw the power of these works and appraised them on that basis. He weighed up their power aesthetically and their impact. But it was also part of the reason that he was fired from MoMA ultimately, wasn’t it? His support of the less Francophile Modernist canon, which is the move that MoMA took then, towards the latter half of the 20th-century.

Lynne Cooke: Yes. He was certainly relieved of his job as the director, and it’s often said that the Morris Hirshfield show, which was coordinated by Sidney Janis under his aegis, was the determining point. It may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Lynne Cooke: And it wasn’t the only reason.

Charlotte Burns: Of course, yes.

Lynne Cooke: But he’d been on what one could almost describe as a campaign for ten years to include work by self-taught artists substantially into the collection and into the programs that were happening under his watch. And by 1943, the year that this brouhaha emerged, the year that the Hirshfield show took place, I think there was a whole coterie of American artists who felt that this was the last straw—that there wasn’t enough representation of American artists, trained professional artists, in the museum; that work by retired slipper manufacturers, as Hirshfield was, simply didn’t deserve priority. And there was some conservative critical response that echoed that. The trustees began to wonder whether the standards, the stakes, of the museum’s programming were being called into question. So, it was a number of factors.

Charlotte Burns: That’s interesting. Also, with Barr, much as we say he was appreciating the work on its own merits, he was also mindful of diversity. He knew about William Edmondson through the photographs of—

Lynne Cooke: Louise Dahl-Wolfe.

Charlotte Burns: Thank you. And she had been excluded from showing. So, coming into this, there is something political about his inclusion of artists who were otherwise being excluded. Or is that too contemporary a read on it?

Lynne Cooke: I think that’s probably too contemporary a read. Edmondson was a tombstone carver, and a man who made his living as a janitor in Nashville.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Lynne Cooke: And when Louise Dahl-Wolfe saw these carvings in his yard, she was very taken with them, and she photographed both the work and the maker. And she did this in anticipation of having the photographs accompany an article in one of the Hearst publications, and Hearst wouldn’t publish an article on an African-American.

These photographs then were shown to Barr, who found the work very interesting. But I think what Barr was responding to was the work, these sculptures, which he saw in the context of direct carving that was the prevailing form of sculpture at the time. If one had an understanding and appreciation for that work, one could see Edmondson’s work in dialogue with it. So, he’s not recuperating a marginalized artist, in that Edmondson at that moment doesn’t self-identify as an artist.

Charlotte Burns: As an artist.

Lynne Cooke: But the work can certainly enter into dialogue with contemporary sculpture, and as a result of the exhibition, I think, and the patronage that comes with it and the recognition, Edmondson sees potential and capitalizes on that very wonderfully. And he does think of himself making art, and he broadens his range of subject matter and he experiments, you might say. He does all the things one would expect of an artist who gets encouragement. Barr would have seen him as a modern primitive.

Charlotte Burns: Right. That was his term.

Lynne Cooke: A self-taught creator.

Charlotte Burns: Yes. I think what I mean is that if you are Barr and you’re making decisions to include artists like Edmondson, who Hearst won’t allow to be photographed in a magazine, then there is something quite laudable and necessary for museum directors, and brave in a way that you would hope leaders might be, to make sure that those people are included. There is still something kind of political about the act of inclusion.

Lynne Cooke: Yes.

Charlotte Burns: Obviously on the merit of the work.

Lynne Cooke: Yes, and not all museums in this country at that moment would have shown African-American artists alongside white artists.

Charlotte Burns: Yes, absolutely. I want to get back to you about the thing of artists studying for confidence, because that’s so interesting, and I know in the show there are various artists who didn’t identify as an artist and then did. So, this happened with Barr, and then his tenureship as director came to an end.

Lynette Cooke: That’s the perfect way of saying it.

[Laughter]

Charlotte Burns: What happened next? This has been a history through exhibitions. What have the other landmark exhibitions been?

Lynne Cooke: Well, the next one—if one’s pointing to a specific date—it’s firstly ’68, ’69, I suppose, where artists who were graduates from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago come across the work of Joseph Yoakum in the neighborhood in which they’re showing, in the South Side of Chicago. Yoakum is a man who has had a career with many jobs and has traveled the world widely, and he’s in his late 60s, early 70s by this time. And he’s making drawings of landscape and putting the drawings in the window of his storefront studio where they’re seen by artists and others who see this as being something like discovering Rousseau in your backyard.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Lynne Cooke: These visionary landscapes generated, in part, by response to places Yoakum’s visited: visited in imagination or visited in actuality. That begins a whole wave in the Midwest, centered around Chicago, of enthusiasm for work of this kind. And it turns out there are a number of other makers in Chicago and nearby whose work is also of extraordinary interest to Jim Nutt and Gladys Nilsson.

Charlotte Burns: And artists like Jim Nutt said it was a reciprocal relationship, and lots of artists acknowledged that. Jim Nutt said something about artists like Yoakum and how there was a sense he gained of freedom in his own work from admiring these other artists, and that’s really interesting because you see that through the show. These more considered artists finding something liberating.

Lynne Cooke: Yes, it’s like being given permission.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Lynne Cooke: And affirmation for a desire to follow one’s own path to carve out an individual career without taking one’s touchstones from accredited movements or the New York art world.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Lynne Cooke: Or whatever other criterion that are thought to be crucial to forming a career.

Charlotte Burns: And so, if you’re an artist who has not even necessarily been considering yourself as an artist, and then your life changes. Somebody comes along and recognizes the value of your work, and you start considering yourself an artist. There are instances in the show of artists who then become more professional artists, and they start entering the market, which is kind of interesting to think about how that shapes their production and their perceived value. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Lynne Cooke: Yes. This is an issue that’s often seen as a minefield. So, if one thinks about Dubuffet, who was collecting the work of creators in institutions and outside, sometimes he would virtually excommunicate one of these artists if he felt that that person became too knowing about what they were doing or developed ties with the art world, as if somehow the authenticity of what was being created would be called into question.

And I think that’s really a peculiar double standard, because we hope that young artists who begin to get some recognition and begin to be able to sell their work and have promise and encouragement, will be able to make careers and not have to have jobs doing something else. Why not for the self-taught artist who also gets encouragement and can use the patronage and the recognition productively, to devote him or herself more to their work than formerly?

Charlotte Burns: There is something quite patronizing about that, isn’t there?

Lynne Cooke: Absolutely, yes.

Charlotte Burns: I had two questions, really, related to the market. One is the impact on the artist of being so away from the market and then perhaps being a little more in it. But also for you as a curator working on an exhibition that largely is away from the market—I mean, not entirely—but as we were walking around, we were looking at some work that’s in an archive, and you were saying: “Oh, now this is going more to museums, and that’s great. It’s an archive that’s selling work and may stand to benefit from inclusion in an exhibition like this, and that would be a positive thing.”

I was thinking about how you think about that when you’re producing the show. Is it different than other shows when you’ve worked on more established names, for example?

Lynne Cooke: Well, there are many ways in which this show brings up a whole set of different questions, and that would be one of them. In the first part of the exhibition that really centers around the ‘30s, many of these artists who had been called self-taught, who subsequently gained careers in the art world, were people who would have gone to art school if they’d had the economic circumstances.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Lynne Cooke: They had an ambition to be artists. And through changes in economic circumstances, the openness of Barr and others—Albert Barnes, Duncan Phillips— and the support of trained artists. The potential to enter into those orbits becomes possible, and so they become recognized; they’re shown in galleries alongside academically trained artists. They’re included in exhibitions across the country. 

That’s very different from what happens, certainly in the second half of the 20th-century, where those creators whose work is being identified are not, on the whole, people who had an ambition to go to art school. They didn’t, and they take up making work for a whole set of other reasons. Sometimes, as you said, because they have an evangelical calling, and this work is made in service to that. So, it expands upon their preaching or religious teaching, say, in the case of Howard Finster, or Sister Gertrude Morgan, or Elijah Pierce. They all make work that has religious subject matter and that engages—

Charlotte Burns: Is devotional in some way.

Lynne Cooke: Yes. Others have different reasons. Some of them are visionaries and they have this desire to make, irrespective of an obvious audience. But almost all of them, I think, anticipate audiences. Not necessarily art audiences, but community audiences.

If you take someone like Sam Doyle who lived on St Helena island, who paints mostly on roofing tin, mostly portraits of people in his neighborhood and community, and occasional historical subject like Lincoln stopping at Frogmore just to free the slaves.

Charlotte Burns: There are so many Lincolns in the show.

Lynne Cooke: Yes, Lincoln is obviously a big figure. As was John Brown, at a certain time. 

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Lynne Cooke: But Sam Doyle is chronicling his community, in a way. But he’s also putting these paintings on his property, on the side of a road for people to look at and buy as they come by. So, he’s got an art practice, in a way, but—

Charlotte Burns: It’s just a different one.

Lynne Cooke: Yes. 

Charlotte Burns: That’s so interesting. How did you even discover that this was going to be a passion of yours for five years? How did you get closer to this material? What prompted you to start researching? 

Lynne Cooke: There are a number of reasons. One of them was seeing a couple of shows that were just extraordinary. One of them was the James Castle retrospective that was organized by Ann Percy at the Philadelphia Museum of Art some years ago. I’d seen Castle’s work but had no idea of the scope of it, nor the sophistication, nor the invention or the range of it. The formal and stylistic and technical range is unusual within this arena: Castle draws; he makes objects; he makes books; he makes constructions; he changes his style. The works are not dated, so we don’t know the sequence, we can only imagine. But he worked almost daily for five or six decades.

Charlotte Burns: Wow.

Lynne Cooke: And pretty much what he made was—certainly for the latter two thirds of his life—was kept. So, there is a huge corpus, and he’s an extraordinarily insightful and inventive artist. He’s someone who was born deaf and never learned to sign and worked in his family’s circumstances, who worked in his family’s circle. He lived at home; they were farmers. They moved outside Boise, but he stayed on the property and made art. That was what he did. And he didn’t particularly show it to them, but they were supportive of it.

Finally, at the end of his life, when the local museum put on a show of his drawings, he was immensely proud and excited and one could see that in this drawing he makes of the installation of his show. 

Charlotte Burns: Wow.

Lynne Cooke: But he had this idea of being an artist, and he worked out what it was and what the potential was by making, by exploration and presumably by looking at magazines, in part, or television later in life. But it’s very self-generated, and the commitment and dedication to this life of an artist is exceptional. It exactly mirrors what one thinks of as a very dedicated artist of any kind.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Lynne Cooke: So, seeing all of this work utterly changed my sense of who a self-taught artist might be, and what a marginalized creator might do. At the same time, it called into question a whole set of ideas about creativity and the basis on which innovation and originality and exploration take place, or what can be conceptualized by somebody without formal training.

It’s often said that self-taught artists don’t have a good understanding of perspective because it’s something that you need to be taught. Castle didn’t have access to any of that.

Charlotte Burns: There is a work in the show that we were looking at, which is a drawing of doors, some open, ajar, or closing, and the perspective is… it’s more complicated than my brain can fathom. It’s so interesting to look at it and see the recession into depth, and the stages of movement.

Lynne Cooke: Yes, it’s an extraordinary study of spatial recession made in the most subtle grey washes, and the sense of light penetrating these spaces, and the luminosity. It’s a remarkable drawing on anybody’s terms. 

Charlotte Burns: Absolutely. So, you saw that show and it started triggering ideas for you.

Lynne Cooke: It just made me think twice about what my own preconceptions were about art made by un-credentialed makers. 

Charlotte Burns: Yes. 

Lynne Cooke: And then I saw another show, a retrospective of the work of Martín Ramírez, who was a Mexican immigrant to this country whose work was made in an institution. He began drawing while in DeWitt [State Hospital] in California, and probably worked for 30 years, 20 to 30 years there. Again, there is not a lot of documentation. These are totally different. They’re made of paper that’s been pasted together, used paper, to make these very long scroll-like forms.

And he creates space out of extraordinary stylistic invention of repeated forms that create landscapes of mountains and valleys, and trains that move through these landscapes. In this case, it brought to my attention a whole range of production that I wasn’t aware of, and made me think, when I knew the story of how Ramírez’s work could come to public view or come to the art world through Jim Nutt, especially, who’d seen the work by chance and then acquired it with his gallerist and then worked on its behalf. I started to think more about how credentialed artists had been the advocates for self-taught artists. 

I worked with a German artist, Rosemarie Trockel, to make an exhibition, and the form of the exhibition was very open when we started a dialogue. It ended up being a cosmos, a collection of work by creators—some identifiable, some not—that really illuminated Trockel’s own work—

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Lynne Cooke: —and that she felt affinities and connections with.

Charlotte Burns: So, that was an opportunity for you to delve a little deeper.

Lynne Cooke: Yes, and she brought her own knowledge, and seeing how it played out in the context of her work was a great example for thinking about working further with this question.

Charlotte Burns: It reminds me of the book, Der Blaue Reiter Almanac, in which the Blaue Reiter group—the German artist group at the turn of the 20th-century—discussed spiritual vibrations and the idea that you could have an icon of the Virgin Mary produced by an unknown figure in an unknown period, probably X century, several hundreds of years ago next to a piece of contemporary art made by the Blaue Reiters themselves.

Or you could have a woodcarving that was essentially Germanic in the way that they saw it, and to do with the spirit of Germany. And that thing of the vibrations between objects—some known; some unknown; some consciously art; others more devotional—that felt reminiscent to me when I was walking around the exhibition, and hearing those stories of artists themselves seeing that. Because in the same way that this was something that Kandinsky and his peers saw—and that was very much an artist-led thing that went on to shape various other movements that came after—it’s interesting that that’s often the way, in terms of looking beyond what we know, and yet then that kind of gets tamed by other forces.

Lynne Cooke: Right.

Charlotte Burns: Whether they’re the market or institution or curators or collectors, whatever it is, there is an open exploratory-ness that can be corralled then.

Lynne Cooke: Yes, and that particular example of the Blaue Reiter is often discussed under the label of “primitivism” or “primitivising”. And there are other late 20th-century, late 19th-century examples of Western artists looking to other cultures, looking to vernacular folk traditions, to artifacts that had other functions—

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Lynne Cooke: —for inspiration. One can think of the American artists who are looking at historic folk art from the pre-Industrial Revolution as very much in that—

Charlotte Burns: —in that vein.

Lynne Cooke: So, Marsden Hartley—who was an American artist who goes to Europe, to Paris, and then to Munich, and then to Berlin and meets with Kandinsky and Picasso and others, and then goes to Ogunquit and is looking at historic folk art, or Native American work that was presented in an ethnographic framework—that’s entirely commensurate with the Blaue Reiter and other forms of primitivising. Where it starts to take a different course is when the self-taught artists are living, and they’re seen as peers.

Charlotte Burns: Right, yes. A different status is given. It’s rather than… the kind of problematic thing about the earlier part of the century looking back is that it was a more cannibalistic relationship, whereas this is very much promotional and supportive, especially if you’re thinking about someone like Jim Nutt really working to, like you say, bring more recognition to the work of their peers.

Lynne Cooke: Yes, and to treat the work without distinction made by labels or by positioning it relative to dominant forms.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Lynne Cooke: And artists did that easily. The artists who did that, I think, were less invested in the hierarchies of the art world than others, for whom certain galleries, certain recognition, certain museums, were a necessary career strategy.

Charlotte Burns: Yes, I was going to say: how many of these artists were beyond the geographic census? This was happening in Chicago. Was it happening as much in New York? Were the artists who were discovering these artists themselves, in some way, a little more remote?

Lynne Cooke: Well, the story is an interesting one in that the first section is pretty well-centered around New York.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Lynne Cooke: And the artists who are living and working in New York, the untrained artists whose work they’re interested in—or who Alfred Barr’s interested in—are mostly along this East Coast, and so it’s a fairly narrow spectrum.

Charlotte Burns: Is that to do with migration? This was around the Depression, so there was a lot of movement to urban centers to find work.

Lynne Cooke: In the case of someone like Jacob Lawrence, who straddles both categories, his family had moved north with the Great Migration. [Horace] Pippin, who is not in New York but is in Westchester, his family had come from the South, too, so there is that kind of movement.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Lynne Cooke: But there is work from other parts of the country that’s identified largely through the WPA, the New Deal—

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Lynne Cooke: —program. Under the WPA, people have subsidies and the opportunity to make work who had not had that before. And some of them, of course, were trained artists, but there were others like Patrociño Barela who had not. He’d been, essentially, an itinerant workman, an itinerant laborer. But through a set of circumstances in Santa Fe, he starts repairing bultos, these traditional Catholic sculptures, religious sculptures of Catholic saints.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Lynne Cooke: And he’s encouraged, and he starts to invent and innovate on this tradition. He’s put on the WPA rolls, he’s able to work full time on this, and he starts to evolve his own style and gains recognition.

Charlotte Burns: It’s so interesting how that government funding—

Lynne Cooke: It was hugely important.

Charlotte Burns: —was hugely important.

Lynne Cooke: Yes. But to go back to your question: so, in the interval years, it’s primarily the East Coast, but not exclusively, and the WPA is the agent or generator, I think, of possibilities in other parts of the country. Chicago has a certain amount, San Francisco, and so on. 

But in the second part of the 20th-century, with the regionalist movement across the country, with different regional identities starting to be identified and, in a sense, created artificially, or created self-consciously—

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Lynne Cooke: —across the cultural sphere, then this work tends to be found in different regions and is related to regional production. So, someone like Edgar Tolson who makes whittled wood figures, he’d been a former farmer, he was living in the Appalachians.

Charlotte Burns: They’re such beautiful—

Lynne Cooke: And that’s a tradition there.

Charlotte Burns: Yes, they’re beautiful sculptures. 

And so, the final period is 1998 to 2013. And you see that as driven by globalization. Can you explain a little bit more what you mean?

Lynne Cooke: Well, the art world starts to expand dramatically in global terms—

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Lynne Cooke: By the late 1990s, but at the same time, I think you could say that it starts to look inwards to its own less-explored corners or—

Charlotte Burns: Yes, absolutely. 

Lynne Cooke: —sectors. And it’s the latter part, it’s the looking inwards and looking to the less obviously mainstream sectors of the art world that leads to an openness to work by self-taught artists. 

Going back to the earlier point about exhibitions helping structure these periods, in the end of the ‘90s, Harald Szeemann, who was a renowned Swiss curator who worked for many years with an interest in self-taught work, was invited to make a show in the US, and he conceived this show which would bring together icons of Modernism with a selection of self-taught work. The show never actually happened, but it’s indicative of a real shift in thinking.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Lynne Cooke: And in 2013—

Charlotte Burns: Why didn’t the show happen?

Lynne Cooke: It was largely through an inability to find funding.

Charlotte Burns: Right. 

Lynne Cooke: And it then morphed and became a show about American self-taught work without the work of the vanguards and without European work, and essentially it wasn’t the show he conceived.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Lynne Cooke: And then in 2013, with the Venice Biennale, that’s often seen to be a watershed moment. Though, what Massimiliano Gioni is doing is actually what Harald Szeemann was trying to do before.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Lynne Cooke: It brings a great deal of work together on a level playing field without distinction. And I think both the criticisms of the show, as well as the revelations, were important in shaping critical curatorial practice, and critical thinking subsequently. So, in some ways it’s a little like the exhibition “Magician de la Terre” from 1989 [at the Centre Pompidou], which had which generated a strong critical backlash, or a strong critical deconstruction of what it was doing that was very productive.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Lynne Cooke: Even without the show being seen as flawless.

Charlotte Burns: What do you think the main critical takeaways were? 

Lynne Cooke: I think that work that’s totally de-contextualized simply doesn’t read. It loses reference points—difference, distinctions—that are critical to any depth of understanding, and it relies way too heavily on biography as the filter for understanding, and therefore the more vivid the biography, the more traumatic the biography, the more authentic the work.

I think the show served to open up these questions, and to get a broader sector of the art world thinking about the terms in which contextualizing takes place, how the institutional framing shapes reception. These are not new questions, but it brought them back with a vividness. And I think it also galvanized this idea about difference determining differently, as we think of creators and individuals in general as having multiple subjectivities, not single fixed identities.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Lynne Cooke: That means that work can be seen and placed differently into dialogue with other work, and it allows for an exploration of types of work that once would have been ghetto-ized into other circumstances.

Charlotte Burns: Was it difficult for you to fundraise for this exhibition? Because one thing we’ve been seeing with major exhibitions, a lot of museum directors and curators say that it’s becoming much harder to stage these kinds of shows in which you have a thesis, in which you argue something, bring something new, take a lot of time and research. Some of these shows may or may not happen. And it’s probably easier to fund exhibitions that cast a different light on well-known figures. Did you find it difficult to fundraise for this show?

Lynne Cooke: It’s certainly true. We live in an era where monographic shows dominate.

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Lynne Cooke: And that single artist retrospectives have become not only the norm, but the dominant form of exhibition-making. There are a number of reasons, certainly funding. It seems it’s easier to fund a single artist show than it is a large group show. It’s also much easier to get loans for a single artist show than it is for a group show. We live in an era where movements are such… art history is not thought of or written about in those terms, so the theoretical and conceptual basis for an exhibition—if it’s a contemporary one—will be different and perhaps less easy to frame for a broad public.

Charlotte Burns: Right

Lynne Cooke: I think there is a whole range of reasons.

Charlotte Burns: It’s great to go and walk around the show. I found it to be a strangely emotional show. We were discussing this a little in the space. I don’t think I expected that, but there is something emotionally palpable about the work, and I don’t know if that’s because it’s less self-consciously engaged with academic ideas of the end of painting, or those kinds of things. But there is something really moving about the work when seen en masse.

Lynne Cooke: I’m not sure I identified it specifically as emotion, but I think what is relatively unusual is to walk into an exhibition and to think one knows very well the work of certain figures, and not at all another. And to be adjusting one’s understanding of someone, say, like Sheeler or Hartley, in relation to works that may be not known at all to you as a viewer. 

As one’s renegotiating, or thinking through new conversations amongst the work, I think that that takes one out of one’s almost routine response to certain work, and by taking off that layer, there is certainly a much stronger sense of affect, I think, in sorting out for oneself what is going on amongst these works, or how they might be brought into dialogue with each other.

Charlotte Burns: I was very struck by your eye. We were talking about the artist Barbara Rossi, and there were two works that I’m thinking of in the show by her, which are really great works. And I have seen other displays of her work, and I was struck today looking at the two examples you had included, that they were the best I had ever seen, and there is something about the eye of the curator which is hard to fathom, the act of looking. 

I guess I wanted to congratulate you on that. It’s palpable that these works that you’ve selected are the best of their examples, and the research and the sheer amount of time uncovering stuff, looking at stuff, re-looking, is very evident. This is a concept show, but it’s very much involved with the act of looking. And more so, I think, than any recent show I can think of. 

But also it’s indefinable. How do you know that they’re the best two Barbara Rossi works? That they’re the two you want to show?

Lynne Cooke: For me, looking at the objects, looking at them actually and not in reproduction is a really fundamental and essential part of research, and as much as possible, I have looked very intensively and as thoroughly and as expansively as possible over the last five years, and I think it’s one of the benefits, at least for me, of this show having taken so long.

I have gradually got to see quite a lot of work, and since much of it doesn’t hang in museums, it’s been a slow process. But learning what someone’s oeuvre starts to be if there is no monographic book on it, that means that when one is looking at an object, you have to be really patient and attentive. And I have tried to spend as much time looking and thinking and re-thinking and re-looking where possible, before winnowing down the selections to two or three for each artist. 

Charlotte Burns: I wanted to ask you, before I let you go, what is your next project?

Lynne Cooke: My next project will also have a large timespan, I think, and it will look at certain kinds of work that can be linked in order to probe some bigger questions. So, it’s not a monographic show of a single artist, and it’s not a movement. It’s going to look at the intersection of Modernist painting, and later, Modernist sculpture with woven forms. 

Charlotte Burns: Oh, that’s so interesting.

Lynne Cooke: And Abstraction will be at the core of it, and I think—I’m not sure, because I’m at the beginning—I think it’s going to try and tease out another strand, another narrative of Modernism from the more familiar ones we have of 20th-century Abstraction.

Charlotte Burns: Do you feel the urge ever to look at contemporary?

Lynne Cooke: It will end up in the present, as this show does.

Charlotte Burns: As this show has, of course.

Lynne Cooke: And this show, the latest work was 2017. Jessica Stockholder made a piece.

Charlotte Burns: Couldn’t have been much more recent, actually.

Lynne Cooke: For me, it’s important to start with question which are live, that are of the present for us now, and to look backwards to see what past precedent proposes, or to see how those questions were explored under somewhat different circumstances in a different historical moment because they can be immensely informative.

Charlotte Burns: There is something about the show, the thing of time being an arrow and flying straight forward in a linear fashion, you realize how circular it is. So, we’ve just gone in these big sweeping circles, coming back around to the same things, and we’re at a point in that circle where we’re recognizing them whilst it’s a moment of change and tension and upheaval in a similar sort of way, so these things seem very timely once again. 

Lynne Cooke: Yes, absolutely. And we perhaps think that the arrow isn’t alone, that there is a whole phalanx of arrows.

Charlotte Burns: Yes, a slew of arrows. Well, thank you so much for being my guest. For anybody who hasn’t yet seen the show, do go and see it. And it’s going to be touring after, and the catalog is excellent as well. Thank you so much, Lynne.

Lynne Cooke: Thanks very much, Charlotte.