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Detail of an artwork by Thornton Dial featuring dolls, teddy bears, metal scraps, and other found objects.

Who Gets to Be an Artist in America? Meet the Gatecrashers Who Bucked Convention.

Without formal training, these artists “crashed the gates” of major museums in the United States, diversifying the art world across lines of race, ethnicity, class, ability, and gender.

By Katherine Jentleson, Merrie and Dan Boone Curator of Folk and Self-Taught Art, High Museum of Art

The newly published book offers a valuable corrective to twentieth-century art history by expanding narratives of interwar American modernism and providing an origin story for contemporary fascination with self-taught artists.

In 1994, the High Museum of Art went out on a limb and became the first general-interest museum in the country to establish a department dedicated to the work of folk and self-taught artists — artists who never went to art school.

Thornton Dial, Sr., Looking Out the Windows, 2002, Metal grating, fabric, plastic toys, stuffed animals, rope carpet, wire fencing, carpet scraps, metal, corrugated metal, metal screening, wire, nails, paint cans, Splash Zone compound, enamel, and spray paint on carpet on wood.

We’re talking artists such as Thornton Dial, who grew up in the Jim Crow South and did not have access to a formal art education.

He was even concerned that by making art, he might have been breaking the law, putting himself and his family in danger. So, for decades, he hid or destroyed the incredible art he made from found materials in postindustrial Alabama.

Now Dial’s work hangs in museums coast to coast, from the de Young Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. One of his dramatic, truth-telling works, History Refused to Die, even served as the title for a recent exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And here at the High, where we have the leading collection of Dial’s work, we are conducting a groundbreaking conservation study of major painted constructions that will explore his artistic and material choices — such as his use of Splash Zone compound to adhere objects to canvases — and how museums can best care for such nontraditional artistic methods as they safeguard his works for posterity.

Thornton Dial in black-and-white.
Thornton Dial, Sr., Crossing Waters, 2006–2011, Wire fencing, clothing, cloth, wood, metal, corrugated tin, shoe, ceramic figurines, and paint on canvas on wood.

But years, decades, nearly a century before contemporary artists like Dial “crashed the gates” of mainstream museums, there was John Kane, a Scottish American immigrant who came to the United States in 1879 to work in the Allegheny region’s booming steel industry and wound up becoming the first living self-taught artist to have his work shown in a major contemporary art exhibition.

John Kane sits looking through a trunk of his artworks.
Unknown American, Portrait of John Kane with Trunk Filled with Paintings, before 1934, gelatin silver print, Carnegie Museum of Art.

Next, there was Horace Pippin, one of the many African Americans who served his country in the segregated US Army regiments of World War I and incurred a wartime injury, which he rehabilitated while painting, later becoming one of the first Black artists to be shown by major US museums.

Horace Pippin standing holding his painter’s palette in a yard by a house.
Painting of a Sunday morning breakfast at home with mother, father, and two children.
Arnold A. Newman, Horace Pippin, 1945, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, © Arnold Newman; Horace Pippin, Sunday Morning Breakfast, 1943, Saint Louis Art Museum.

And — last but certainly not least — there was Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses, whose soothing paintings of rural New England life ultimately led her to become the most popular American artist at midcentury, both at home and abroad, the latter thanks to a United States government–backed tour of her painting that debuted in Vienna in 1950.

Grandma Moses smiles while working on a painting in her lap.
Grandma Moses painting depicting a snowy town with buildings, hills, and trains.
Grandma Moses, Hoosick Falls in Winter, 1944, oil on hardboard, © Grandma Moses Properties, Inc., Phillips Collection.

When Kane, Pippin, and Moses gained acceptance in major museums despite their humble, untutored backgrounds — and all in the last decades of their lives, no less — they forever altered the criteria for who could be celebrated as a great artist in this country. Their achievements, and the way those successes were intertwined with major trends in American art at that time, are the subject of my new book, Gatecrashers: The Rise of the Self-Taught Artist in America.

While I was in graduate school, I began researching these artists in archives of the museums and galleries that first supported them in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, including the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Barnes Foundation, and Galerie St. Etienne.

I put all of that research into my dissertation, and over the past couple of years I have had the privilege of working with the editors and designers at the University of California Press to turn that project into Gatecrashers, which is out this month.

I hope the book will be a resource for people who are interested in learning more about Kane, Pippin, and Moses, and serve as proof of how self-taught artists might be considered not as marginalized “outsiders,” as they have so often been called, but rather central figures in the history of American art. These days, I’m working on adapting the book into an exhibition that will provide visitors the chance to appreciate the paintings of this first generation of gatecrashing artists in person, so stay tuned!

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