Spotlight on Outsider Art: 27 Self-Taught Artists You Should Know About (Part 1)

We asked nine experts in the field to talk about their favorite self-taught artists.

We asked nine experts in the field to talk about their favorite self-taught artists.

Merrie and Dan Boone Curator of Folk and Self-Taught Art, High Museum of Art, Atlanta

An artist I would love for more people to know about is Joe Minter, whose work was in last year’s Whitney Biennial. He’s a truly remarkable living artist whose African Village in America art environment in Birmingham, Alabama, is one of the most breathtaking works I expect to see in my lifetime. It collects the history of African Americans and their continuing struggle for equality.

In recent years a lot of the artists I’ve been most excited about are coming out of studios run by helping organizations like NIAD Art Center in Richmond, California, Creative Growth in Oakland, and Fountain House in New York. At NIAD, Marlon Mullen an artist with autism spectrum disorder, makes wonderful paintings based on the pages of popular magazines. And both Monica Valentine, whose work has been at Creative Growth’s booth at the Outsider Art Fair for the past couple of years and Alyson Vega, who works with Fountain House, are artists whose use of material—sequins and beads in Valentine’s case; fabric in Vega’s—is really interesting to me. I’m excited to see more of their work in the future.

Joe Minter (b. 1943), No Luck in the Plowshares, 2008, antique plow parts, horseshoes, chains, metal seat frame, and found metal, 47 × 49 × 43 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Marlborough, New York and London. Photo: Pierre Le Hors.
Marlon Mullen (b. 1963), Untitled, 2018, acrylic on canvas, 30 x 30 1/4 inches. Courtesy of the artist; JTT, New York; and NIAD Art Center, Richmond, California.
Alyson Vega, City Garden, fabric and fiber, machine pieced, appliquéd, painted, and embellished,17 x 17 inches, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Fountain House Gallery, New York.


Monica Valentine (1955), Untitled, mixed media, 5 x 10 1/2 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Creative Growth, Oakland, California.


Co-founder and owner of the Chapel Hill record label Paradise of Bachelors

A show that really knocked me out was Kambel Smith’s exhibition at Fleisher/Ollman Gallery last fall. Smith makes large-scale, painted cardboard models of buildings—mostly Philadelphia landmarks like the Betsy Ross House and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. His work feels very fresh to me—despite being made from such modest materials it is remarkably elegant, and despite being incredibly detailed, it is also unfussily rendered in the way stage flats can be. I found those tensions fascinating.

Kambel Smith (b. 1986), Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 2019, cardboard, foam core, acrylic, oil paint, ink, paper, and plastic, 44 x 72 x 95 inches. Courtesy of the artist, Fleisher/Ollman, and Marlborough New York. Photo: Claire Iltis.


Artist and curator

Someone I would definitely include on my list is the great Brazilian outsider Arthur Bispo do Rosário, the master of all masters. He lived for 50 years of his life in an asylum in Rio de Janeiro, where he made more than 800 objects. His work was first introduced to a wider audience when it was shown in the 1995 Venice Bienniale. It was also a highlight of “The Encyclopedic Palace,” curated by Massimiliano Gioni for the 2013 Venice Biennial. Apart from major exhibitions, however, the work is rarely seen outside of the Museu Bispo do Rosário Arte Contemporanea in Rio, which owns all of his pieces but one.

I really like the artist Susan Te Kahurangi King, who was born in 1951 in New Zealand and stopped speaking at a very early age. I am amazed by how she takes Pop imagery—including cartoon characters like Donald Duck—and mixes it together to create a continuous visual space. She has a remarkable understanding of bodies, and the figures in her works flow together into one landscape, a bit the way they do in Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s.

I also find Prophet Royal Robertson very interesting. He was born in Louisiana but lived in Houston, Texas, where he died in 1997. An Afro-futurist, Robertson believed that aliens will guide humanity to a new Zion. His work reminds me a lot of Philip K. Dick’s metaphysical science fiction.

The next artist I’d like to mention is Anna Zemánková, whose work is less narrative than Robertson’s but which I think is similarly cosmic. She painted fantastical plants and flowers, and unlike botanists, who have to illustrate plants’ interior and exterior structures separately, she managed to depict both at once in a single drawing. Like Emily Dickinson’s herbarium, her work uses small things to talk about bigger things. She’s kind of a botanist of the spirit.

Finally, a wonderful new discovery is the work of Peruvian artist Judá Ben-Hur, who makes very Pop looking paintings on synthetic blankets and woven plastic bags. He shows at Gaby Yamamoto/Espacio in Lima. He’s really good.

Arthur Bispo do Rosário (1911 – 1989), Large Sailboat, wood, plastic, fabric, oil, styrofoam, metal, ink, graphite, paper, found object, cotton thread, vegetable fiber, 46 1/2 x 62 x 25 1/2 inches. Courtesy of Museu Bispo do Rosário Arte Contemporânea, Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Rodrigo Lopes.
Susan Te Kahurangi King (b. 1951), Untitled, n.d., graphite on paper, 13 1/2 x 8 1/4 inches. Courtesy of Chris Byrne and Andrew Edlin.
Prophet Royal Robertson (1936 – 1997), Untitled (“Extremies”), 1970s, enamel paint, marker, and ink on poster board, 22 x 28 inches. Courtesy of Shrine, New York.
Anna Zemánková (1908 – 1986), Untitled, c. 1970s, pastel on paper, 24 1/2 x 34 1/2 inches. Courtesy of Cavin-Morris Gallery, New York. Photo: Jurate Vecerate.
Judá Ben-Hur, Untitled, 2019, acrylic on synthetic blanket. Courtesy of the artist and Gaby Yamamoto/Espacio, Lima, Perú.