Category Spotlight: Outsider Art at Auction

Liz Catalano
Published on

Historically, the art world has not been kind to those who deviate from social norms. Innovation is generally greeted with suspicion, even if it is later accepted and celebrated. The outsider art category evolved to better acknowledge and halt this pattern. 

Christie’s will bring a collection of outsider art to auction on January 21st, 2021, in New York. Before the bidding begins, Auction Daily answers common questions about outsider art at auction.

Thornton Dial, Looking for The Signs, undated. Image from Christie’s.
Thornton Dial, Looking for The Signs, undated. Image from Christie’s.

What is outsider art? 

Jean Dubuffet, a French artist and collector, first coined the term art brut or “raw art” to describe works outside of the art historical canon. These pieces are often made by individuals who lack formal training but still maintain a distinct artistic style. British writer Roger Cardinal translated Dubuffet’s art brut as “outsider art” in 1972, and the name stuck. Outsider art is now an established category with a loyal following. 

The category often includes work by artists who have experienced mental illness, poverty, or imprisonment. Many outsider artists do not create for anyone but themselves, instead focusing on their own styles and narratives. “[They are] making work that is an extension of who they are and what they’ve been through,” Andrew Edlin, a New York gallerist, told Artsy. “It’s not about trying to please their dealer, the press, the curator, or their classmates.”

Some artists do not identify with the “outsider art” label due to its complex history and potential for stigma. The market has developed other terms to describe their works in response, including folk art, naïve art, and self-taught art. Contemporary creators have greater freedom in choosing labels or avoiding labels altogether.

Bill Traylor, Two Dogs Fighting; Man Chasing Dog, 1939-1942. Image from Christie’s.
Bill Traylor, Two Dogs Fighting; Man Chasing Dog, 1939-1942. Image from Christie’s.

How does outsider art perform at auction? 

Outsider art is quickly gaining a foothold in the art industry. Annual outsider art fairs in New York and Paris help bring the category into the mainstream. Collectors can now find outsider art in dedicated galleries around the world. Many of the large auction houses also offer regular outsider art sales. 

Outsider art has been on the rise since 2013. Presale auction estimates are creeping up for artists who spent decades in the market’s shadow. In January of 2019, an outsider art auction at Christie’s netted $4,261,625. The sale set a new record in the category and boasted a 99% sell-through rate by lot. Individual auction records were set for several leading outsider artists. 

Christie’s Outsider and Vernacular Art auction this January will present 90 lots from outsider artists. The catalog includes some of the biggest names in the category.

Hiroyuki Doi, The Transmigration of the Soul, 2010 (top); detail from the same work (bottom). Images from Christie’s.
Hiroyuki Doi, The Transmigration of the Soul, 2010 (top); detail from the same work (bottom). Images from Christie’s.

Who are some outsider artists to know? 

The upcoming Christie’s auction will feature the work of Bill Traylor, an American outsider artist who spent his life working on farms. Traylor drew and painted on discarded pieces of cardboard in his last years. He often recreated scenes from his time on an Alabama plantation. Two Dogs Fighting; Man Chasing Dog is one of the leading Traylor lots in the upcoming auction (USD 100,000 – $200,000). Eight other pieces from the artist will also be available. 

Thornton Dial is another notable outsider artist highlighted in the January sale. Dial was a self-taught artist who explored racism, war, and civil rights history in his paintings. Many of his works interrogated the experience of Black Americans living in the South during the 20th century. Dial’s 1994 mixed media work titled Representative, for example, shows black and white colors building up against each other ($20,000 – $40,000). The tension in the piece reflects the social conflict left in the wake of segregation. 

Collectors seeking outsider art at auction can also consider the work of Hiroyuki Doi, a former chef who turned to art after the death of his brother. Doi draws thousands of tiny circles that together form swelling abstract forms. The artist’s The Transmigration of the Soul from 2010 will be available with an estimate of $15,000 to $30,000. 

Other titans in the outsider art category include Clementine Hunter, Purvis Young, Nellie Mae Rowe, and Martín Ramírez.

Clementine Hunter, Sunday on Cane River, Louisiana, 1955. Image from Christie’s.
Clementine Hunter, Sunday on Cane River, Louisiana, 1955. Image from Christie’s.

What should bidders look for when considering outsider art? 

When considering outsider art at auction, it can be helpful to research each work’s history. Formal transactions and museum appearances drive outsider art prices. Information about a work’s provenance and history directly translates to an understanding of its value. 

However, the most important part of art buying is finding meaningful pieces regardless of provenance. Because the mainstream art world excludes many outsider artists, some works do not have an established history. Buyers considering outsider art should bear that context in mind before heading to auction. 

Christie’s upcoming Outsider and Vernacular Art sale will be held on January 21st, 2021, at 10:00 AM EST. Visit Christie’s website for more information and to place a bid.

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