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"Great and Mighty Things": Outsider Art from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection

March 3 - June 9, 2013


This spring, more than two hundred objects from one of the United States' finest private collections of works by American self-taught artists are on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. "Great and Mighty Things": Outsider Art from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection presents drawings, paintings, sculptures, and other objects by twenty-seven artists who worked outside the boundaries of the mainstream modern and contemporary art world.

"For over three decades, Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz have assembled this extraordinary collection, and with this exhibition have promised it to the Museum. A collection-transforming gift such as this -- which includes more than 200 works of art -- is a rare thing and the Bonovitzes' remarkable generosity will greatly enhance our collection by increasing our holdings in the field, and establishing the Museum as one of the primary centers for the study of outsider art in the country," said Timothy Rub, The George D. Widener Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. "We are delighted to be able now to share with the public the creative achievements of artists who have hitherto rarely found a place in the collections and galleries of American museums."

Operating without academic training and outside traditional artistic discourse, "outsider" or "self-taught" artists create works which vary remarkably in style, content, and execution. Often produced in remote or rural places with unconventional methods and with such materials as reclaimed wood, sheet metal, house paint, and stove soot, outsider art often draws upon the artists' own experiences, their immediate surroundings, and the abundant imagery of popular culture, resulting in highly personal and intensely compelling works.

Many of these artists, whose works range in date from the 1930s to 2010, have achieved considerable reputations. Important artists such as William Edmondson, Martín Ramírez, and Bill Traylor are represented in the exhibition. These three practitioners are iconic figures among self-taught artists and have also been recognized as significant figures in the broader field of American twentieth-century art.

William Edmondson (1874-1951) was a retired hospital worker from Nashville, Tennessee, who, using an old railroad spike for a chisel, took up carving tombstones and outdoor stone ornaments from found pieces of limestone. Masterful in their simplification of form and almost geometric in their near abstraction, these works are considered today among the finest achievements of outsider art in the United States.

Mexican-born Martín Ramírez (1895-1963), who was hospitalized for a good part of his life, worked within the confines of the DeWitt State Hospital in Auburn, California, using rudimentary materials to bind together various used pieces of paper into large drawing surfaces. He employed thick crayon and graphite lines to create remarkable compositions featuring images of trains, tunnels, Madonnas, horsemen, animals, and landscapes, often adding collaged elements from popular books or magazines.

Bill Traylor (about 1853-1949), born a slave on an Alabama plantation, created graphite and poster paint drawings on found pieces of paper or cardboard, and depicted flattened and silhouetted animals, objects, and people-sometimes calm and dignified, but often disorderly and debauched. In his late eighties, while living on the streets of Montgomery, he ingeniously composed scenes of figures running, climbing, shooting, fighting, yelling, drinking, poking, chasing, pointing, or sitting, often within or on top of strange, unidentifiable geometric structures. Storytelling made manifest, these works likely narrate a long-gone African American culture of the Deep South.

"This exhibition will demonstrate how works of art of enduring interest and quality can be created by people without formal training, who have limited or no connection to art dealers, critics, galleries, museums, and schools," stated Ann Percy, the Museum's Curator of Drawings. "In this exhibition, I believe that visitors will discover new and surprising aspects of the art of the 20th and 21st centuries in the United States."

Sheldon Bonovitz, a member of the Museum's Board of Trustees and its Modern and Contemporary Art Committee, said, "We are pleased that this important collection will become a part of the Museum's permanent holdings and thereby contribute significantly to the study of outsider art. It is equally important that the public will be able to view these works that we consider integral to the history of American art in the context of other great works in the Museum's collection."



"Great and Mighty Things" is accompanied by a catalogue published by the Museum in association with Yale University Press. It includes a foreword by Timothy Rub, The George D. Widener Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and an introduction by Ann Percy, the Museum's Curator of Drawings. It also features essays by artist Francesco Clemente; Lynne Cooke, Andrew W. Mellon Professor at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art; Joanne Cubbs, Adjunct Curator of American Art, Indianapolis Museum of Art; Bernard Herman, George B. Tindall Distinguished Professor of American Studies and Folklore, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, writing in dialogue with Colin Rhodes, Professor and Dean, Sydney College of the Arts, The University of Sydney, Australia; and Cara Zimmerman, Executive Director, Foundation for Self Taught Artists, Philadelphia.

The catalogue also includes interviews with Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz about the couple's collecting of outsider art and biographies of each artist represented in the exhibition. (288 pp., 224 color and 1 black-and-white illustrations.


Public programs

A range of public programs will be offered in conjunction with "Great and Mighty Things," including a symposium and teacher workshops and classroom teaching resources about the exhibition, which reflect the deep commitment of Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz to education and to Philadelphia's public schools. A full schedule of programs will be available on the Museum's website.


Online video

Included in the Museum's website presentation for "Great and Mighty Things": Outsider Art from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection is an eight minute online gallery tour narrated by Curator Ann Percy and Curatorial Assistant Cara Zimmerman.


To view:

wall text from the exhibition please click here
object labels from the exhibition please click here


RL editor's note: readers may also enjoy:

For further biographical information on artists mentioned in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Resource Library.

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