Art for Art’s Sake

Everybody’s agog at the Christie’s auction this week where Andy Warhol’s “Triple Elvis (Ferus Type)” sold for $81.9 million and his “Four Marlons” brought in $69.6 million. Impressive numbers, but the art didn’t do much for me. What has impressed me lately, however, was art from two creators who had no interest in selling their art or even displaying it.

The Brooklyn Museum’s retrospective of pieces by Judith Scott, “Bound and Unbound,” runs through March 29. The Rye (New York) Arts Center just extended its densely packed exhibit “Irving Harper: A Mid-Century Mind at Play.” Both exhibits show art created purely for art’s sake, expressions of personal passion unconcerned with commercial success. I highly recommend both exhibits.

This marks the second time I’ve seen an exhibit of Scott’s work. She takes the concept of “outsider art” to the level of the platonic ideal. Scott was born with Down’s syndrome, and lost her hearing as a child. The museum’s description of the exhibit says,

Scott was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1943 with Down Syndrome. In 1987, after many years of living in isolation within an institutional setting, Scott was introduced to Creative Growth—a visionary studio art program founded thirty-five years ago in Oakland, California, to foster and serve a community of artists with developmental, mental, and physical disabilities. For the last eighteen years of her life, Scott created extraordinary and idiosyncratic objects—fastidiously assembled, fragile structures of found and scavenged materials that radically challenge and resist our attempts to define or rationalize them as sculpture.

The description is exactly right about Scott’s works. They defy explanation and, to me, exist in a space beyond understanding. Something clicked in her–think Helen Keller holding her hand under a water pump–and she created sculptures in her own style. Where did the style come from, what does it mean? Does it mean anything? Scott left no notes,no interviews, no artist’s statements, no insights into what influenced her, no instructions on how her works should be displayed. They are more mysterious than 30,000 year old cave drawings, or art delivered by a UFO. Instead of coming from “outer space,” they come from Scott’s inner space.

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A blog post can’t do justice to Scott’s art or life; she was a twin, and her sister Joyce became her legal guardian when they were in their 40s to move her from an institution to a more humane and creative environment. Joyce’s website gives a wonderful overview of their relationship and Judith’s career, including family photos. Joyce nurtured her sister’s artistic talents and they reconnected with the loving relationship they had as children. Judith Scott died in 2005, but her legacy continues through books, videos and major art exhibits.

P1190506-editIrving Harper, meanwhile, didn’t quite use scavenged materials in his artwork, but simple materials that could be found in any grade-school art class — paper, cutters, glue, string. He began creating complex paper sculptures in the 1950s as a diversion from his work at a designer in New York. Tinkering in his spare moments, he did sculptures in a huge range of styles and influences. The exhibit at the Rye Arts Center, his first, shows influences by African masks, Picasso and even, to my eye, the beloved 1960s drawing toy, the Spirograph. Taylor, now 98 years old and retired, never wanted to exhibit his works, but he finally agreed and the public is all the richer for that. The pieces are as amazing in their own way as Judith Scott’s. The exhibit website says,

This solo retrospective debuts the private works of design genius Irving Harper at The Rye Arts Center. Known professionally for his iconic contributions to the George Nelson Office, including the 1949 Ball Clock, Herman Miller logo and the 1956 Marshmallow sofa, Harper’s personal creations have never before been shared publicly.

Harper’s works, which he houses in a barn and the top level of his home, are complex and yet use materials anybody can relate to. They’re so effortless, playful and unassuming, I could instantly connect to them as both art and artful constructions.

Coming from very different life circumstances, Scott and Harper showed the unquenchable human drive for self-expression. Some inner force compelled them to create with no interest in being seen or sold. Art was an itch they had to scratch. They did it for their own reasons and the world finally had a chance to enjoy their visions. I’d like to think Judith Scott and Irving Harper would greatly enjoy each other’s art as kindred spirits.

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