LACMA ‘Outliers and American Vanguard Art’ Shows Depth of Diverse Talent

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American art has gone through a series of transitions in the past century as artists, many self-taught, embraced folk art and other non-classical techniques. Key examples showing the depth and diversity of talent from these “Outliers and American Vanguard Art” are now on view through March 17, 2019, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).

“Outliers and American Vanguard Art” features more than 250 works by over 80 schooled and unschooled artists. The assemblage in a variety of media, including paintings, textiles, sculptures, photographs, folk arts and more, demonstrates the values of more diverse representation and perspectives in the art world.


“LACMA has a longstanding relationship with the content presented in Outliers,” noted Michael Govan, who is CEO and Wallis Annenberg Director at LACMA. The museum presented an earlier look at outliers in 1992 and has expanded its collection in recent years with more works by self-taught and more diverse artists. However, this is the first major West Coast exhibition to deeply explore periods when avant-garde artists transformed American art with their incorporation of older folk elements and culturally diverse imagery. Organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, where the exhibit was on view earlier this year before moving to Atlanta and then L.A.

Split Into Three Epochs

“Outliers and American Vanguard Art” is divided into three periods:

  • Mid-1920s to early 1940s, particularly the aftermath of the Depression. After World War I, artists used historic American folk art for inspiration. People became fascinated with Hispanic devotional artifacts and Pueblo Indian culture. African Americans, such as Malvin Gray Johnson and Palmer Hayden, drew on their heritage and Southern spirituals. Later, once the Depression got worse, government programs supported artists, including Patrociño Barela and Jose Dolores Lopez, whose sculptures are in the exhibit. During the 1930s, several of the self-taught artists included at LACMA gained broader recognition.
  • Late 1960s to early 1990s, exploring the effects of the civil rights, gay liberation, feminist, and counterculture movements. This section includes works by Noah Purifoy, Betye Saar, Elijah Pierce, and John Outterbridge who innovatively challenged stereotypes of race and gender with their work. This section includes a slideshow highlighting works such as Simon Rodia’s iconic Watts Towers, which is the world’s largest construction created by an individual. Artists froOutliersm the South and small rural communities embraced folk art and regional skills, such as Appalachian whittler Edgar Tolson. Additionally, photography and text-based works became more prominent in the 1990s, with photographers like Cindy Sherman and Eugene von Bruenchenhein exploring notions of truth and of masquerade. These and the other artists in this section particularly looked at roles conventionally assigned to women.
  • The third and final section of the exhibition explores the years 1998 to 2013. This section incorporates quilting and textiles created by a close-knit community of African American women in Alabama, includingAnnie Mae Young and Mary Lee Bendolph. It also features pieces by abstract painters, such as Mary Heilmann, Howardena Pindell and Alan Shields.

While several works are intriguing and eye-catching, highlights include Adam and Eve and the Serpent,” a carved wood tableau by Lopez; a limestone sculpture evocative of African tribal works of abolitionist John Brown by Henry Bannarn; “Pearl Harbor and the African Queen” by Pierce, the stunning “Tiger” oil painting by Morris Hirshfield, and Heilmann’s “Orchid Lady.” While some areas of the show are less intriguing, “Outliers and American Vanguard Art” at LACMA offers a glimpse at the breadth and depth of art talent in the U.S. in the 20th century.

By Dyanne Weiss

Exhibition preview
LACMA: Exhibition Advisory: Outliers and American Vanguard Art

Photos by Dyanne Weiss of:
“ Tiger, 1940,” by Morris Hirshfield (1872-1946), oil painting, on loan from Museum Of Modern Art.
“John Brown, 1940,” by Henry Bannarn (1910-1965), Howard University Gallery of Art.
“Pearl Harbor and the African Queen, 1941,” by Elijah Pierce (1892-1984), paint and glitter on wood, on loan from Milwaukee Art Museum.