Boffo, date unknown, by William Hawkins (American, 1895 - 1990). Paint, tarmac, and wood on panel, mounted on wood, 44 1/2 x 51 1/2 inches (113 x 130.8 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art: Promised gift of Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz. Photograph by Will Brown.
Approximately 190 works by self-taught artists have become promised gifts to the Philadelphia Museum of Art from Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz, who have assembled over the past three decades one of the finest collections of outsider art in private hands in the United States. Their donation, which the Museum will celebrate with an exhibition and catalogue in spring of 2013, will increase the Museum’s holdings of outsider art by more than sixty percent. Sheldon Bonovitz is a member of the Museum’s Board of Trustees.
“Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz have been pathfinders in this field,” said Timothy Rub, the Museum’s George D. Widener Director and CEO. “Their dedication to the work of self-taught artists and the exceptional vision they have brought to the development of their collection will now benefit the public and enable others to understand and appreciate this important, but little known aspect of modern and contemporary art.” The exhibition planned for 2013 will focus on American artists active between the 1930s and 1980s, many of whom are African American, and will feature works by such iconic figures as William Edmondson, Bill Traylor, and Martín Ramírez, as well as by somewhat lesser-known but widely respected artists such as James Castle, Howard Finster, William Hawkins, and Elijah Pierce. “Self-taught artists use a wide range of inventive working methods and often employ unconventional materials, including house paint, wood scraps, roofing tin, and shirt cardboard,” said Ann Percy, Curator of Drawings. “The individuality that characterizes the work and the artists’ methods of conceiving images independently of familiar styles, trends, or movements will appeal to a diverse audience interested in exploring new terrain in the art of the 20th and 21st centuries.” Among the highlights of the Bonovitz collection are six works by William Edmondson (1874-1951), including the stone sculpture Horse. A retired janitor from Nashville, Tennessee, Edmondson took up carving tombstones and outdoor stone ornaments in his mid to late fifties, sometime in the early 1930s. Over the next decade and a half he filled his back yard with small figures of birds, animals, and people, which he sculpted from found chunks of limestone using an old railroad spike for a chisel. Masterful in their simplification of form, pared down to the barest essentials, minimally articulated as to surface and texture, and almost geometric in their near abstraction, these works are today considered among the finest achievements of self-taught art in the United States. Mexican-born Martín Ramírez (1895-1963), who ranks among the most respected self-taught artists in North America, is represented by seven spectacular works in the Bonovitz collection. Working with found materials from the confines of DeWitt State Hospital, Auburn, California – diagnosed with schizophrenia, Ramírez spent the greater part of his adult life in mental institutions – he reportedly employed ad hoc substances like spit, bread, and perhaps even mashed potatoes to bind together bits and pieces of used paper into large drawing surfaces. On these irregular sheets he laid down thick, expressive crayon and graphite lines to create remarkably conceived, semi-abstracted images of trains, tunnels, Madonnas, horsemen, animals, and landscapes, often adding collaged elements from popular books or magazines. Combined with the works by Ramírez already owned by the museum, the Bonovitz gift will place Philadelphia’s holdings of this important artist among the finest in public institutions in the country. Known for his vibrantly colored, dramatically stylized paintings, William Hawkins (1895-1990) turned to art seriously at around age 85, after a life spent working – mostly in Columbus, Ohio – at jobs such as farming, truck-driving, demolition, and steel casting. The Bonovitz collection includes six major works by this artist, who employed brightly colored semi-gloss enamel paints, often poured directly onto large pieces of plywood or Masonite and energetically mixed, swirled, and scumbled with a stubby old paintbrush. His images, dramatic in effect and whimsical in composition, were derived from newspapers, magazines, photographs, and advertisements, and he often incorporated found materials into his works. In Boffo, the animal’s head and shoulders are built up with a heavy application of a bituminous substance such as tar or asphalt. Bill Traylor’s works consist of flattened, simplified, and silhouetted images that are drawn with great skill and ingenuity on often-irregular paper or cardboard surfaces, as seen in House with Two Men, Dog, and Bird, one of a dozen superb works by the artist in the collection. People, birds, and animals are in constant action in Traylor’s work, running, climbing, shooting, fighting, yelling, drinking, poking, chasing, pointing, or sitting, often within or on top of strange, unidentifiable geometric structures. Born a slave, Traylor (c. 1853-1949) spent most of his life as a farmhand; however, for a few years in the late 1930s and early 1940s, homeless and in his late eighties, he drew pictures in pencil, colored pencil, and poster paint on found pieces of cardboard, making his art on a sidewalk in downtown Montgomery, Alabama. The Philadelphia Museum of Art began acquiring works by self-taught artists in 1993 and has organized a major traveling exhibition in this field, James Castle: A Retrospective (2008-09). The Museum currently owns approximately 300 works by more than 50 self-taught artists. It is committed to showing their work in the context of mainstream production, as it often resonates in evocative ways with major movements represented in the collection, such as Dada and Surrealism, and with many aspects of contemporary practice. This was demonstrated in an exhibition mounted in 2000, entitled When Reason Dreams: Drawings Inspired by the Visionary, the Fantastic, and the Unreal. The new promised gifts will place the Museum among the major public holdings of outsider art in the country, along with those of the American Folk Art Museum in New York, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, and the Milwaukee Art Museum. “Jill and I are delighted to make this commitment of the works in our collection which have been selected by the Museum’s curators,” said Sheldon Bonovitz. “With our gift, we are helping the Museum build recognition across a wide audience for the remarkable contributions of self-taught artists. We thank the Museum for recognizing the importance of self-taught artists within the broader field of contemporary art and hope that it will encourage other donors to help us further this important mission.”