Interesting Ideas

Review — As Essential as Dreams: Self-Taught Art from the Collection of Stephanie and John Smither

As Essential as Dreams: Self-Taught Art from the Collection of Stephanie and John Smither, by Michelle White, with contributions by Lynne Adele, Brooke Davis Anderson, Haley Berkman, David Breslin, Víctor M. Espinosa, William Fagaly, Edward M. Gómez, Jo Farb Hernández, Lee Kogan, Colin Rhodes and Leslie Umberger. The Menil Collection, Houston, 112 pages, 114 color illustrations, 2016. ISBN: 9780300218411. Hardcover, $45.

As Essential as Dreams could easily have been another routine entry in a long line of vanity art projects-exhibits of personal collections, ideally at prestige museums, with catalogs just weighty enough to prove the collectors’ good taste and sound artistic investment.

That’s not to say the shows can’t be fun to visit and worthily eye-opening. Indeed, the collections they feature seem to be maturing in sophistication and depth, while the rising profile of scholars is helping equalize the intellectual and physical heft of their catalogs.

The 2013 Great and Mighty Things exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art was a breakthrough show from a personal collection, and 2016’s Stephanie and John Smither show represents another gratifyingly substantial exhibit mounted by a highly-respected mainstream museum, Houston’s Menil Collection. Reports say the show was impressive in person, even if smaller than the Philadelphia blockbuster.

The catalog is also on a lesser scale physically-but still a contender in terms of content. Its account of the Smithers’ voyage of discovery into the world of self-taught art might be old news to collectors who took similar trips, figuratively and literally, in the 1980s and ’90s. Stories like these will have increasing interest, however, as those who lived this slice of art history pass on (as have the Smithers and many of the artists they met).

This book, like most of its kind, is organized by chapters on each artist, but the emphasis is not so much on the artists’ lives as on their work. Each creator is represented by multiple pieces rather than the usual one or two, with only a few artists featured in their native environments. Nor is too much ink spilled counting the number of labels that can fit on the head of a pin. (Scholarly agonizing over what to call these kinds of artists is a standard feature of volumes like this one.)

The artists do each get capsule biographies, but the real center of gravity is the close readings of their work by A-list writers, people expert enough to open up a deeper understanding of the art. These include Lynne Adele, Brooke Davis Anderson, Victor Espinosa, William Fagaly, Edward Gómez, Jo Farb Hernández, Lee Kogan, Colin Rhodes and Leslie Umberger.

It’s no surprise that this authoritative cohort uses quotations judiciously, more to shed light on the work and the art-making process than to recite self-reported personal histories. Fagaly helps elucidate Sister Gertrude Morgan’s densely-packed drawings, beyond the usual Bride of Christ narrative. Espinosa, the world’s leading Martín Ramírez expert, takes on landscapes that can lend themselves to superficial appreciation, relating them to the artist’s experience of life in California. Same level of service from Hernández on Jon Serl and Umberger on Charlie Willeto.

For me there was new discovery in some of these essays-and new appreciation for artists like Serl and Willeto whom I haven’t followed closely. While all the artists just named have received lots of attention over the years, the book also features a handful of creators not often included in surveys like this, including the Japanese artist Hiroyuki Doi, the Colorado wood carver Oscar Hadwiger and the Italian artist Domenico ZIndato.

There are a few editing misses in the book. For example, the biography of Solange Knopf has a gallerist discovering her Facebook album of drawings in 2001, though Facebook didn’t exist until 2004. But overall, alongside Great and Mighty Things, this is one of the best examples so far of a catalog devoted to a single collection. Wrapping up the fine publication is the spectacular Carlo Zinelli drawing used for the dust jacket.