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The Inside Guide to Outside Art
Five Artists to Watch at New York’s Outsider Art Fair

By Ellen Gamerman
January 29, 2015

Now on view: work by artists who don’t know they’re artists.

The Outsider Art Fair, an international show of work by self-taught artists isolated from the mainstream, kicked off Thursday in New York. Even at a time when art in the world’s great museums can be found everywhere online, the fair argues that there is still such a thing as untouched genius.

Increasingly, insiders are hunting for outsider work. A fantastical watercolor and pencil piece by former hospital custodian Henry Darger sold for $745,000 at Christie’s last year, setting an auction record for the artist. Next year, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art will display a new donation of art by untrained African-American artists from the South that includes 10 pieces by outsider legend Thornton Dial.

Outsider art has become so popular that dealers are sharpening their search for phonies. “Sure, there are people trying to get on the train,” said Andrew Edlin, a New York art dealer who owns the fair. “Someone emails you saying, ‘I’m an outsider artist.’ That almost reflexively disqualifies you.”

Months before the fair, a vetting committee studies the artists on the roster to make sure they belong, Mr. Edlin said. “Sometimes an artist kind of looks outside, but then, ‘Hey, look what I found—an MFA,’” he said. While some artists may have received a bit of training, they largely are working on the margins, some grappling with poverty and mental illness.

Musician David Byrne is a fan of the genre. The former Talking Heads frontman commissioned art from the traveling Baptist minister and outsider artist Howard Finster for the 1985 album “Little Creatures.”

“I found the work hugely inspiring—straight from the dark, twisted heart that we all share,” he wrote in an email. The New Yorker’s purchases include drawings from a man outside a halfway house on his block and work by high-profile artists like Mr. Darger. “Some of the stuff I have I couldn’t afford now,” he said. Here are five artists not to be missed at the fair, which runs through Sunday.

Augustin Lesage’s ‘Untitled,’ circa 1943 PHOTO: GALERIE ST. ETIENNE, N.Y.

Augustin Lesage
Mr. Lesage is a Hall of Famer in the world of “art brut,” as outsider art is also known. The former coal miner from France attended séances and believed that voices, including one belonging to his dead sister, told him to paint. He went on to earn a living as a medium and artist before his death in 1954.

Adolf Wölfli’s ‘Untitled‘ PHOTO: ANDREW EDLIN GALLERY

 Adolf Wölfli
The schizophrenic artist who lived in a Swiss mental institution for most of his adult life created mandala-like images featuring what appeared to be self-portraits—pictures of “St. Adolf II,” his alter ego who went on imaginary journeys. Much of the work on the market by Mr. Wölfli, who died in 1930, was what he called “bread art,” pieces he sold or traded for art materials.

Judith Scott’s ‘Untitled,’ 2003 PHOTO: CREATIVE GROWTH ART CENTER

Judith Scott
The late artist, now the subject of a solo show at New York’s Brooklyn Museum, was born with Down syndrome and largely deaf. She was institutionalized for decades until the 1980s, when her twin sister moved her from Ohio to California. There, she found art, wrapping objects in yarn and other materials.

Susan Te Kahurangi King’s ‘Untitled,’ circa 1978 PHOTO: SUSAN TE KAHURANGI KING/CHRIS BYRNE

Susan Te Kahurangi King
The 63-year-old New Zealand artist stopped speaking by the time she turned six. She returned to drawing in 2008 after abandoning it for nearly two decades. Her pieces, which made their New York gallery debut in a show by independent curator Chris Byrne at Mr. Edlin’s gallery last year, often depict a cartoon world gone awry.

Jerry the Marble Faun’s ‘Windsor,’ 2009 PHOTO: JACKIE KLEMPAY GALLERY

Jerry the Marble Faun
The onetime gardener at Grey Gardens goes by a nickname bestowed on him by one of the Long Island estate’s famously eccentric occupants. Work by the 60-year-old artist, who began carving dragon heads and other figures in marble, limestone and alabaster in the late 1980s, appears at the fair for the first time.