The Harvard Art Museums announce a gift of 38 drawings, paintings, and sculpture from Didi and David Barrett’s 20th-century American Collection of Self-Taught, Folk, and Outsider Art. The gift comprises works by 24 American “outsider” artists, mostly from the 1930s through the 1990s. Among the notable figures represented in the collection are Bill Traylor, Joseph Yoakum, and Nellie Mae Rowe, whose work first came to public attention in the important Corcoran Gallery of Art exhibition Black Folk Art in America, 1930–1980. In addition, the Barretts’ gift includes three rare “ledger book drawings” made by members of the Plains Indian tribes in the late 19th century.
“We are grateful to Didi and David Barrett for their generous gift,” said Thomas W. Lentz, Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director of the Harvard Art Museums. “These ‘outsider’ works take our holdings of American contemporary art in an exciting new direction, providing a unique opportunity for study and appreciation by students, scholars, and visitors.”
Didi and David Barrett (Harvard ’71) have been involved with self-taught art for nearly three decades. Didi, a writer and consultant in the not-for-profit sector, is a trustee emerita of the American Folk Art Museum and has written on self-taught art. David Barrett is a lawyer with the firm of Boies Schiller & Flexner in New York. Their son, Alec Barrett, graduated from Harvard in 2011.
“Didi and I are especially pleased to be making this gift to the Harvard Art Museums and glad that the museums are recognizing these profoundly creative artists and their powerful expressions of the American spirit,” said David Barrett. “The university is an ideal venue for exploring this interdisciplinary material, not only in art-historical terms, but also in terms of history, cultural anthropology, sociology, and even psychology.”
“Working with David and Didi Barrett has been both a great pleasure and a wonderful learning experience,” said Theodore E. Stebbins Jr., Consultative Curator of American Art at the Harvard Art Museums. “The objects in the Barrett collection are inspirational and come at a pivotal time when our faculty and students have been asking for works of this genre.”
The Barretts’ gift includes Bill Traylor’s Mule and Plow (c. 1939–42), drawn with poster paint and ink on cardboard. Thornton Dial Sr.’s Talk Show (1990s) and Life Begins with Crawling (1992) are two of the largest paintings in the collection. Talk Show (1990s), an image of Oprah Winfrey, makes use of wire screen, lids from paint cans, and industrial sealing compound to fashion a rich, three-dimensional painterly surface that recalls abstract expressionist works.
The Barretts are also giving three paintings by Howard Finster, including If A House Be Divided against Itself That House Cannot Stand (c. 1978). Finster was a Baptist minister from Summerville, Georgia, who took up art after he had a vision that inspired him. Three works by Felipe Jesus Consalvos, a Cuban-born artist, are part of the gift. Grins and Chuckles (c. 1920–50) portrays George Washington with a zeppelin under his arm, surrounded by an array of cut-out figures from American history.
The three Native American ledger book drawings depict various subjects, including a battle, buffalo hunting, and a group of Kiowa warriors in their formal dress. Ledger art evolved from the Plains Indians’ tradition of painting and decorating the buffalo hides they wore. Between 1865 and 1900, when Native Americans were placed in confinement by the United States government, Plains artists began painting and drawing on paper and cloth. Often the paper they drew on was discarded from lined account books, or ledgers.