There’s no other artist whose feelings or ideas come closer to my own than Ryder’s. The things I say about Ryder’s work, I expect to have in my own. They may not be, but I hope that they are. Seeing Ryder’s work seemed to clarify my sense for things inside of myself. […] In my thinking of the EMOTION, or IMAGINATION versus the INTELLECTUAL or AESTHETIC gesturing in Ryder’s work, I struggle to understand each of their properties and their actualities in paint. […] In World War II, Gorky wanted to form a camouflage unit with artists in the army. He said because an artist’s job was to make the INVISIBLE VISIBLE, they would be best at making the VISIBLE INVISIBLE. If Ryder were still around, all of them, Gorky, de Kooning, and Pollock, etc. enlisted and informed this unit, Ryder would be elected Commander because he would be the oldest and would have experimented the most with paint.
Bill Jensen, “Notes on Albert Pinkham Ryder,” in The Brooklyn Rail, March 2002
One of the most romantic anecdotes in art history is the discovery of Henry Darger’s work by his landlord Nathan Lerner, just a couple of months before Darger’s death. For decades, Lerner lived next door and never knew about the secret activities of his reclusive neighbor who worked as a janitor. Being an established artist himself, Lerner decided to keep everything (the artworks and all the junk) in the room until his own death in 1997. Another such compelling story goes back to 1917 when Marcel Duchamp publicly declared his interest in an obscure artist named Louis Michel Eilshemius, whom he then championed through the Société Anonyme. Even though both Darger and Eilshemius have had exhibitions over the years and are in museum collections, I have always been surprised at how little interest these artists arouse among art historians and museums compared to the adoration and reverence they have among artists.
When the Hirshhorn Museum recently deaccessioned several of their Eilshemius paintings (such as Washing Hair, sold for $2,200, or Portrait of a Woman, sold for $2,400), they were bought by Stefan Banz. The Swiss artist is one of several others (like Ugo Rondinone) who collect Eilshemius. Banz’s devotion to the American painter resulted in a 768-page monograph, Louis Michel Eilshemius: Peer of Poet-Painters, published in 2016. In addition, the most insightful study of Darger’s autobiographical History of My Life is the work of Carl Watson. Being a writer himself certainly has something to do with Watson’s aptitude to comprehend the creative process from the inside. We can continue this artistic filiation with Robert Gober’s dedication for Forrest Bess (another favorite among artists), Baselitz’s interest in Eugène Leroy, and the several generations that form the fan club of Albert Pinkham Ryder, whose most famous fan was Jackson Pollock.
Even though the category of “artists’ artist” is commonly used in conversations, giving a definition is more difficult. Basically everyone can enter that category of artistic brotherhood, but some more than others, especially those who interest mainly artists. However, even in the small sample represented here, there is a large variety of artistic types: we have Darger the outsider; Eilshemius the academically trained and rejected by the professional art world; Blakelock whose life ended in mental institutions; Renoir the famous impressionist painter whose late work is considered outdated or kitsch; Duane Zaloudek, the cowboy painter, etc.
The main characteristic of most of these personalities is their extreme romanticism. This “moonlight aesthetic” was overtly rejected in the futurist manifesto that launched the avant-garde era (which, in its way, propelled the modernist heroic romanticism of tabula rasa). It seems that it is precisely the authenticity, sincerity—not to be misunderstood with the innocent primitive, since many are academically trained—highly emotional, and pictorial/expressionist qualities (that might seem inadequate with post-modern cynicism) of these works that attract artists. It is probably this emotional quality that makes these works maladjusted for theoretical or historical speculation (especially when such dramatic emotion cannot be legitimated by biographical, pathological, or historical/social issues). They do not fit any narrative. Franz Kline, speaking on artists such as Ryder, said, “The final test of painting, theirs, mine, any other, is: does the painter’s emotion come across?”
When artists speak of their peers, they reveal something about their own practices and aspirations: the longing for a kindred spirit or for what they are not and maybe wish to be. Thinking of Pollock’s interest in both Picasso and Ryder, I have been fascinated with how differently these interests were expressed in his work. Whereas Picasso had been a constant battle for Pollock (psychoanalysts would probably define it as “killing the father;” we would call it emulation), his admiration for Ryder does not seem to have been experienced in such a conflicting way. You do not compete with a saint.