Frank Maresca, part-owner of the Ricco/Maresca Gallery, is one of the leading experts on and collectors of outsider art in the country. He’s something of a natural educator, carefully defining for us the distinction between ‘outsider artist’ and ‘self-taught artist’. His apartment, so restrained and pristine that it is a little eerie, is a kind of foil to the collection of extraordinary work and found objects that he owns.
I wanted to go back to basics and talk about the whole concept of ‘outsider art’ – I mean there isn’t any such thing as ‘outsider writing’ or ‘outsider music’ – can you talk about the context of ‘outsider art’?
I don’t particularly like the term, I’ve never really liked the term. It is the term that has really stuck and it’s stuck for a number of reasons, mainly because, certainly at least here in America … it’s become a romanticized term. Mostly everyone that I know when you mention a person who is an outsider, they don’t think of someone who is operating so far outside of society (as we know it) to be they need to be with caregivers—that is [my] definition of outsider art—in the same way that the artist Dubuffet defined it essentially as the art of the insane.
But if you were to talk [in general] to people in the States, the figures that would come to mind would be someone like James Dean, Marlon Brando, Isadora Duncan …
So what do you think, in your world, of the role of the self-taught artist?
That is absolutely what it’s about. It’s about influence. Certainly this the case with the self-taught, and the outsider artists—it is important to me to make the distinction between the two … the outsiders are so lost in their own worlds that they need someone from ‘inside’ society to be caregivers. People who accept the term ‘outsider artist’ would say: Oh, William Hawkins was an outsider. Well why consider William Hawkins an outsider artist? Well, they would say because he had a third grade education, because he was illiterate, because he collected cardboard on the street, because he painted his shoes and his pants and he walked around with a Mexican sombrero on, or because he wore 20 tie tacks … the truth is none of that has anything to do with anything. It doesn’t make him an outsider artist because he was perfectly sane. I learned more from William Hawkins about art than I did from all my contemporaries. We consider William Hawkins to be a self-taught artist … [he] was operating outside of the art-historical continuum. He was not influenced by any other artist. But it doesn’t mean that he wasn’t influenced by popular culture.
My sense is that the sorts of things you have in here are the sorts of things a trained artists needs to look at in order to learn.
Yes, absolutely. It has served as inspiration for so many artists. It has given them raw material for them to make their own art. If you go back to the birth of Modernism … Picasso and Matisse and Braque were collecting tribal art. And then you look at what they were producing in 1906, up to 1915 …
Now ‘tramp art’ is a whole different category.
Tramp art really has nothing to do with anything. It started out as a craft. It is not terribly different from other types of carving. Tramp art is a technique. It is made from discarded crate material. There are two pieces of tramp art over there … particularly the silver chest … now you could say, if it was painted black, well you mentioned Louise Nevelson … if Louise Nevelson had seen it, she would have appreciated it. Did she look at tramp art? We don’t know.
[Sian] I mean that painting over there looks like a Howard Hodgkins…
Very good! You get points for that! That’s a great call. It’s a William Hawkins but I’ve always thought exactly the same thing for more than 15 years. Maybe in all that time only two or three other people have made that call.
I want to know about madness…
Tramp art tells you nothing about with madness. It does have to do with being compulsive, obsessive, repetitious … it does have to do with access to cheap materials. It has nothing to do with ‘tramps’. It got its name because it takes a long time to do … and people felt that tramps because they were not gainfully employed, had a lot of time on their hands. It’s a classic misnomer.
So let’s talk about the madness in the other art … is it unintentionally profound? I read that somewhere.
I don’t really like that. I don’t buy it at all. It assumes that the person that made it was being unintentional and we can’t really know that. Just because you can’t get into someone’s head doesn’t mean that the intention wasn’t there.
Is this art valuable because it has this thing that all artists search for – it has this childlike quality, and I say ‘childlike’ with care, I mean this very first unfiltered response to the world?
It’s a thing that lots of people bring up. It is something that probably has a fine degree of validity to it, at the same time, it’s something that my parents would say …
That’s very common.
Very common. I would show my parents a Cy Twombly and my father would say ‘Any child could do that. What does it mean, all of these scribbles?’ My dad would say, ‘The Renaissance, that’s art. This isn’t art.’
What was your defense to that?
I never had any defense with my parents. They were beyond …
Yes. They wanted me to become a dentist. And they were disappointed to the end that I never became a dentist. The dentist in our neighborhood was the only person who drove a Mercedes.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. My father had an olive oil family business. Both of my parents were Italian. They were both from Sorrento, just south of Rome.
How Italian do you feel?
Not at all.