In the late 1930s and early 1940s, MoMA mounted a number of exhibitions dedicated to artists far removed from the mainstream art world. As Alfred H. Barr Jr., the director at the time, noted, they were known as “naives, amateurs, self-taught, folk or popular artists, Sunday painters, instinctives . . . which, though none is really satisfactory, throw some light on the character of their art.” He was referring to artists who did not train or work as professional artists.
Today they are most often described as “self-taught” or “outsider,” terms that still fail to convey the broadly eclectic nature of their work. For Barr, who worked to incorporate self-taught artists into the narratives of art history, attention to them was essential to understanding modernism and its insistence on the non-academic and the instinctual. Several of the artists featured here were included in the Museum’s 1938 exhibition Masters of Popular Painting: Modern Primitives of Europe and America, and works by them were acquired soon thereafter.