An untitled sculpture, from the early 1970s, by an artist known only as the Philadelphia Wireman, and known only for a pile of more than 1,000 “sculptures” found discarded on a curb in Philly in 1982. The piece is in a fascinating group show at Maccarone gallery that’s titled “The Medicine Bag,” and which includes both so-called “outsider” art and art that’s definitely by insiders. (There’s also some work, by figures such as Joseph Cornell, that hovers in between.) The show raises one of modernism’s trickiest questions, that isn’t asked often enough: When it comes to pieces by artists who are not part of the modern-art game, how much of what we see in their work is their doing, and how much is it the result of tricks of looking that we viewers have learned from the artistic avant-garde? Could it be that the modernist spectator is the true creator of many works of outsider and non-Western art—which weren’t originally meant as “art” at all, in the sense we now use that word.
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