A new exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art gives outsider art its due thanks to local philanthropists/collectors Shelly and Jill Bonovitz.
Sheldon and Jill Bonovitz are a portrait in contrasts. Sheldon, 75, a Harvard Law grad and chairman emeritus of Duane Morris LLP, is a brilliant strategist who gets jazzed by the art of the deal and has been known to accept impromptu offers to go bungee jumping.
Though average in stature, you can easily pick him out in a crowd by his trademark bow tie and unruly mop of grey hair. Jill, 72, is a co-founder of The Clay Studio and a ceramicist whose minimalist porcelain vessels are part of museum collections around the country. An unfussy, lean and lanky woman, her favored attire — when not working in her studio — is dark tights and tunics that she might brighten with orange sneakers. Where he is cool, voluble and self-assured, she is gentle, soft-spoken and quietly enthusiastic.
While you may not know either of the Bonovitzes personally, you will certainly recognize their names if you have had your pulse quickened by a visit to the new exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, “Great and Mighty Things: Outsider Art from the Collection of Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz.” (The title comes from an Old Testament passage inscribed on a painting by one of the show’s most prolific artists, a self-ordained preacher named Howard Finster.)
Neither Sheldon nor Jill started out with the intention of collecting enough of anything to warrant a museum show. Sheldon was raised in Cleveland, the son of a wholesale fish merchant. If a piece of art occasionally adorned his home, it was likely to be a school drawing tacked onto the refrigerator. Not until college, when an art appreciation course at Penn opened his eyes, did he discover what would become one of his life’s passions. Jill, on the other hand, grew up comfortably in suburban Philadelphia, immersed in the art world. Her mother, Janet Fleisher, was a legendary local art figure whose eponymous gallery exhibited international ethnic, folk and outsider art. But what has cemented the lawyer and the artist through 46 years of marriage are the critical things they have in common: their devotion to family, their strong social conscience, their love of movies — and an evolving deep, mutual interest in art.
Their first art purchase was a Navajo saddle blanket that they still own. Soon, their acquisitions moved toward contemporary art. Rarely have they disagreed on a purchase and when they do, they each posess veto power. Over the years, they’ve honed their taste and their eye by spending nearly every weekend (except for summers at the shore) cruising galleries and museums. “We didn’t start out to be collectors.” Sheldon emphasizes. “We just began buying art we wanted to live with.” Jill elaborates, “Sheldon is the more motivated buyer. I need to live with art but I don’t need to collect it. I actually have to be careful not to say I love something when we’re walking around an art fair, because he’ll buy it.”
They might never have shifted their focus away from the contemporary realm had they not been unexpectedly blown away by a transformative exhibit at the Corcoran Art Gallery in Washington, D.C., in 1982, titled “Black Folk Art in America 1930-1980.” “We were already somewhat familiar with outsider art because of Jill’s mother,” Sheldon points out, “but this show was a real eye-opener. It got us tremendously excited.”
That set them on a new path. They began purchasing outsider art, which is generally defined as art produced by those who have never had formal training. Their selections have always been chosen by the same formula: If they see it and love it, they buy it. They primarily shop in galleries and art shows, occasionally buying directly from an artist. Sometimes, they’ll spot a find in a dusty antiques shop where Sheldon may shock a clerk by paying the asking price and not dickering. And suddenly, after years of selecting a piece here and a few pieces there, they realized they’d morphed into significant collectors. So significant that 200 of the pieces they’ve amassed over the last three decades are currently on display in the PMA show. When the exhibit closes on June 9, the 200 pieces will not go into storage but back up where they’ve been: some on the walls of the 30,000-square foot Duane Morris offices in Center City, and the rest spread between the Bonovitzes’ home off Rittenhouse Square, their apartment in New York and their summer place on Long Beach Island. All their residences are minimally furnished — the better to showcase their art. But when the time comes that both of them have gone on to the great gallery in the sky, the collection will return to PMA, thanks to a bequest that was assiduously cultivated by the late museum director Anne d’Harnoncourt, who first approached the couple back in 2001 with a handwritten note expressing interest in their collection. D’Harnoncourt was among the first museum leaders to acknowledge the importance of outsider art. She expressed her advocacy as far back as 1998 by mounting a major exhibit at PMA, “Self-Taught,” that told the art world to sit up and pay attention to this style.
PMA doesn’t have a huge acquisition fund, so it frequently courts collectors to augment its rosters. So it was no surprise that d’Harnoncourt avidly pursued the Bonovitz collection as the capstone to the museum’s 300-plus existing holdings in outsider art where, she penned in her note to them, it would add “diversity, strength and breadth to the museum’s modern and contemporary collections.” D’Harnoncourt held the opinion that outsider art should be shown in the context of art in general — a view that dovetailed perfectly with the Bonovitzes’ perspective.
“We didn’t want to ghetto-ize our collection in an institution devoted solely to this kind of material,” says Sheldon. “We strongly believe that outsider art is part of the world of contemporary art and should hang alongside it so the parallels between them stand out. And,” he continues, “we feel so very lucky to have this legacy we can give back to the community.” Jill adds, “It’s very comforting to know that after we are no longer here, our art is going to be taken care of, seen and appreciated. Our sons aren’t very interested in this and we didn’t want to leave them with the messy situation of disposing of it.” Ironically, a collection of this size and quality would sell like hotcakes on the open market because the available supply of outsider art is drying up. With modern mass communication, compulsory education, social welfare and globalization, the world that nurtured these self-taught artists — living on the fringes, untouched by society’s rules and influences — barely exists anymore. And most of them are already gone as well.
At first glance, the works in this exhibit, which were created primarily between 1930 and 1980, will strike many visitors as something a child could do. “I expect lots of people won’t get it,” Jill says candidly. “But I hope they will be moved. It needs to be seen emotionally rather than intellectually. What I’d really like is for people to get as much joy from this art as we do.”
The term “outsider art” suggests what you can expect at this exhibition: work created outside the mainstream. Unlike folk art, which comes from a tradition lovingly passed from generation to generation, outsider artists are sui generis. They are always self-taught and frequently poor, rural, with little formal education and no art training or influences beyond whatever pop culture they might have gleaned from old magazines. Many were black or Hispanic; some felt commanded to paint and draw by God, some by their inner voices. All they share in common is their uniqueness. “They don’t belong to styles or movements or trends and they didn’t sit around in cafés discussing art,” explains Ann Percy, who curated the show. “Yet they used some of the same strategies as trained contemporary artists — abstraction, collage, text as art, surrealism, found materials. But they adapted them in a very personal way.” Consider that Sam Doyle’s canvases were nothing more than corrugated iron sheets used for roofing, while James Castle dipped his pencils in a mix of saliva and soot. Others made art from chicken bones, wood scraps, glitter, beads and wire, using tools from the shed, the hardware store, the junkyard. The result is idiosyncratic and eccentric art — but art all the same, crude in execution but masterful in color and composition.
Presenting a show that has no unifying theme or stylistic similarity was the challenge confronting Jack Schlechter, PMA’s director of design installation. Faced with displaying 27 unrelated artists, it was decided that it made the most sense to cordon them off individually. But how? Schlechter’s inventive solution was to showcase each artist’s unique vision by creating several low-walled pavilions or boxes off a long, central artery. The overall effect is one of many intimate spaces within the grandeur of a larger, airy whole. For a show of such variety, it’s surprisingly easy to navigate. It’s a great show for kids — there’s even a special children’s guide to help them appreciate it. The innovative audio guide (free, also thanks to the Bonovitzes) uses videos and stories featuring the artists as well as their work. This is all part of Sheldon and Jill’s commitment to educating the public about outsider art and underwriting scholarly exposure to the genre. In that vein, they’ve already established a foundation that produced the well-received 2010 documentary, James Castle: Portrit of an Outsider Artist.
And don’t miss the museum pop-up shop organized by Stuart Gerstein, who always manages to put together an imaginative, eclectic mix that, in this case, combines vintage dolls and toys, one-of-a-kind objects, prints, T-shirts and other merchandise the museum manufactured just for the show as well as some remarkably serendipitous finds. An example: When the prolific preacher/artist Howard Finster died, he left the enormous stash of prints and drawings in his estate to his wife. Totally overwhelmed and unable to handle the flood of requests from dealers, she simply stopped returning all phone calls. That explained why the museum had not been able to contact her to secure rights for some of the Finster work they wanted to reproduce. In exasperation, Gerstein just picked up the phone and managed to get hold of Finster’s daughter. For reasons no more clear than her explanation, “Daddy sent you to me,” she invited him to her house in a tiny town outside of Atlanta. During their visit, she showed him a huge cache of Finster prints shoved under her bed and gave them to him, along with one of her father’s funky, hand-sewn suits. The prints he carried back to Philadelphia are now framed and for sale in the shop, and the suit will be preserved for posterity in the museum’s textile collection.
There is no established pattern that governs why a museum decides to invest in a exhibit about Matisse or Van Gogh or whoever. Some may wonder why PMA chose to put its resources into displaying works so far off the beaten art track. The answer, in the words of Ann Percy, is as refreshing as the outsider art itself. “Our hope in showing this work is to give people a surprise, to let them know that interesting and powerful art can come from unexpected circumstances.” o
Carol Saline is Inside’s maven for all things having to do with the arts in Philadelphia. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.