NEW YORK, Feb. 18 (UPI) -- The growing market for "outsider" art has hit it big in the sculptures and paintings of Emery Blagdon, a Great Depression hobo turned Nebraska farmer whose work is being sold for the first time since his death 28 years ago.
Some of Blagdon's work was displayed at the annual Outsider Art Fair in Manhattan's Soho art district last month by the Cavin-Morris Gallery, which specializes in self-taught artists' work. The gallery is offering more of his artistic output at prices ranging from $2,500 to $25,000 for large, spectacular wire sculptures, Blagdon's specialty.
These prices are not out of line for the work of amateur artists with little or no formal training or for the work of eccentric or even psychotic artists to which the term "outsider art" is also applied by the commercial art world. It's a form of art that has always been with us, living just below the surface of accepted art.
Only in the past 75 years has some outsider art been able to command respectability, as in the case of famous French artists Henri Rousseau and Camille Bombois, America's Grandma Moses, Poland's Nikifor, New York subway graffiti artist Michael Tracy, and Henry Darger, the untrained Chicago loner now considered one of the 20th century's most innovative artists.
Outsider art also includes the work of the Shaker and Amish sects, the vernacular artists of the Old South, the Santeros sculptors of the Southwest, and Haitian artists. Blagdon was not a member of any of these groups. He was born into a family of farmers in the Sand Hills near North Platte, Neb., dropped out of school in the eighth grade, took to the road during the Depression and then settled down on a farm he inherited from an uncle.
After leasing the farm to give himself more time to create pieces he called "healing machines," he began in 1956 to fill up an 800-square-foot shed with complex constructions of various kinds of wire, strips of aluminum, and wood scraps that he believed generated electromagnetic energy and could cure arthritis and other ailments.
He also painted big, bold paintings on wood in dynamic patterns and bright enamel-based colors that stand up well in comparison to the work of leading geometric abstractionists of the 1960s such as Frank Stella, Kenneth Noland, and Morris Louis. Whether or not he was influenced by the work of established artists is difficult to determine; he preferred to call his creations "my pretties" rather than serious works of art.
Blagdon caught the attention of Dan Dryden, a North Platte pharmacist who took note of the bearded old farmer dressed like a tramp who frequently visited the store. Dryden visited the Blagdon farm shed, in awe of its Christmas-like display of illuminated sculptures hanging like chandeliers above stacks of paintings, and never forgot what he had seen, even after he moved to New York several years later.
When Dryden returned to North Platte in 1986 for a school reunion, accompanied by classmate Don Christensen, who also lived in New York, he learned that Blagdon had just died intestate at age 78 and that local officials were planning to auction off his property, including what was described as "lots and lots of metal wire, fancy work," to settle his estate.
Dryden and Christensen decided to bid on the artwork and acquired it all. "The gavel came down, and we became stewards of Blagdon's vision," Christensen was quoted as saying.
Dryden and Christensen kept Blagdon's artworks in storage, photographing and cataloging them according to shape and style. They loaned them out only twice for exhibits in Lyon, France, in 1998 and Philadelphia in 1999. The need for expensive professional conservation of the collection eventually forced them to try to sell it to several museums, but they would only sell it in its entirety. There were no takers.
So they have put a fraction of the artwork on sale at the Cavin-Morris Gallery. Shari Cavin, whose partner is Randall Morris, reports that all works made available for sale since December have been sold, as well as half of the 20 works that have been on display at her gallery since Jan. 15. The gallery expects to have access to more Blagdon art in October.
"The response to these exquisitely beautiful works has been incredible," Cavin said. "Now we are trying to keep a majority of the works -- about 300 of them -- together in the hope that some institution with vision or someone on the board of a museum will buy them and keep them together."
While the final disposition of the collection remains in question, there is no doubt that work such Blagdon's is fast becoming a major niche market in the commercial art world. The sky seems now to be the only limit on this formerly denigrated form of expression.