Paintings by the American artist Dorthy Hershman on display in the booth of Revival Arts and Marion Harris, who are offering a collaborative presentation at this year’s fair

by Edward M. Gómez

“What’s the buzz? Tell me what’s happenin’.”

So sing the faithful as they beseech a self-styled prophet to lead them to the truth in Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s seminal rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar (1970). Similarly, as the opening of every new or familiar, well-established art fair approaches, often its fans and devotees are eager to know what kinds of surprises and revelations it might have in store. What kinds of trends — particular art styles, collectors’ preferences, or the merch certain influential dealers will be pushing — will be showcased, and which ones might stick and have an impact on the market for some time to come?

Textile works by the Japanese artist Nana Yamazaki on display in the booth of Yukiko Koike Presents, a private art dealer based in Kyoto, Japan

Nowhere is such eagerness to grasp the character — and the portents — of the moment’s vibe so palpably strong as it is each year in anticipation and during the run of the Outsider Art Fair New York, which is now marking its 32nd year. The fair, which opened this past Thursday, February 29, runs through Sunday, March 23 (at Metropolitan Pavilion, 125 West 18th Street, in downtown Manhattan; the nearest subway station is 18th Street on the number 1 line).

No single trend line distinguishes the overall spirit or character of this year’s OAF. As usual, the fair offers a wide variety of creative expressions their purveyors have classified as “art brut,” “outsider art,” or “self-taught art,” from drawings, paintings, and mixed-media works by such well-known creators as Bill Traylor, Joseph Yoakum, Minnie Evans, Mary T. Smith, Adolf Wölfli, and Henry Darger to works by such emerging artists as Susan Spangenberg (fabric dolls), David Tinsley (carved-wood figures), J. Douglas Tan (colorful, exuberant abstractions), and Chris Cody (a pop culture and fashion fan’s bright, bold recreations of magazine covers).

Works on paper by Chris Cody, an artist who takes part in the workshop at SAGE Studio, in Austin Texas; these works on view in the SAGE Studio booth

Even as the outsider art field’s most ambitious — and passionate — collectors and dealers search more eagerly than ever before and, often, farther afield from outsider art’s historical-roots territories of Western Europe and North America for new material to gather and trade, broadening the meaning of “outsider art” as they do so, some longtime aficionados as well as newcomers to the field may find themselves struggling to grasp just what it all entails and why.

Just what qualifies as art that has been made outside or on the margins of mainstream culture and society, even though, understandably, its creators’ outlooks and ideas might have been influenced and shaped by particular cultures and societies in certain parts of the world?

Just where are the margins or borders that separate the so-called mainstream of cultural and social thought, behavior, customs, and values from the worlds of independently minded, renegade, radical creators of objects and other stuff they feel compelled to produce in ways that are as urgent and necessary for them as, for the rest of us, it’s absolutely necessary to drink water or breathe air?

The OAF continues to bring together under the umbrella term “outsider art” a diverse abundance of remarkable, often deeply personal creative expressions whose makers might not even regard them as “art” at all. The phenomenon of their collective urge — or need — to create and to convey through their productions what often feel like urgent messages from that unknowable place that is the very core of humankind’s creative spirit — that’s what this art fair that stands out among so many other fairs whose merchandise is made by academically trained manufacturers of product for a market is all about and why it’s so special.

Entrance to the 2024 Outsider Art Fair New York at 125 West 18th Street in downtown Manhattan (Metroplitan Pavilion)

Perhaps this year, more than ever, the best way to explore the Outsider Art Fair and to take its pulse is simply to dive into its enticing cacophony and to look in depth at the offerings of its participating dealers and other exhibitors. It’s worth taking time to chat with them and with the many artists, collectors, and fellow adventurers you’ll bump into in the giant UFO that has landed on West 18th Street.

A buzz is always in the air at the OAF. This year, in the spirit of alien explorers, the challenge for fair-goers is to find it.

[Scroll down to see more works from the 2024 Outsider Art Fair New York.]

Exuberant abstractions by J. Douglas Tan in the booth of the Center for Creative Works, which is located in Wynnewood, Pennsylvana
Circus-poster art on view in the booth of Ricco/Maresca, a well-known New York gallery that has long specialized in outsider art
From the veteran dealer Aarne Anton’s gallery, Nexus Singularity, an antique medicine-cabinet door from an old barn in Vermont
Drawings by the Austrian artist Leopold Strobl are being shown by Ricco/Maresca in collaboration with Galerie Gugging, a gallery located on the outskirts of Vienna that is this artist’s main representative. Strobl’s work has been chosen to be included in the main exhibition at the next Venice Biennale in Italy.