The Outlaw Bible of American Art Reviewed

Alan Kaufman, ed., published by Last Gasp

Like that other Bible, the Holy one, if you suspend your disbelief (in the banality of modern art) you can open this book to any page and find inspiration. As for being ‘Outlaw,’ now that our elites are illiterate, how long before ‘outlaw book’ is a redundancy? Not content to round up the usual suspects, Kaufman casts a wide, magnanimous net over art workers of the recent past, singing the unsung as well as going into depth about some of our icons, such as featuring Ginsberg’s photography or R. Crumb’s family.

In total this heavy, bad-ass book reveals a continuum of revolutionary activity, not an algorithmically determined index of hipness curated to within an inch of the edge. Each entry makes its own case for inclusion and shows that the individuals have more differences than commonalities.

Many of the artists emerged from one of the crucibles of American culture, the Underground Press, the Downtown scene, Frisco punks, and of course the Beats, but I was most impressed by how we are able to fill in the space between these better known nodes and get a fix on the evolution of these movements by studying some of the lesser known participants.

When anyone bothers to look at the origins of the internet, they turn up engineers, geeks and the military, but the real roots of our information age might just as well be traced to rebels like these who networked with society, if anti-socially, while spreading their gospels through comix, posters, mimeographed magazines and self published manifestos. That darn internet has fossilized everything that happened before the early nineties, so this book can be seen as a refreshing refresher course in those ancient subcultures of the late 20th century.

The production values are high throughout, particularly gratifying in the reproductions of such detailed artists as Arthur Syzk, Robert ‘Cootie’ Williams, Winston Smith and contemporary journalist/painter Molly Crabapple, but the structure seems to have been determined at times by the vaunted ‘cut-up’ technique, with some entries text free, and others not clear as to subject/author. Writing about abstract painting has got to be the hardest thing, but this volume contains some stellar exercises. Several articles, such as those on Re/Search or the LSD Museum, could easily be expanded to occupy an entire volume by themselves.

A legacy piece by Tom Wolfe, relating to the NO!Art Movement, mockingly bemoans how difficult it has become to shock the art world, written over 50 years ago. Alan Kaufman has dropped a four pound owl pellet made up of artists of ‘legendary marginality’ who kept trying.