This exhibition celebrates a remarkable promised gift from Houston-based collectors Stephanie and John Smither to the Menil Collection. As collectors and patrons, they have passionately championed the work of self-taught and visionary artists, affirming that the desire to create and collect is a deeply human response “as essential as dreams,” to borrow a phrase from Jean Baudrillard.
Stephanie Smither and her husband, John Smither, began collecting in the early 1980s. With an intrepid spirit, they traveled, researched, and developed deep friendships with many artists in their collection and amassed an extensive holding of work by visionary and self-taught artists. These intertwined terms loosely distinguish artists that fall outside of the mainstream art world. The Smither family’s intimate and passionate approach to patronage resulted in a highly personal and important group of work that questions a traditional art history.
Among the selections in the show are works by artists well represented in the Smither collection. Often working without the intent of being shown in a gallery or museum and tending to lack formal academic training, the artists in the show hail from such diverse locations as the American South and Switzerland; they have made work that encompasses a variety of materials and techniques—from carved balsa wood and hand-formed pottery to oil on canvas and ink drawings on found supports.
The exhibition will include Thornton Dial’s boisterous and colorful neo-expressionist assemblages of paint and found objects, Oscar Hadwiger’s wooden models of fantastical architectural structures, Sister Gertrude Morgan’s spiritual paintings of flying angels, and Carlo Zinelli’s narrative drawings that illustrate his life in the Italian countryside in the aftermath of World War II. Joining these artists are such visionaries as Georgia Blizzard, Hiroyuki Doi, Solange Knopf, Martín Ramírez, Jon Serl, Johnnie Swearingen, Charlie Willeto, and Domenico Zindato.
The myriad of ideas and mythologies surrounding the definitions of visionary and self-taught art have their roots in Surrealism, and the artists and writers that surrounded this avant-garde circle at the beginning of the 20th century. With a desire to make work that could transcend rational thought and emerge from the realm of the imagination, the Surrealists prized those who were able to make work intuitively, praising their accomplishments as authentic, raw, and true. Artists who work in this manner, and those who passionately champion their art, follow the interests of the Surrealists—and the later champion of art brut (“raw art”), Jean Dubuffet— and affirm the essential human desire to create and to collect.
As Essential as Dreams: Self-Taught Art from the Collection of Stephanie and John Smither is curated by Michelle White and accompanied by a catalogue with new insightful texts on the artists in the show.
This exhibition is generously supported by The Brown Foundation, Inc. / Nancy and Mark Abendshein; Susan and Francois de Menil; and the City of Houston.