A recent trip to NY’s Hudson Valley provided an opportunity to consider how the term “Outsider Art” – or Art Brut – can apply to any number of media, including cars. In fact, as we will eventually see, the argument might be made that outsider art is most notable for its frequent incorporation of cars and car parts in one form or another.
The idea of Outsider Art was recently raised to me by a friend who was asking about my visit to one of the many outdoor attractions in the Hudson Valley (think Kingston, Woodstock, Saugerties, the Catskills). In this case, the site/artwork in question is something know as Opus 40. Knowing a bit about the area, he asked if Opus 40 was the creation of a member of the so-called Outside Art movement. Well, I responded, maybe…
Opus 40 is a gigantic outdoor art installation where the art itself turns out nearly singularly to be the actual physical installation. Built over the course of 37 years (more about that before we’re done with this story), it was originally intended by its creator – Harvey Fite (1903 – 1976) – as a setting for the rough-hewn stone sculptures he produced.
One of the most interesting aspects of Opus 40 is that even though Fite had originally intended it as a setting for his sculptures, he eventually turned away from creating sculpture and instead chose to focus on developing just the physical setting. Originally, the entire 6.5 acre site was designed as an installation for four statues, most of which are smaller than your average refrigerator. We know that because the statues are still on the grounds, just not placed on their settings. The story goes that after working a while on the installation, Fite apparently decided that the “setting overwhelmed the statues”, and instead of finding another place for his statues he decided to focus on turning the installation itself into the art. Ultimately, Fite seems to have produced relatively little art aside from his monumental rock-stacking project now known as Opus 40.
Monumental – literally – it is. The Opus 40 site is a bluestone quarry and every single one of the stones in the installation was hand-placed and stacked by Harvey Fite starting in 1938. Construction wound through the waning years of the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, the entirety of the Vietnam War, the turbulent 1960s and nearby Woodstock’s epicenter for the Summer of Love, the bulk of the Civil Rights movement, the US/USSR space race, and up until just weeks before the US Bicentennial. In other words, over the sweep of the major events of the 20th century…
Harvey Fite stacked rocks. Continiously. For 37 years.
In the end, he wound up with something that’s sort of like the Patio of the Gods.
Patio of the Gods may be an apt analogy since one of the features of Fite’s work is that it utilized stone-placing techniques he learned from studying the statues of Easter Island and ancient Mayan civilizations. Those were the same ancient stone structures which gave rise to the (widely and probably accurately disputed) theory – developed by Erich von Daniken in his work Chariots of the Gods? – that these stone-placing techniques were only possible through the teachings of extraterrestrials who had visited our planet in Pre-Columbian times.
Well, if a slender artistic guy living in upstate NY in the 1940s could move those rocks by himself, I’m going to assert that humans on Easter Island and in Tikal could handle the construction just fine by themselves without the assistance of aliens. Sorry Erich.
Personally, I think the jury’s out as far as whether Opus 40 is truly outsider art, but it is absolutely the product of one man’s personal obsession. Obsession being one of the defining characteristics of outsider art/art brut. And to the point of this story, Harvey’s Opus takes its place in a part of the country that seems to be rich in bonified outsider art of all types. In fact, it’s hard to drive around the area without constantly running into some display or another of welded, cemented, or glued-together things that are being proffered as art.
Some of this art exists at the scale of Opus 40, that is, bigger than life assemblages of stuff. Another great example of this is the so-called Miracle on the Mountain house; originally just down the road a bit from Opus 40, but now lost to fire (go figure…).
That house’s “eccentric” creator – Clarence Schmidt — operated at a scale (and time) similar to Fite and archetypal outsider artist Sabato Rodia, creator of the famous Watts Towers. But Schmidt also created a lot more of the familiar “doll parts on sticks with hubcaps” art brut is that exists at a smaller scale and is widely available for sale at roadside galleries-cum-junkyards throughout the region. Much of this involves the use of various car parts incorporated into the art.
Let’s take a closer look. Assuming you’re up to date on your tetanus shots, the opportunities for art shopping abound.
Some works – such as this life-sized dinosaur that stands as a mascot of a local campground – would be mighty difficult to transport. But I’ll bet you could make an offer.
Other pieces are clearly for sale and populate the many roadside galleries that seem to specialize in this stuff.
This place offers multiple forms of transport.
Here you can find a collection of anatomically-correct roadside robots that that incorporate an interesting use of old tail light lenses, trim/grill segments, and what appear to be woks.
You can also find the spacecraft that perhaps delivered the robots (or even more likely, their creators) to this corner of NY state. Here, we can see the clear automotive connections made by much of this outsider art. Maybe some CC reader can identify the vehicle that gave up its top half for this rocket? The best I can come up with is “1940s”.
Let’s say that you’re looking for something that is more clearly automotive. Maybe you want something that you could possibly still drive, and yet that still conveys a solid art brut vibe? Well, come right this way (that would be down the ubiquitous state highway 9W that runs throughout the Hudson Valley), I’ve got something to show you…
I came upon this sitting duck in one of those many roadside used car lots that exist if for no other purpose than to serve as fodder for curbside classic spotting. If you look carefully, you can see how this vehicle is more akin to the “spaceship” in the previous photo than it is to anything that ever rolled off a GM assembly line.
See what I mean? This is no garden-variety Cadillac-camper conversion (yeah, that’s a thing I guess). Rather, whoever created this took perhaps the easier route of dispensing with the 1954 Caddy after the cowl and then grafting the remaining hood and front section on to…..well, some kind of camper body.
Clearly something of an on-going labor of love/art, the nubs of the rear fins were retained and stuck onto the camper rear. It’s not just camping, it’s art!
I would love to know what frame this thing is sitting upon. Some sort of truck or bus I would guess. Looking at the camper body, not to mention the doner Caddy, I would guess that this whole project came together no later than some time in the 1970s. Perhaps earlier. Also, close observers will note the “Good Sam Club” sticker above the rear window. This thing, I do believe, was an actual camper and not just a rolling work of automotive outsider art. I’d love to know more, but sadly there was no one home at the used car lot so there was no one to ask. I did take a look at the driver’s compartment (sorry, no pictures) and it had a decidedly milk/bread/UPS truck vibe befitting the flat glass window-windshield. Nothing of the Cadillac interior remained.
I also have no idea what this was being offered for in terms of price. Although if I had to guess, I would say a lot more than it would likely be worth. But really, who can put a price on art?
Maybe the fact that this 1946 Mercury actually had a posted price indicates that it has not yet attained the status of automotive art. The windshield sticker indicates $5200. That seems like a lot to me for a pretty rough example that doesn’t seem to be possessed of an engine. It’s been a long hot summer here in the Northeast, but this car looks to have seen many seasons without a top and that can’t be a good thing. Am I missing something? Is $5200 reasonable for this? Would it be improved with the addition of a couple of hundred doll heads and other plastic toys glued to the remaining bodywork?
Of course it would! Yeah, now you’re thinking like a real outsider artist. There may still be some gallery space in Woodstock that you could find.
But back to the gallery/car lot, maybe it’s just that this lot caters to a special class of car connoisseurs; convertible lovers, that is.
Well, we have you covered (yes, in this case the top is up), except for the back window that is.
This 1966 Galaxie (A year older than J P Cavanaugh’s) has a ton of patina, along with oddly equivalent dents in both front and rear bumpers. Hummmmm.
The convertible that caught my eye most of course was the 1960 Buick. It had its top and the body seemed to be in pretty good shape. I can’t personally figure out whether it’s a LeSabre, Electra, or Invicta. Again, I’m sure someone here will know.
I think it’s a beautiful car, despite that fact that most of its red interior is currently sitting in the back seat.
What’s the Buick is sitting next to?
It looks to be an effort to create Mad Max’s bread delivery van. Stuck somewhere in limbo between functional motor vehicle and art project.
How best to end this rambling exploration of automotive outsider art?
How about a heavily (and I’ll leave it at that) modified Pinto? The pictures don’t show it all, but there were a number of mods made to this in terms of suspension, oil cooler, brakes. I couldn’t vouch for what any of those things are or whether or not they are meaningful.
Actually, I think that this car sort of still holds together beyond the wavy panels, thin paint, and the very unfortunate pop-riveted fender flares. But it’s just those things that bring the art brut to the table.
Which takes us back nearly to square one. The Cadillac, the Pinto, whatever was going on with that delivery truck, and to some extent the whole vibe of this used car lot full of uniquely modified vehicles reminds me of the collection of eccentrics, oddballs, and visionaries that seem to call (or have called) the Hudson Valley home.
For a final motorized connection, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Harvey Fite’s vehicular demise. Yes, Harvey missed his 40 year goal for the completion of Opus 40 by three years…due to a motor vehicle accident; but not your every-day automotive tragedy. No, rather Harvey went out via a somewhat unusual conveyance. Riding lawnmower.
In the 37th year of working on his Opus, he was one day grounds-keeping around the property when a stuck throttle on his riding mower took Harvey over the edge of the quarry a’ la Thema & Louise.
As cool as a ’66 Thunderbird may be, somehow, a riding lawnmower seems like the perfect outsider artist way to go. Just save that hubcap, because I have just the perfect set of coil springs and a very rusty brake rotor that I could weld it to.