Some artists we appreciate for their growth. For their ability to absorb and adapt new styles, new techniques, new ways of seeing and of transferring that vision to a sheet of paper, a canvas or a mound of clay.
"Accidental Genius: Art from the Anthony Petullo Collection," which opened last Friday at Milwaukee Art Museum, celebrates artists who were influential and creative despite their stagnation, says collector Petullo, who has gifted the works in the show to the museum.
"Nothing ever changes," Petullo says while taking part in a tour of the exhibition on the eve of its public debut. "And that's the difference with these artists. Some didn't even like other artists work but (he) did," he adds, pointing to a work by Albert Loudon, an artist he befriended in London.
"But they never adopted anything. The work never changes. Some didn't even consider themselves artists. (Alfred) Wallis laughed when Ben Nicholson said, 'you're a great artist.' He said, 'I'm not an artist, I just make these little drawings."
The artists – whether they accepted the distinction or not – represented by the 200 works in the show – out of 312 that Petullo has given to MAM – including Henry Darger, Martín Ramírez, Bill Traylor, Adolf Wölfli, Anna Zemankova and Carlo Zinelli – have been called outsider artists, self-taught artists, naive artists and lots of other things. But, Petullo says, the time has come for that to change.
"They're just great 20th century artists," he says. "We hope that we will let those labels fall away."
Both Petullo and exhibition curator Margaret Andera say that part of what makes the work special is the lack of guile, the lack of self-promotion, the lack of promise of financial gain.
Petullo recounts a lunch in an Italian restaurant in London with Loudon during which he asked the artist, "what would change in your life if you never sold another work?"
"Nothing," replied Loudon.
Andera, who has collaborated with Petullo since helping to organize a traveling exhibition from his vast collection in 1993, echoes the sentiment.
"Accidental Genius showcases an exceptional collection of eclectic modern self-taught art from creators driven by impulse, vision and necessity, without regard for acclaim, popularity or profit," she says.
The range of works in the show is vast. There are landscapes, with quirky perspective, by James Dixon, showing the seaside landscapes, often brutal, on his native island off the coast of Ireland.
There are Rosemarie Koczy's intricately cross-hatched works on paper that nod toward German expressionism. These monochromatic drawings are among the most powerful works in the show.
And there is much more. The show is a big one and requires something of a commitment to see and appreciate it.
"Accidental Genius" commemorates what MAM director Daniel Keegan says is a significant addition to the museum.
"This collection, this gift of works of self taught art from Tony Petullo creates yet another level of uniqueness for Milwaukee Art Museum," Keegan says. "With the addition of Tony Petullo's collection, one that we would say is a world class collection of self taught art, sometimes referred to as outsider art, the Milwaukee Art Museum is positioned unique amongst most museums.
"We would argue it now has one of the most outstanding collections of self taught material anywhere in North America and I think if you were to look world wide you'd be hard pressed to find museums that have collections more significant than the one that we have now thanks to the generosity of Tony Petullo."
Petullo has been collecting for decades and has always intended to make donations of works to the museum, he says. That intention, in fact, helped build the collection into one of the most internationally respected agglomerations of "outsider art."
"Many of these pieces were collected individually, they didn't come from a dealer," Petullo recalls. "I had a very close friend in London. He used to do a lot of legwork for me. And he personally contacted collectors and dealers for specific artists. And he found many many things.
"Then I had other dealers who began to see that this is a pretty serious collector and I let them know that most of these works were going to a museum. So they were really excited about helping me find pieces. In fact, some artists actually gave me pieces knowing they were probably going to go to a museum. ... I am honored that they will continue to be enjoyed at the Milwaukee Art Museum."
"Accidental Genius" runs through May 6.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.