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Wölfli’s Empire

The Art of Adolf Wölfli: St. Adolf-Giant-Creation

Catalog of the exhibition by Elka Spoerri and Daniel Baumann, with an essay by Edward M. Gomez and a foreword by Gerard C. Werkin
an exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum, New York, February 25–May 18, 2003, and the Milwaukee Art Museum, October 24, 2003–January 11, 2004
American Folk Art Museum/Princeton  University Press, 111 pp., $29.95

The artwork of men and women who spent much of their lives in mental institutions, or living isolated and shut away at the fringes of society, has become increasingly visible in the last few decades, owing in part to the influence of conceptual art. Put most simply, conceptual art, which has conditioned so much of how we now look and think in galleries and museums, is about taking in a given artwork in two ways simultaneously: as an entity in itself and as a symbol of its maker’s intentions. Suggesting that the “real” art remains in its maker’s mind, and that what we see before us is a remnant of a thought process, conceptual art is in some measure about disembodiment and ghost-liness. And it may have helped set the stage for our appreciating the drawings, paintings, or sculptural objects—whether showing worlds full of incongruously related figures, or strange patterns of words and numbers—by people whose full conscious awareness of what they were doing will remain forever mysterious.

For when we look at the art of someone who was clinically labeled schizophrenic, or who may not have been able to say more than a word or two about the meaning of that art, we are immediately plunged into an internal—a conceptual art—debate. We find ourselves uncertain about how seriously to believe in a drawing, say, made by someone who presumably both felt compelled to make it and in some light was not responsible for it. Knowing that it is a product of a perhaps helpless situation, we take an emotional step backward from it. We can’t help but become engaged in the personal dilemma of its creator. And our uncertainty about the way to receive the piece, which tends to become an unresolvable inner debate on how to think of its qualities in relation to those of related work by sane, socially adjusted professional artists, can become our most lasting experience of it.

But then, as befitting the double-sided nature of art made by people in dire circumstances, such work has been increasingly seen in galleries and art fairs for a reason that is completely at odds with conceptual art. The often disorienting drawings or sculptural pieces by inmates of asylums or by people who may have existed for years by themselves, in mental spheres of their own making, have been stimulating to a growing number of artists, dealers, and collectors because they helped fill a void created by conceptual art, which too often left viewers looking, in galleries, at framed written proposals for projects, say, or at rows of snapshots of some “action” the artist had once performed. By the early Seventies, the art world had seemingly been taken over by conceptual projects and by the related and equally potent, and stripped-down, Minimalist sculptures or objects of Judd, Flavin, LeWitt. In such terrain, which could leave viewers hungry for pictorial images, the often puzzling and often dazzlingly complex pieces made by men and women who lived at radically removed tangents from everyday society represented a kind of open door to artists who wanted to bring images per se, and their inner personal experiences, back into the conversation.

The many self-contained realms—this one compulsively lined, ordered, and geometric, that one floating and amorphous—of people who came to be called outsider artists provided ways to work that had some of the psychological potency of Surrealism, yet wasn’t intended to shock. The very term “outsider,” probably coined by the English writer Roger Cardinal in his 1972 Outsider Art, caught on, I think, because in an increasingly connected international art world, where the sheer number of galleries, artists, magazines, and expositions can make everyone a little frantic with a sense that the process is one big churning machine in which every hip member is in the know except oneself, the possibility of working completely independently, blithely unconnected with art trends (to say nothing of the rest of life), and still coming up with distinctive work is romantically alluring.

The outsider artist, in the sense of someone who is untrained or self-taught, and indifferent to the history and culture of art, has long, of course, been part of the overall story of art. Surely Edward Hicks or Henri Rousseau, or the wonderful Alfred Wallis, the English painter of marine life who was discovered by Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood one day in 1928 as they walked by the man’s cottage in St. Ives, were in their time outsiders. Grandma Moses and Bill Traylor, the former slave who in his old age began producing assured and striking silhouette drawings, were, too. As it has come to be valued in recent decades, though, outsider art implies work made by someone who not only hasn’t been schooled but is at odds with his or her society and, even more, at odds with himself or herself.

Art made by patients or isolates who create a space for themselves within a “normal” society that they barely acknowledge has been studied, collected, and haltingly admired since the early Twenties, when Hans Prinzhorn, of Heidelberg University’s clinic, published Artistry of the Mentally Ill. Jean Dubuffet, who was excited by the illustrations in Prinzhorn’s book and fiercely championed such work, which he called art brut—his enormous collection of which is now in the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne—began making Parisian audiences aware of it through exhibitions beginning in the late Forties. At this point there is a fair amount of writing about the subject, both by people concerned chiefly with mental illness and by art historians and critics. Yet there remains a sense that outsider art is still a possession primarily of art-world insiders. It was only in the past few years, in addition, that the extraordinary drawings of Emanuel Navratil, dizzyingly detailed images of gigantic buildings with tiny people in them, done in a Viennese mental clinic in the years around World War II, were first shown in New York, or that we had our first look at the moody, blocky drawings of house interiors and exteriors by James Castle, a deaf mute who lived with his family, in the last century, in Idaho.

Yet while the study of outsider art remains in flux, it is increasingly evident that Adolf Wölfli, who died in 1930, at sixty-six, at the Waldau Asylum outside Bern, where he had been kept since he was twenty-nine, is one of its supreme masters. Freakish, hallucinatory, amusing, ingenious, sensuously soft in touch, and overwhelmingly rich in their detailing, Wölfli’s lead and colored-pencil drawings can at first resemble overelaborate, geometric folk-art decorations. Looked at more intently, they can seem like fiendishly complex game boards, or aerial views of a terrain that, from shot to shot, is frighteningly well ordered or mangled beyond recognition. Ultimately, these pictures, which can include bar after bar of music notation, isolated words, the writing of stories, and numerical accounts, along with not immediately apparent images of diminutive faces, bodies, buildings, and animals, all blended into a web of flowing, arching, interconnecting shapes, defy categorization.

Wölfli, whose work has been seen in New York in exhibitions over the years at the Phyllis Kind Gallery, and was the subject of traveling retrospectives to small museums in the States in the late Seventies and again in the late Eighties, is now the subject, at the American Folk Art Museum, of his most comprehensive US exhibition. Characteristically, the work leaves us in an outsider-art limbo, because we can depart the show wondering if a folk art museum is the right place for such pictures. With their festive air and sense of all kinds of differ-ent shapes made to lie next to each other in a flat bed, Wölfli’s drawings certainly are blood brothers of Northwest Coast Indian carvings, mosaic and inlaid wood decoration, and numerous other folk and crafts traditions. There is an ominous intensity, along with a sense of comedy and a crawling inner life, to these pictures, qualities that are also occasionally found in folk pieces, or the objects made by prisoners.

But the term “folk art” seems inadequate to encompass works of this formal elegance and tension. The pictures, which often measure some thirty by forty inches—and Wölfli worked with bigger sizes, too, sometimes reaching ten feet on a side—have so many disparate elements ingeniously woven into so many gloriously profuse geometric concoctions that it is a strain to absorb more than a handful at a time. In this, and in the enormous amount of men-tal and physical energy they give off, and in their being simultaneously decorative, abstract, and story-like, they’re really comparable, though they are much bigger in size, to classic early-sixteenth- century Persian miniatures.

Working without a straight edge or any mechanical aid, equipped only with whatever odd pencils or paper the staff at the Waldau Asylum periodically scrounged up for him, Wölfli made over 1,700 such drawings and around the same number of somewhat less complex collages. He had an innate sense of how to balance the closest tones, and his feeling for composition, his ability to interlock one kind of shape into another, was awesome. We look at what might be called living, inhabited charts, not the least of whose power derives from the complete absence of smudges or signs of erasures (which is amazing, considering the smudginess of graphite). And while the lines are entirely straight, the curves are assertive and wobble-free, and every detail of each design seemingly has been accounted for with some minuscule scene, form, or word, the pictures never feel mechanical or impersonal. There’s a slight irregularity everywhere, making the works in their entirety seem warmed over, alive, breathing.

Yet Wölfli, who thought of himself as much a composer and writer as a draftsman, had no artistic training of any sort. An orphan by age nine, he had been a hireling and then a day laborer in the greater Bern area. Although he had finished his schooling and done well at it, he drifted, as a youth and a young man, from job to job, twice landing in prison for theft. Beginning in 1890, when he was twenty-six, his behavior became increasingly erratic. An attempt to have sex with a fourteen-year-old girl was thwarted, but a later attempt with a seven-year-old resulted in two years in jail. When, in 1895, his intended victim was a three-year-old, the court deemed him a menace to society, and he was sent to Waldau.

Wölfli’s first years in the asylum saw a profound disintegration of his personality. He was nightly visited by hallucinations, and his wildly shifting, physically abusive behavior—he seriously injured patients and guards, smashed windows, and went so far as to bite off the lip of a fellow inmate—resulted in solitary confinement. He never lost his threatening character (which alternated with times when he was listless and blank), but when he sat at his table with his “work” he was single-minded. He seems to have been drawing and writing by 1900, but the first sheets that have been preserved are dated—he carefully dated everything—1904. Three years later a psychiatrist named Walter Morgenthaler joined the asylum’s staff, and while it is unclear how much Wölfli’s work owes to Morgenthaler’s sympathetic regard, the doctor provided his patient with as good an audience as he could have wished for. Morgenthaler, who would watch as Wölfli drew and wrote, created a little museum at the asylum for his pieces and those of other patients, and he arranged for Wölfli to decorate the space.

In 1921, Morgenthaler published Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler (A Mental Patient as Artist), a highly unorthodox study (especially at the time) in that the patient who was the book’s subject was named and his art was talked about as an end in it-self, not merely as an aspect of his illness. Translated by Aaron Esman into English in 1992 as Madness and Art, Morgenthaler’s work is absorbing and readable for a layperson, though so much of what he has to say has become part of the body of writing about Wölfli that the excitement the book generated at the time, which made him a recognized figure in certain European psychiatric, artistic, and literary circles some ten years before his death, has been lost. Madness and Art fortunately also includes Wölfli’s own “A Short Life Story,” a grave and lucid account that he wrote in 1895, when he was admitted to Waldau. It forms a kind of backdrop for much of the rowdier and more jazzily brilliant, but also monotonous and relentlessly rhythmic, work he would go on to do.

What Wölfli wanted to tell was the story of his life, principally his first eight years. This was when he lived in Bern with his parents and brothers, and before the family was broken up and his mother died. His father was a heavy drinker and a wast- rel, and he is a distant figure in his son’s stories. His mother, though, can do no wrong in his tales. They recount fantastic voyages, in which the greater Wölfli family travels to America, and accumulates fortunes. In an extraordinary touch, his mother, in Morgen-thaler’s words, “pays cash for the stars which they buy,” and the boy Wölfli, nicknamed Doufi, mi-raculously survives one catastrophe after another.

Not much of this is read- ily apparent in the drawings, where, aside from the fairy-taleish Gothic buildings and the suggestion of railway lines, what we chiefly see is a little bald guy with dark eyes, or a mask over his eyes, or a British colonel’s upswept moustache. We take him to be Doufi, or St. Adolf II, as Wölfli also called himself. Although he can seem like a convict, or look sinister or haunted, he can also be dreamy and shy and is, all told, a lovable creation, not unlike Felix the Cat, Nancy, or Curious George. This quick-change artist is the animating soul of Wölfli’s empire. Closer inspection also reveals countless fatty, boneless creatures, meant to be either birds or snails. Wölfli was keen, too, on high-heeled boots, and I have spotted a woman pulling up her dress and a couple making love, but not the bowling games, say, or fencing matches, or scenes of a man on a ladder saying goodbye to his girlfriend or of a man being torn apart by a bear, that commentators say are here.

Eventually, Wölfli filled some forty-five huge books, of varying thicknesses, with his phantasmagorical stories, reflections, music, drawings, and endless mathematical calculations. These are largely computations of interest accrued to him through various windfalls that his greater family picks up during their imaginary tours. When Wölfli’s books are placed one on top of the other they form a stack ten feet high. There are additionally sixteen smaller notebooks and hundreds of independent drawings, called “bread art” by Morgenthaler because Wölfli made them purely for sale, to anyone who would buy, to enable him to get chewing tobacco and materials for his work. These drawings are the pieces that are seen in galleries and are, as Morgenthaler wrote, “found in every part of Switzerland.” They are far from knockoffs; Wölfli, unbelievably, never quite repeated himself in some twenty-five years of work. But the usually larger drawings, which are part of Wölfli’s books and form the core of the present show, represent his deepest inventions.

The worlds of Wölfli the writer, artist, and composer are each a little different, and they aren’t known equally well. Only the first, large unit of his writing, his account of little Doufi and his family on their magic carpet ride, called From the Cradle to the Grave, has been transcribed and published so far, and performances of his music are a rarity. So, especially for someone who can read him only in the translations that have been made—a few are in the present catalog—and can’t follow solfège, the syllabic form in which he set down his music, it’s possible merely to record some impressions. As a writer he can charm us at first with his taste for exaggeration, his cartoonish egocentricity, his childish grabbing at outlandish place names and titles—such as the Swiss Hunters and Nature Explorers Traveling Society, which turns into the Giant-Travel-Avant-Garde. His wild wordplay, sprinkling of obscenities, and colloquial interjections may make him seem like a version of a self-important rap artist or coffeehouse bard.

Wölfli’s writing, though, like his calculations of interest, seems to have little point beyond the creation of a gigantic and impregnable wall around himself. He is making a litany of gran-diose doings and personages (chiefly himself) to pump himself up. We realize that his huge written edifice, like his every other endeavor, was built on a profound sense of loss, abandonment, and feelings of insignificance. His effort, especially in From the Cradle, is aimed at achieving a truly lasting union with his early life and his parents. Vestiges of reality break through, too. He is caught fornicating, his attempted rapes are mentioned, and he acknowledges that he will never have children. (He also acknowledged that he was mad and had to live in an asylum.) Yet his writing slips through your mind as you read it. It seems largely to be about insistent rhythms he had in his head, which may likely be the case with the polkas, mazurkas, and other music he endlessly devised. It’s in his drawings that his quest for order, his desire to make a vast, new, protective world, has a real density. His drawings present at the least an organizational mastery, not merely a thumping nervous energy.

Morgenthaler wrote perceptively about how Wölfli’s art began to lose its inner necessity. He believed the pictures were becoming “decorative” and “more rigid, more empty, more remote from life.” To a degree, he was right. As Wölfli continued to work, his drawings lost their jam-packed, gameboard appearance and became airier. He would paste onto sheets clippings from French and English picture magazines, whether an image of people at a grand Paris art exhibition or ads for Campbell’s Soup or Kraft Cheese, and surround them with his always artful script. In the 1918 Klinger Quartet Brahms Concert, he even took a poster for a concert and blithely wrote and drew all around and through the lettering.

What’s remarkable about these later pictures, though, is not only that the sheets have the look and spirit of Schwitters, Rauschenberg, and others before the fact but that they show Wölfli changing, developing new forms. The later stage of nearly all artists’ work, even Matisse’s or Picasso’s, tends to be airier. It tends to be a distillation and to represent a demonstration of formal control more than an entanglement with one’s material. Viewed chronologically, Wölfli’s work keeps altering, which is not the case with most, if any, outsider artists.

Fifteen years ago, Wölfli’s previous traveling American exhibition was given the evocative title The Other Side of the Moon. The point was that Wölfli was taking us to a place we couldn’t otherwise imagine, a note that well suits the art of mental patients and of people who seem completely dissociated from their fellows. The leading essay in that catalog was a brilliant and largely psychoanalyt-ical interpretation of Wölfli’s drawings by Carter Ratcliff which persuasively explained every aspect of the pictures from the viewpoint of the needs of a psychotic person with a particular case history. Ratcliff’s (less persuasive) conclusion was inevitably that such art needs always to be cordoned off from that of people who are sane.

Marking, presumably, changed thinking on the subject, the current exhibition has the seemingly neutral title The Art of Adolf Wölfli, and the most striking contribution to its fine catalog is no doubt Edward M. Gomez’s “Adolf Wölfli: Visionary Graphic Designer.” It centers on Wölfli’s undeniable genius for design and places him firmly as a creator of books. He is aligned with contemporary artists who “have refined the concept of such works, creating one-of-a-kind pieces or specimens from limited editions that highlight the book as a work of art and as a cultural artifact, at once visual, sculptural, and interactive.”

Gomez, of course, understands that Wölfli was schizophrenic, but he leaves us with the sense of the man’s overflowing artistic potency. And certainly, the spirit that sees Wölfli and other outsiders as artists as much as (if not more than) case histories has a powerful pull now. Their pictures and objects have too many tantalizing affinities with work by artists who have not been institutionalized or led marginal lives. Besides, as Caroline Douglas implies in Beyond Reason, some of the same social and cultural factors that drove people into asylums in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were at play in the upheaval, in the same years, that gave birth to modern art. In time, the work of outsiders may even be integrated into the larger story of nineteenth- and twentieth-century art, and not limited to special galleries or a folk art museum (perhaps a questionable entity in itself). Eventually, the very terms “outsider” and art brut might lose their currency. But something would be crucially amiss if, in taking in the creations of such people, we lost our sense that we were also always seeing “the other side of the moon.”

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