EssaysWeekend

A Bird’s-Eye View of Heaven

by John Yau on May 6, 2012

Pearl Blauvelt, "Street from Air" (nd) (all images courtesy Kerry Schuss)

Recently, Kerry Schuss moved his gallery from Leonard Street to 34 Orchard, where his first exhibition is Robert Moskowitz: Envelopes (1962–1963). He also changed the gallery’s name from KS Art to Kerry Schuss.

I met Kerry around 1991, and it was through him that I learned about Freddie Brice (1920–1998). (Check out Freddie Brice Paints Two Paintings: Part 1 on YouTube). Kerry met Freddie in 1988 at a senior center on the Upper West Side where he held weekly art workshops for ten years. He got Freddie to start painting, bought him supplies and sold his work for him. Whenever he got something by Freddie, he would mention it to me, and I would go over and see it. I remember that Kerry bought Freddie a portable TV, but instead of watching it, he decided to cover it with paint.

Kerry’s interest in self-taught artists started in 1973, when he saw a show of Elijah Pierce (1892–1984) at Ohio State. Schuss visited Pierce in his barbershop/studio, which was in Columbus, and he looked for other self-taught artists in the area. In 1987 he moved back to New York and shortly afterwards, through his job and through his curiosity he was able to meet self-taught artists there. I remember spending long hours at his place going through piles of works.

*   *   *

Pearl Blauvelt, "Stockings" (nd) (click to enlarge)

By all accounts, Pearl Blauvelt (1893–1987) was a recluse who lived in northeastern Pennsylvania in a house without running water, plumbing or central heating. Her neighbors referred to her as the “Village Witch.” In the mid 1950s, she was declared incompetent and moved to a facility where she resided until she died. The house she lived in stood vacant for nearly fifty years, until it was bought and restored. The people who bought the house discovered Blauvelt’s drawings in an old wooden box lodged under long-abandoned piles of things.

Pearl Blayuvelt, "Perfect-Bed" (nd)

The drawings were done in pencil on three-holed, ruled notebook paper, the kind every child still scribbles on, even in the computer age. Blauvelt drew things she saw in mail order catalogues, often misspelling the words she was copying (“Linnings All Coolors”).

Sometimes she did aerial views and worked on all sides of the paper, arriving at an omnipotent vantage point that conveyed her alienation from the commonplaces of the everyday world, as well as her desire to be more powerful than she was. Blauvelt wanted to rule a world that consisted of a decent-sized, well-furnished house with a bed, clothes in the closet, a well-stocked kitchen and a paved street nearby.

Mimicking her source material, she would often label every object in the drawing. Given her dire circumstances, the drawings are wish lists of things she wanted — linens, for example — as well as the houses she imagined living in. Her grids of women’s nylon stockings and of store shelves call out to artists as different as Christina Ramberg and Andy Warhol.

I suspect that the items advertised in mail order catalogues, such as the one sent by Sears Roebuck to mailboxes all across America, quietly influenced generations of artists, from the naïve to the sophisticated — Blauvelt and James Castle to Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg.

Pearl Blauvelt, "Intersection from Air" (nd) (click to enlarge)

According to Rosalind Krauss in her 1978 essay, “Grids,” the flattened geometry of the grid is “antinatural, antimimetic, antireal. It is what art looks like when it turns its back on nature.” This is a rather narrow view of the grid and those who used it, a form of exclusion based on an agenda.

It occurs to me that the artists that I have cited got to the grid via the mail order catalogue, which was decidedly real for them — it was their view of another, possibly better world. The repeated desire to cleave art from life, to have it turn “its back on nature” seems to me based on something other than fact.

Pearl Blauvelt, "11 (Blankets" (nd)

There is nothing exotic about Blauvelt’s desires — she wanted to live in a nice house and have her creature comforts satisfied. In his poem, “On the Debt My Mother Owed Sears Roebuck,” Ed Dorn wrote:

On the debt my mother owed sears roebuck
we brooded, she in the house, a little heavy
from too much corn meal, she
a little melancholy from the dust of the fields
in her eye, the only title she ever had to lands —
and man’s ways winged their way to her through the mail
saying so much per month
so many months, this is yours, take it
take it, take it, take it…..

Pearl Blauvelt, "Store Shelves" (nd) (click to enlarge)

Blauvelt’s desires were modest, in that sense. Her drawings are direct and plain yet rich with nuance. She wanted things, but never got them, while Warhol bought things by the truckload — cookie jars, Navaho rugs, and Fiestaware — and never used them.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/peter.acheson Peter Acheson

    great piece John. The sooner we do away with the distinctions, or the classifications which exclude these great(‘tho self taught) artists from ‘serious’, high class culture, the better!

  • jyauwriter

    Peter, Yes, the classifications ghettoize the artists. I think artists recognize their kin and don’t make these distinctions, at least not the way they are made by institutions. Hmmm, how do you think the term “de-
    skilling” might be applied to Pearl Blauvelt or Henry Darger? 

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