Wols, Le Cirque; Prise de Vue et Projection Simultanée (Circus; Simultaneous View and Projection), ca. 1940. Ink and watercolor on yellowish paper, on backing. 9.29 x 11.69 in., Private Collection, Germany

Wols, “Le Cirque; Prise de Vue et Projection Simultanée (Circus; Simultaneous View and Projection)” (c. 1940). Ink and watercolor on yellowish paper, on backing. 9.29 x 11.69 in. (courtesy private collection, Germany)

WALTHAM, Mass. — Wols is the pseudonym of Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze, a German artist born in Berlin in 1913. During his lifetime he was mostly unrecognized. Wols always drew. His mother collected his drawings in her diaries, but it wasn’t until his internment, as a German national, in French camps (Vierzon, Garrigues, and Camp des Milles) that drawing became as organic a function for him as breathing. His drawings are obsessive, reminiscent of the work of some “Outsider” artists. He’d begin a piece with a single mark and then add in an act of accumulation, like collecting rubbish in a heap.

Museum Ludwig, ML, Wols, Le fantôme bleu, ML 10015

Wols, “Le Fantôme Bleu (Blue Ghost)” (1951). Oil, grattage, and tube marks and finger prints on canvas. (courtesy Museum Ludwig, Cologne © Rheinisches Bildarchiv)

In his book of collected quotes, Wols had one quote by the Belgian writer, Maurice Maeterlinck which, according to Toby Kamps, “ … describes termites using their own excrement to build their nests.” This is precisely what Wols was doing with his drawings —  leaking his experience into the ink, onto the paper, using, his own shit, the terrible personal history of his ongoing struggles with isolation, his nomadism, alcoholism, and poverty. Here, on the page, is where this “shit” finds a place, where it is finally transformed, miraculously, into art.

Here, one thinks of the bricoleur, limiting one’s materials to only that which is at hand. Dieter Roth is another example of a bricoleur artist. In this case, Roth used only what was within reach: tape, glue, wood, paper, and so on. This act, the act of limiting what one allows one’s self to use, is a means to make one’s self disabled. It is a folding into one’s self; an alignment with the Outsider, with the silenced, with those of limited means. It is a means to refuse power, and to refuse to join the status quo. In the case of Wols, he truly was an outsider and of limited means. But to bricole, to use the shit of one’s life, also means to be a survivor, to be someone who has learned how to utilize everything, to reuse items for new uses. One becomes a machine of sorts — digesting what is within one’s environment, using it as art, then “shitting” out the art.

Zhuangzi, a Chinese philosopher, was one of Wols’ favorites of the Tao philosophers he admired. Zhuangzi advocated freeing one’s self from the world rather than attempting to fix it. You can see this both in Wols’ artwork as well as the way he lived his life. His gesture was tiny — you see this in his drawings: the miniature, like tiny underwater plankton. Like bricolering, making tiny marks is a way of pulling away from power. Jackson Pollock, for example, exclaimed, “I am nature,” while Wols said, “Nature is art.”

Rose Art Museum von Heyl Carlotta 300

Charline von Heyl, Carlotta, 2013. Oil, acrylic and charcoal on canvas 82 x 76 inches. (courtesy of the artist and Petzel, New York)

At the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, the art historian Katy Siegel has curated an exhibition titled The Matter that Surrounds Us, a group show of Wols and Charline von Heyl. The show is one in a series curated by Siegel and part of a new project called Rose Projects, a program of three shows, each focusing on one aspect of a larger theme. This show is the first in a series. The work of the two artists is not similar. And why should it be? They lived and worked in much different times, in much different circumstances. What the work shares is a mutual philosophy. Both artists refuse to be absorbed (into society, into the art world). Also, both Wols and von Heyl cull from their imaginations, from their internal landscapes and, finally, both work with the minutiae of their obsessions.

“Le circque,” one of Wols’ watercolors included in the show, is a strange lovely warble of joy and obsession. It is, ostensibly, of a circus, though the image is disrupted with a break in which the outside world, including sky and rooftops, is made visible. It isn’t a real circus, after all. Wols wanted to make his own circus. In fact, he proposed just this in 1933 when he spent what was left of his inheritance on a used car and motion picture equipment with the intention of traveling to southern France with Circus Wols, a “mobile cinema.” About society, Wols said, “Everything on the boulevard is a circus. The Chamber of Deputies, the English Parliament, the Kremlin, and your American Congress, all circus.”

Rose Art Museum von Heyl Bois-Tu De La Bière 300

Charlene von Heyl, Bois-Tu De La Bière?, 2012. Acrylic on canvas, 82 x 78 inches. (courtesy of the artist and Petzel, New York)

Obsessiveness is considered a detriment to clarity and to getting things done. We live in a world where getting things done is paramount. We have medication to help us. In fact, we have medication to eradicate our obsessions. Charline von Heyl is also a German artist. She was born in 1960 in Mainz, Germany and attended art school in Hamburg. In the 1990s she moved to New York City. A fan of Wols, she has said that she “envies Wols’ powerful emotional innocence.” Her work does not look like the work of Wols but, again, is informed by a similar spirit. In conversation with Katy Sigel, von Heyl said, “I want to bring out all those feelings, even exaggerate them — the way I feel when I saw Wols’ ‘Blue Phantom’ (in the Ludwig Museum in Cologne) as a kid. That’s my first memory of a painting, a visceral feeling of delight that went straight to the guts — .”

Von Heyl “fakes.” In her paintings she creates “windows” which allow the viewer to see into older layers of paint. But the windows are fake — though they appear to be older layers of paint, they are in fact windows she paints on the top layer. She also fakes smudges — making marks that look like ink smudges but are not. The effect this brings about is twofold: first, the viewer is confronted with the realization that she does not know what is happening. It isn’t an ink smudge after all, it is not an earlier layer of paint. Von Heyl draws the viewer in with her work, then spits us back out. Then the viewer is confronted with her not-knowing. It is a kind of tabula rasa, a clearing of the deck. Now what? Now that von Heyl has stripped us of our knowing and experience, we can enter the work with a sense of innocence, of not knowing. It is in this way that von Heyl’s work is most aligned with that of Wols.

Wols, Untitled, End 1942/Early 1943. Ink and watercolor on structured paper 7.83 x 5.04 in. Karin und Uwe Hollweg Stiftung, Bremen

Wols, “Untitled” (c. 1942—1943) Ink and watercolor on structured paper 7.83 x 5.04 in. (Karin und Uwe Hollweg Stiftung, Bremen)

In addition, like Wols and like the bricoleur, von Heyl places limits or impediments on herself, as a disabling factor. Katy Siegel writes of von Heyl:

Her compositions and colors have a strangeness that is most often produced by the accidents of painterly process;…von Heyl achieves this paradox with the aid of a large bag of technical tricks, developed over twenty-some years, that often involves working ‘incorrectly’: mixing oil and acrylic, moving the painting process backwards as well as forward (subtracting as well as adding, covering her tracks, as she puts it).

Another trick of von Heyl’s is to make each painting unlike the one that came before. Her work in this sense can be seen as an extended act of revision, re-imagining her work as she moves forward. In fact, in a panel discussion at the Jewish Museum in January, she compared her work with writing. There, she discussed how her new work incorporates writing from writers she is obsessed with. In this case, she explained how she would open up her copy of Finnegan’s Wake and choose three words or a phrase from the book based entirely upon where the book opened up to. The result is that you get something, but not quite, like the feeling of a painting. Almost there, but not quite. “As a painter,” she said, “you have to keep freeing yourself.”

Again, this is not unlike Wols and his game of drawing: first one thing, then another based on chance or luck, which, in turn, mirrors life. And in this way it is absolutely organic. And, again, these self-made barriers are limiting — debilitating, making the artist an invalid, but also, child-like, innocent. Again, at the panel at the Jewish Museum, von Heyl said she is “always coming back to this kernel of stupidity.” It is this whimsy, this recoiling from power, from the endless parade, that binds these two artists together.

The Matter that Surrounds Us continues at Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum (415 South St, Waltham) through June 8.

Cynthia Cruz’s poems have been published in the New Yorker, Paris Review, Boston Review, American Poetry Review, Kenyon Review, and others. Her first collection of poems, RUIN, was published by Alice...