In recent years, the American Folk Art Museum in New York has become an ever more prominent showcase for the overlapping fields of art brut and outsider art. During this period, Valérie Rousseau, the museum’s curator of self-taught art and art brut, has overseen an exhibition program that has illuminated the works and thinking of some of the visual arts’ most original, inventive autodidacts.
Many AFAM admirers may still feel a sting when they recall that, thanks to some poor-management mishigas, the museum lost its custom-made home on West 53rd Street a few years ago, when it was gobbled up by the Museum of Modern Art. It now operates out of an awkward ground-floor space in a building across from Lincoln Center and maintains offices in Queens; like many small institutions, it makes the most of limited resources.
Still, under the leadership of executive director Anne-Imelda Radice and a governing board, who, together, have sought — and routinely, deservedly, won — funding for ambitious, imaginative programming, AFAM has proven repeatedly that it is the little museum that could — and can and does.
That dedication to quality and substance, and the creativity that goes with it, are in evidence in a double-whammy of fine exhibitions now on view at the museum: Carlo Zinelli, 1916-1974 and Eugen Gabritschevsky: Theater of the Imperceptible. (They will both run through August 20.) Each of these monographic surveys focuses on the evolution of a self-taught artist’s body of work that remains as unusual and compelling today as it was when it was made.
Zinelli, who is better known by collectors and aficionados by his first name alone, holds a big place in the canon of art brut (French for, literally, “raw art”), whose name was coined, and whose parameters were defined in the 1940s by the French modern artist Jean Dubuffet. It was Dubuffet who, along with such artist pals as the Surrealists’ leader, André Breton, took a deep interest in the creations of inventive autodidacts on the margins of mainstream society and culture. Some, but not all, were prison inmates or resident patients in psychiatric hospitals; some had been diagnosed with schizophrenia or other mental illnesses.
For Dubuffet, these unschooled artists, who produced their works for their own purposes, not primarily for an audience and certainly not for a commercial market, were representatives of a genuine, impulsive creative energy that emerged from a deep, pure realm of the human psyche, unfiltered through any intellectualized or critical point of view. Dubuffet and his fellow admirers regarded them with awe.
Dubuffet began acquiring Carlo Zinelli’s works for his own collection in the 1960s. The son of a carpenter, Carlo was born in San Giovanni Lupatoto, near Verona, in northern Italy, and was two years old when his mother died. As a boy, he was sent to labor on a farm; later he worked as a butcher in Verona’s municipal slaughterhouse and by 1936 he had finished his obligatory military service.
However, for reasons that still remain unclear today, in 1939 he volunteered to fight with the Italian forces siding with General Francisco Franco’s fascist Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. In fact, infantryman Zinelli lasted only two weeks in Spain, during which time his schizophrenia became manifest, and upon returning to Italy, he showed signs of withdrawal and mental illness.
Eventually he was sent to the psychiatric hospital San Giacomo della Tomba in Verona. There, he at first produced graffiti-like pictures on walls and in a courtyard, and later took part in an in-house art workshop set up and financed by the Scottish sculptor Michael Noble. Its participants were given plain, white paper and gouache but were not told what to paint. Most of Carlo’s existing works were made with gouache on paper. The artist also used graphite pencil, colored pencil, ink, and found, collaged papers.
By the time Carlo died in 1974, at the age of 57, he had created more than 1900 works of art. As AFAM’s current exhibition points out, today his oeuvre can be viewed as a whole and divided into four distinct groups, reflecting its development over time.
Carlo’s early works are often dominated by primary colors; in these mostly pastoral images, the artist regularly filled his pictorial space with crowds of silhouetted human figures, animals, and buildings, with little regard for their relative, real-life sizes.
Carlo’s compositions became less dense as his art evolved, with sometimes a single human or animal form as a central subject. He moved from scenes of country life to images from his time in the alpine infantry and the war in Spain — churches in mountain villages, rifles, helmets, and soldiers. Over time, the artist expanded his palette, too. Many of his works on paper are double-sided and hang from the ceiling in the exhibition’s cleverly designed, if slightly crowded, display space, allowing viewers access to both the front and back images.
AFAM’s Carlo exhibition features works from its own holdings, as well as from private collections in the United States, the Collection de l’Art Brut (the Dubuffet-founded museum in Lausanne, Switzerland), and the Fondazione Culturale Carlo Zinelli, which is based in Verona and is overseen by the artist’s descendants. One of them, Alessandro Zinelli, who serves as the foundation’s president, told me during the exhibition’s recent opening, “It’s very rewarding and impressive to see an exhibition of this kind here in America. In Italy, in general, an emphasis on older, classical forms of art is big and weighs heavily in the world of art and culture, so it’s rare for unusual art like this to be so prominently showcased.”
Along with some of the artist’s less often seen early works, the current survey includes such iconic pieces as his untitled, gouache-on-paper picture from 1961 showing four blood-red figures standing against a yellow background (on loan from the Swiss museum), and several black-and-white, monochromatic works, which serve as reminders of the powerful graphic quality of the artist’s fluid, picture-writer’s line.
The Italian psychiatrist Vittorino Andreoli, who took charge of San Giacomo della Tomba’s art workshop in the mid-1960s, once wrote that the number four “imposed itself obsessively” on the artist “during his daily actions.” He noted that Carlo routinely “asked for four cigarettes and four matches, turned the key four times, and repeated the same word four times.” That red-and-yellow drawing from 1961 features four standing figures, four seated figures, and what appear to be four tables, along with four smaller men handling wheelbarrows and other motifs in groups of four.
AFAM did not produce a catalogue to accompany its Carlo show but it did publish an attractive, large-format, full-color brochure that is available to visitors free of charge and, as gallery guides go, is a real keeper.
The work of Eugen Gabritschevsky (1893-1979) is still little known even to well-informed art brut fans. Its current presentation, which was organized in collaboration with La maison rouge in Paris and the Collection de l’Art Brut, and shown at each of those institutions in different forms before coming to New York, will surely provoke discussion of its subject’s rich affinities with certain avant-garde art forms of past decades, including varieties of Surrealist and Abstract-Expressionist art.
Like his generational peers, the composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) and the writer Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), Gabritschevsky was born into an affluent Russian family (of diplomats and high-ranking civil servants) that enjoyed the privileges of the elite in the era before the Soviet Revolution. Gabritschevsky’s father, a bacteriologist, was one of the co-discoverers of the scarlet fever vaccine; Leo Tolstoy was a frequent guest in young Eugen’s home. The boy and his siblings spent their summers at an uncle’s large, rural estate, where the inquisitive Eugen took an interest in plants and animals. In particular, he was fascinated by bugs.
Gabritschevsky’s brother Georg once noted that Eugen “seemed to have a special power to penetrate” the world of insects, adding, “He turned them over, fed them, and became one with nature.”
Gabritschevsky went on to study in the still-young field of genetics and to earn a degree in biology from the University of Moscow. In 1925, he won a scholarship that allowed him to travel to New York to study at Columbia University under the supervision of biologist-geneticist (and future Nobel Prize winner) Thomas Hunt Morgan. In his suitcase, the young scientist brought with him a refrigerated container holding larvae of a hoverfly (the Volucella bombylans).
Gabritschevsky’s research interest was the transmission of colors and color patterns in his beloved insects. In the spring of 1927, he moved to Paris to work at the Pasteur Institute, but by 1931, with his mental health in decline, he became a resident patient at the Eglfing-Haar Psychiatric Hospital, near Munich. That institution became his home for the next five decades, and it was there that he produced some 3000 works of art, usually employing techniques in which chance or “accident” played a key role in shaping his imagery.
As a child, Gabritschevsky had enthusiastically made drawings of, as his brother later recalled, “mysterious forms [he had] seen in his dreams.” During his sojourn in New York, Eugen made charcoal drawings of buildings and landscapes; he also drew insects and cells in images related to his scientific research. All of his drawings displayed a keen sense of observation and attention to detail. With their compositions made up of vaguely human or animal-like forms that seem to emerge from color-washed backgrounds, many of the works Gabritschevsky produced in the hospital in Germany feel like the sketch jottings of a natural-history observer crossed with the serious doodles of an explorer in a fantasy world of his own creation.
In his memoir, Speak, Memory (1951), one of 20th-century literature’s greatest journeys through the mists of hindsight and self-reflection, Nabokov wrote, “How small the cosmos (a kangaroo’s pouch would hold it), how paltry and puny in comparison to human consciousness, to a single individual recollection, and its expression in words!” Gabritschevsky seemed to create many a universe on a single sheet of paper, with little more than broad strokes of gouache and flecks of color.
In her essay in the catalogue for AFAM’s Gabritschevsky exhibition and in the show’s wall texts, Rousseau emphasizes how fully integrated the artist’s techniques were with the visible forms they produced. In one wall text she notes, “Gabritschevsky mainly used gouache and watercolor that he spread with brushes and his fingers on a variety of surfaces found in his immediate surroundings: X-ray paper, tracing paper, glossy magazine pages, perforated sheets, and administrative notes. He combined different methods — rubbing, folding, blotting, tracing, and patterning with sponges and rags — conducive to the creation of suggestive forms, which he later refined with a brush or a pencil.”
The results of such experiments include his untitled, undated, gouache-on-paper abstraction (now in the Collection abcd, in France), in which processions of celestial bodies seem to dart across fiery skies conjured up by crisscrossing, diagonal strokes of yellow, orange, red-orange, and some kind of dirty-dishwater green. In another untitled, undated, gouache-on-paper image (this one from the Collection Chave, also in France), a big, pink-and-purple rectangle morphs into a funky face with a beady eye at each of its far ends, neatly poised above a strappy bow tie. To gaze at Gabritschevsky’s pictures is to become immersed in a free, captivating flow of creative energy, an unfolding, unpredictable moment proclaimed in an outpouring of paint, paint, paint.
In a must-see short film on view on a wall-mounted video monitor in the Carlo exhibition, the artist’s recorded voice can be heard saying, in a thick, patchy Veronese accent, “Your head itches.”
He seems to be referring to the feeling that overcame him when he was in the psychiatric hospital’s workshop, energetically producing his art, as well as to a certain sense of impatience with the confined conditions in which he lived, but which were not enough to contain the power of his imagination.
Similarly, diving into the American Folk Art Museum’s two new exhibitions, it’s quite likely that your head will spin — for all the right reasons — in the presence of some very potent expressions from two unsinkable human spirits.
Carlo Zinelli, 1916-1974 and Eugen Gabritschevsky: Theater of the Imperceptible continue at the American Folk Art Museum (2 Lincoln Square, Upper West Side, Manhattan) through August 20.
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