A passionate horticulturist who worked in a bakery, the late Eugene Von Bruenchenhein spent his days tending to all manner of creations. As a self-taught artist, he also painted, drew, sculpted, and photographed. One of his largest endeavors was a series of sensual photographs of his wife, Marie, taken in the privacy of their home. Thousands of portraits of her dressed like a pin-up girl, shot in the 1940s–50s, came into public view only after Von Bruenchenhein’s death in 1983.
Dozens of pictures of a curly-haired Marie, at times wearing only pearls and heels, are now on view at the Museum of Sex, where an exhibition focuses on erotic works not intended by their creators to be shared with our eyes. Known/Unknown: Private Obsession and Hidden Desire in Outsider Art, curated by Frank Maresca of Ricco/Maresca gallery, is the first show to bring together sexually charged works by self-taught artists, most of whom are no longer alive.
Some of the most curious pieces on view were made by people whose names have been lost to time, such as a wooden cane with a handle in the shape of an open-legged figure or a wooden display mannequin carved like a women’s body. Others are culled from the personal archives of artists whose stories we’ve learned of over time, like Morton Bartlett and Henry Darger. None of the objects, by the dozen or so creators, has ever been publicly shown before — which places viewers in a challenging position. In the case of Von Bruenchenhein, his wife (and collaborator) exhibited the photographs after his death, but the show at the Museum of Sex doesn’t always relay how the works transitioned out of their private spheres. Moving through the dimly lit exhibition, which is structured like a display of mini collections, I felt like a wary voyeur, scrutinizing strangers’ hidden hungers in full view.
Some secrets, like Marie’s portrait sessions, are sinfully delightful to behold for their unimpeded airing of desire. A series of drawings by Edwin Lawson from the 1970s is joyous for its celebration of identity: the cartoon-like pictures of a jocular, busty redhead in vividly colored, elegant outfits are actually self-portraits by Lawson, an architecture professor at the University of Cincinnati who apparently let an alternative vision of himself loose on the page. His widow learned of his cross-dressing fantasies only when she found the drawings after his death.
Fear of discrimination is one of the lamentable reasons why some of these artworks may have been made in the first place — to release suppressed longings. But our open access now to such raw expressions of desire can also be jarring or even disturbing. One of the best-known outsider artists represented here is Morton Bartlett, who sculpted meticulous plaster dolls of children and photographed them as if they were alive, in special outfits. A number of his black-and-white images from 1950 cover one wall, accompanied by a single polychrome figure of a girl wearing a night coat. Some speculate that art making was a way for Bartlett to work through his own childhood experiences, as an orphan since age eight; others claim that his works, which show young girls’ bare skin and even, at times, their underwear, represent a sexual deviance.
I had stronger reactions to pieces by Royal Robertson, a sign painter from Louisiana who died a decade ago, and by Miroslav Tichý, a Czech photographer who passed away in 2011. Robertson’s posterboard images are like comics panels, filled with text and speech bubbles. He suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and believed he was a victim of a worldwide female conspiracy; his resulting visions, though bright and colorful, are rage-filled pictures that target women in violent, misogynist scenes. Tichý obsessed over women in another way: using cameras he made out of cardboard and recycled material, he surreptitiously photographed unsuspecting women in his hometown of Kyjov, focusing on their bodies and often bare skin. The images are soft and grainy, but the distinct photographic process couldn’t prevent me from drawing connections with modern-day shutterbugs who steal shots of women for their personal pleasures.
Considering the myriad types of secrets included in the show, from the sweet to the shocking, the Museum of Sex makes for a particularly fitting host — it’s an institution made for unfiltered looking. Known/Unknown places these secrets on an equal plane, leaving it up to us to judge them as we like. What it does assert, by gathering them in one arena, is that human desire is complex, and people deal with it in ways that may not seem natural or even acceptable to all. That these artists are considered outsiders is irrelevant to our ability to relate to some of their most intimate yearnings.
Known/Unknown: Private Obsession and Hidden Desire in Outsider Art continues at the Museum of Sex (233 Fifth Avenue, Nomad, Manhattan) through September 16.