We are certainly entitled to call Eugene Von Bruenchenhein an outsider artist, but he himself would not have seen it that way. Yes, he was self-taught and impoverished and surely he felt deeply alienated from the society that surrounded him. But you could say as much for many another artist who achieved success over the past century. As for Von Bruenchenhein, he certainly tried to win entry into the contemporary art establishment and exhibited a few of his works in a gallery in his native Wisconsin. But to his great and permanent embitterment, the art world wanted nothing to do with him and, if the truth be told, he probably did not belong there.
And so, less through choice than through necessity, Von Bruenchenhein turned inward, so successfully that most of his friends and most of his colleagues in the bakery where he worked for many years had no idea that he harbored the slightest artistic ambition. Yet within the little kingdom of his ramshackle house in Milwaukee, he was as universal an artist as Michelangelo fulminating across Counter-Reformation Rome. Few were the mediums that did not provoke his creativity. Though primarily a painter, he turned his hand to photography, sculpture, ceramics, and even architecture, if you count his inventive work on the exterior of his house. Like Michelangelo again, he even wrote poetry that reveals his powerfully unconventional personality. But Von Bruenchenhein was unconventional in a way that was quite different from the conventional unconventionaity of mainstream art over the past five generations. In addition to being self-taught, he had no access to great museums and, perhaps most crucially, he derived his inspiration, not from the mainstream of western high culture, but rather from the substrate of popular culture and current events that lay all around him.
Simply put, the reality that Von Bruenchenhein accepted with few questions was the mid-cult ethos of Life and Look magazines, and the low brow world of the DC and Marvel Comics of yore. This was a world of mythic machismo, of hypermuscular superheroes and Charles Atlas enhancements for the physically insecure. And Von Bruenchenhein, it seems, had reason to be insecure. Given his fairly frequent mention of the fact in his writings, he was acutely aware of his short stature. As though in compensation, a number of shirtless self-portrait photographs suggest that he was mightily proud of his well-developed physique (see Fig. 1). But then Von Bruenchenhein was, in most every respect, a man of the brittlest pride: forced to retire from his bakery because the minute particles of flour had weakened his lungs, he lived on his Social Security check of $120 a month because he was too proud to go on welfare. At the same time, he read somewhere and never ceased to believe that the “Von” in his surname suggested some connection to European royalty.
At first blush, Von Bruenchenhein’s attraction to the ethos of popular culture might put one in mind of the pop art that coincided with much of his career as a painter. But his work is entirely free of pop’s strategic irony and calculated self-referentiality. Pop art emerged out of the theoretical arguments about high culture that were buzzing around the New York art scene at the end of the 1950s; Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, by contrast, was a self-invented nonpareil who consumed popular culture in all the innocence of his large and unironic heart. If he is truly to be counted an outsider artist, that status surely consists in nothing so much as his working assumption that popular culture was high culture: for him, the hyperbolic pretensions of Marvel Comics and science fiction possessed a status every bit as exalted as high culture, which—in any case—he appears rarely to have encountered.
“I am from another world,” Von Bruenchenhein once wrote, “I always felt so.”1 In fact he was from Marinette, Wisconsin, and, for all his eccentricities, it is hard to imagine him living and painting in any other place or at any other time than the United States in the middle years of the twentieth century. Part of his great appeal as an artist—especially as an outsider artist—consists in his summing up so well, because so unconsciously, the grand bombast and triumphalism of middle America after World War II, with its fear of imminent nuclear annihilation and its limitless worship of science.
Shortly after Von Bruenchenhein was born in 1910, the second of three sons, his family moved to Green Bay and later to Milwaukee. Beyond that, the few details of his life shed little if any light on his art: his preference for cats and cacti, the fact that he worked in a florist’s shop and in his father’s grocery store before finding employment in a local bakery. Von Bruenchenhein’s mother died when he was very young and he was raised by his stepmother, with whom he appears to have been on very good terms. Among the disparate details of his life one notes that in 1918 he contracted influenza and very nearly died of it. This left him with a sense that providence had saved him for some higher purpose. Though he had no formal schooling beyond high school, he displayed throughout his life an autodidact’s zeal in expressing his often undeveloped opinions, as in his essay on the brain or in another grandiosely titled work, “The Bruenchenesian Theory, or Living in the Backyard of Space: The Condensation of Time and Distance.”2 He diligently dispatched these ponderings to everyone from local newspaper editors to think tanks to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.