Surely the single greatest event of Von Bruenchenhein’s life was his meeting Eveline Kalke, ten years his junior, at the Wisconsin State Fair Park in 1940. After a three-and-a-half-year courtship, they married and remained together for forty years, until his death in 1983. Taking the name Marie, apparently in honor of one of his favorite aunts, she served as his muse and ballast. That he was in love with her—indeed, fixated on her—seems entirely plausible when you see the abundance of photographs he took of her, and only her, in sundry states of undress (see Fig. 5). Often she appears, again unironically, as a vamping diva, tricked out in all the beaded trumpery of Yvonne De Carlo starring as Salome.
With some exceptions most of this is hardly art photography as connoisseurs would usually understand the term. Rather it scrupulously adheres to the format of traditional pinups of the 1940s and 1950s. We shall never know for certain what drove Von Bruenchenhein to make these pictures, which he developed in his bathroom sink and intended for his eyes only. But he seemed pleased and proud that his wife was as fetching as any pinup. Certainly these images are neither adventurous nor especially ambitious as art, beyond a few pretentious double exposures, as in one self-portrait in which he has Marie, a massive disembodied head, hover in the air above him. Whatever his motives, it is consoling to think that, in a life of unenviable hardship, he loved his wife and his devotion was richly requited.
As for Von Bruenchenhein’s generally diminutive sculptures, they are a delight, even if they do not represent his best work. More than anything else, they give proof of an indisputable gift, an inspired hobbyist’s knack for creating compellingly whimsical forms. Too poor to afford better materials, Von Bruenchenhein collected chicken bones from the trash of nearby restaurants or clay from the soil of local construction sites to fashion his bizarre thrones and Maya-inspired heads and polychrome ceramic crowns (see Fig. 3). The most striking of these sculptures are surely the chicken-bone thrones, painted a lustrous silver and gold, that are formed from the felicitous joining of drumstick bones with breast bones to form a sharp and spindly totality (see Fig. 8). In viewing these works one is hard put to explain what they could possibly mean or how they have achieved that powerful sense of rightness, of perfection, that is so immediately evident in them. But in their epigrammatic concision, they achieve something of the entrancing power that we find in such surrealist monuments as Meret Oppenheim’s famous fur-lined cup or Hans Bellmer’s mutilated dolls.
Von Bruenchenhein’s greatest claim to immortality, however, are surely his paintings, and they are wondrous things. Once again, because of his indigence he was compelled to commit his visions to such cheap surfaces as masonite and corrugated cardboard. These surfaces, combined with the artist’s general indifference to paint textures as such, often cause his paintings, encountered face to face, to feel a little shallow and spare. But their great achievement consists in their astounding chromatic and compositional perfection, which has nothing “outsider” about it.
As with his sculpture, it is not always easy to say what is happening in his paintings. Sometimes they flirt with representation, as in his depiction of a mushroom cloud threatening nuclear Armageddon. In another work on the same theme, The Danger We Face (1954), this fear takes the form of feline menace, part hydrogen bomb, part bearded cat. For the most part, however, Von Bruenchenhein prefers biomorphic abstraction.
Among his best works are Culmination and Fantasia Imperialis (Fig. 10), both from 1954. The malachite green that dominates their compositions, together with golden gashes that resemble lava rising from the earth’s mantle, gives these works an almost Asiatic baroqueness that recalls the opiated dreams of Thomas de Quincey (1785– 1859). Four years later, in his Wand of the Genii series, Von Bruenchenhein conjures into being a dense array of sub-aquatic life forms so definitive in their rare and masterful beauty as to call into question, at last, the distinction between outsider and mainstream art (see Fig. 11).
This is not to deny that Von Bruenchenhein was indeed an outsider and that he was surely different from the likes of such contemporaries as Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning. Rather it is to question whether the distinction is relevant any more, when the results are so masterful and assured. After all, much outsider art, even very compelling outsider art, is more interesting for its back story, for the circumstances of its creation, for its embodying of an exceptional personality, than for the objective quality of its visual results. But in paintings like those just mentioned—which fully deserve to be counted among the best American paintings of the last century—Eugene Von Bruenchenhein has every entitlement to be taken as seriously as Pollock or Jasper Johns or anyone else you care to name.
When Von Bruenchenhein died in 1983, Dan Nycz, one of the few acquaintances who were aware of the existence of his paintings and sculptures, undertook to sell them to an institution, in order to raise money to care for Marie, who was ailing and who died six years after her husband. Ultimately, the entire collection was acquired and catalogued by the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.
Eugene Von Bruenchenhein was not, in the conventional sense, a great artist. His paint textures, as I have said, are often perfunctory, and he can lapse at any moment into bathetic mediocrity. And yet there was greatness in the man. Von Bruenchenhein does not need that special pleading and condescending indulgence with which we so often view the art of outsiders. With him, as with the best outsider artists, Henry Darger (1892–1972), Achilles Rizzoli (1896–1981) and Adolf Wölfli (1864–1930), one has a reinvigorated sense of the depth and complexity of even the humblest souls. There is a fallacious tendency to imagine—against the abundant testimony of our own dreams each night—that the imaginative faculty is the privileged domain of culturally exalted figures. The best outsider artists prove otherwise. Whether in their asylums, their hospices, or their prison cells, these unenviable souls recall to us the sublime words of Hamlet: “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space.” They prove—if proof were needed—that a janitor who passes his lonely life in a basement or a baker’s assistant whose lungs are debilitated by decades of floating flour—may yet possess an internal world as rich and infinite as that of the melancholy Dane or even of his creator.
Eugene Von Bruenchenhein: “Freelance Artist—Poet and Sculptor—Inovator—Arrow maker and Plant man—Bone artifacts constructor—Photographer and Architect—Philospher” is on view at the American Folk Art Museum in New York to October 9, 2011.
1 Leslie Umberger, Sublime Spaces and Visionary Worlds: Built Environments of Vernacular Artists (Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 2007), p. 268.
2 Eugene Von Bruenchenhein: Obsessive Visionary (John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, Wis., 1988), p. 32.
JAMES GARDNER is an art and architecture critic who contributes frequently to Antiques.