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.
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.