When I asked the German gallerist Susanne Zander, who has been exhibiting outsider art and art brut since 1988, if she was trying to expand the definition of art she said, simply, "Yes." Thanks to two simultaneous exhibitions on view through Apr. 18th, viewers will have ample opportunities to experience Zander's perspective: "System and Vision," a group show she curated with her gallery co-owner Nicole Delmes, at David Zwirner's 19th Street location, and "Margret: Chronicle of an Affair-May 1969 to December 1970," at White Columns. (Last week Delmes & Zander also presented the work of Harald Bender at the art fair Independent.) The fuzzy definition of "outsider art" becomes even fuzzier in the hands of the collaborative duo. They sometimes use the phrase "conceptual outsider art," which they will be the first to admit only complicates matters. Recently, inside David Zwirner's headquarters, A.i.A. had the opportunity to speak with Zander.
1) One of the most fascinating (and frustrating) things about the artists in "System and Vision" is how little is actually known about their lives. Which artists in the show do you know the least about, and who would you like to discover more about?
I know nothing about the American artist known as Type 42 and almost nothing about William Crawford. We know nothing about their lives but I think we can understand something about them through their work. I'm also very curious to learn more about Harald Bender. We received his estate in December. The art is complex. He works with both found and his own fabricated patterns and diagrams. He cuts and splices forms and symbols and then makes generations of photocopies, then he draws and adds color. The process features both scientific equations and pseudo formulae. Even his mail, including the bills and legal notices he received, can enter into the mix. We just don't understand all the connections. The archive is enormous, 2,000 binders filled with photocopies. It's an endless chain of associations. For example, we know he was interested in photos of Mecca, which he would rework over and over. He associated images of mosques with nuclear reactors. Perhaps most strange, he believed that he had a uterus and that he kept an "atomic secret" inside it. That secret could destroy the world. By keeping the secret hidden he was saving us.
2) I'm most curious about Type 42.
We really don't know anything about him. We got the work, black-and-white Polaroids of famous actresses shot off television screens, from the American artist Jason Brinkerhoff. Brinkerhoff was shown an album by the dealer David Winter. There are nearly a thousand photos. Type 42, who gets his name from the type of film stock he used, must have watched thousands of films to produce them. The women look to me as if they've been captured, trapped by his frame, as if he wanted to somehow keep them. I get the sense that they want to get out.
3) Are you sure the artist was a man?
You are the second person to ask me that question. Cindy Sherman was the first. Personally, I'm 100% sure, but Sherman thinks it's possible that the artist was female. If you read Sherman's text [in the introduction to the book Type 42: Fame is the Name of the Game], she uses the phrase "this person." Sherman also explains that the work is not about sexuality. Some of the films, for example, provided opportunities for him to shoot nude scenes. But he didn't. I think the images are erotic but not sexual. The actresses are often caught with very emotional expressions. It's as if he was specifically trying to capture moments that the actresses could not control.
4) I believe there's an artist that you know things about, but won't reveal, because you're protecting him?
Yes. You're talking about the show at White Columns. Everything in the show was found in a suitcase when workers were clearing out a flat. The suitcase is a journal of a six-month love affair between a man, Gunther, and his secretary, Margret. There are hundreds of beautiful photographs, plus documents he made describing how and where they had sex and where they traveled. There are also sealed envelopes of fingernails and hair. We know that they're both dead but we don't know anything about their families. I know their last names, but I want to protect them both.
5) "System and Vision" is an appropriate title for the Zwirner show. Every artist you're showing is systematic to the point of obsession. Can you possibly name a favorite?
Horst Ademeit! He was obsessed with what he called "cold rays." He took Polaroids of things like fruit flies, spiders and hundreds of seemingly innocuous street scenes to observe the effect the rays had on them. He covered the edges of the photos with his own miniature writing: cryptic observations supplemented by inexplicable numerical systems. Do the rays exist? It doesn't matter. He was raised in an orphanage. He eventually went to an art school in Cologne where he got a degree in textile design. Then he studied with Joseph Beuys in Düsseldorf-but that only lasted three days. Beuys told him he wasn't very talented-which is interesting because Beuys believed everyone was an artist. Ademeit went on to study social work but at some point something in him changed; I think the cold rays took over his thinking. Paranoia set in. He was never officially diagnosed but I personally believe there was some sort of mental illness involved. After his encounter with Beuys he started to make non-art. His work became a necessary aspect of his life. He also became obsessed with measuring things like, for example, cracks in his desk or the sidewalks outside his home. I remember visiting him in his flat. He turned on one of his gadgets and it displayed a number. I asked him what did it mean? He replied, "I don't know." He wasn't interested in what the number meant-but it still played a part in his meticulous ongoing documentation.