Roving Eye: An Education


I take some pride in my modest art collection, which consists mostly of works bought when the artists’ prices were very, very low. When it comes to actually possessing the work of the great self-taught artists, I often rue missing the boat on Bill Traylor. Like many recovering formalists in the early 1980s, I had the rug pulled out from under me by the landmark “Black Folk Art” show, curated by John Beardsley and Jane Livingston, when it came to the Brooklyn Museum in 1982. Among that group, I quickly gravitated toward Traylor. And while I managed in a small way to hitch my wagon to Traylor’s rising star by publishing an article on him in Arts Magazine and putting him in an international contemporary art survey exhibition (in Malmö, to boot) before the 1980s were out, it never occurred to me to acquire one until it was far too late. Works that his SoHo dealer, Luise Ross, had offered me for $1200 were selling at a hundred times that amount just a few years later.

My missed opportunity with Traylor created a lifelong fascination with self-taught artists in general, and led me directly into the embrace of Eugene von Bruenchenhein (1910–1983), who is the subject of a stunning survey [through October 9] at the American Folk Art Museum. Von Bruenchenhein, a Milwaukee baker with health problems who retired at 49 and devoted himself to art, constructed a chaotic, visionary cosmology using extremely modest materials, including chicken bones scavenged from the kitchen trash. He produced hallucinatory paintings (the show skimps on these), photographed his radiant wife thousands of times, recycled broken pottery to make his own ceramics, and sculpted elaborate buildings from chicken bones. This is his first museum survey and, while it seems to lay the groundwork for a future, more substantial effort, it will more than do.

Most people don’t think of David Wojnarowicz (1954–1992) as a self-taught artist. While for a period he accepted the artistic mentorship of Peter Hujar, who helped direct his energy toward painting, Wojnarowicz’s primary education came from the New York streets, where he spent years living as a street hustler during the early 1970s. His current exhibition, “Spirituality,” at P.P.O.W., is a good overview of Wojnarowicz-as-mystic: a hunger poet whose personal torment leads him to seek transcendence outside of religion. It was organized in part in response to the censorship of Wojnarowicz’s Fire in My Belly video (included in the show, of course) at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, but the exhibition serves more as a good, overall introduction to his work for anybody wondering what the fuss is about.

Elana Herzog isn’t self-taught, but there’s something so refreshingly anti-academic about her work that it sometimes feels like urban primitivism unleashed. Herzog’s current exhibition at LMAK [closes Sunday], “Into the Fray,” uses her signature technique of stapling colored cloth into the wall and tearing much of it off. This description might make the wrap-around installation seem rough, but it’s actually a quite subtle and poetic look at late modernist painting, ripping it apart and not quite putting it back together again.

Dept. of Corrections & Clarifications: A handful of readers let me know I might have been a bit too tough on New Orleans in last week’s “Roving Eye.” Upon re-reading it, they might be right. I guess part of writing a weekly “column” is that it’s spontaneous, and since I just put together an exhibition of New Orleans art at Ballroom Marfa last week and am gearing up to release the full artist list for Prospect.2 [opening October 22], and since lately it seems to me that all I do is eat, drink, talk and dream New Orleans, just letting off a bit of steam about the place’s downside felt like balancing the scales. At least now, nobody can accuse me, given all those times I praise New Orleans’ artists to the skies, of not being objective.

Above Left: Eugene von Bruenchenhein, Untitled, 1976. Courtesy American Folk Art Museum.
Street Kid (1987), collage and acrylic on masonite. Courtesy PPOW.