What does an understanding of an artist’s life story bring to bear on their work? It’s an old question, and of course, one that doesn’t have an easy answer. Biographical information can enrich our understanding of a practice, but it can also narrow a viewer’s focus, forcing critical interpretations through a distorting lens.
We certainly don’t need to know everything about an artist to appreciate her output—whether she smoked or drank; slept with men, or women, or both; was ever arrested, or took LSD, or loved cats—but a hunger for such details is understandable. We are, after all, a curious species.
In the case of so-called outsider art, or art made by those distant from the “art world” (often with mental health complications), it’s an even thornier issue. Curators, and those charged with translating and presenting the story of art to a wider public, have difficult choices to make. What details are relevant, rather than just salacious? Where is the dividing line between honest explication and exploitation?
In conversations with several figures, various aspects of this dilemma come into focus. First, and perhaps most obvious, is that there is no blanket statement or best practice to follow when resolving art’s relationship to mental health. Each artist’s situation is unique, and should be approached as such. Secondly, this is still a dialogue that is in flux, and one in which the foundational vocabulary—including basic terms like “outsider”—are very much contested. The lack of a shared language is itself uncomfortable.
Breaking Down Boundaries
It’s no surprise that folk or outsider art—we can perhaps agree to drop the quotation marks and “so-called” qualifiers—are still wrapped up in questions of mental health. Outsider art’s founding moments were with publications and collections that had their roots in psychiatric institutions, from Hans Prinzhorn’s 1920s volumes (including Artistry of the Mentally Ill) to the iconic Art Brut collection organized by the French painter Jean Dubuffet, now housed in Lausanne, Switzerland.
From the beginning, this was art that was both aesthetic and diagnostic. Its interest was partially as a record of psychic maladies, evidence of how differently wired brains might work. (These collections and archives simultaneously provided a fruitful cache of imagery that modern artists were happy to plunder.)
In the 21st century, we’ve started to slowly slough off categorical divisions, as institutions grow more comfortable showcasing outsider or folk art alongside that made by trained or professional artists. It’s a tendency closely associated with a curator like Massimiliano Gioni and key exhibitions that he oversaw or organized, including the 2013 Venice Biennale and 2016’s “The Keeper” at the New Museum.
Installation view of work by Hilma af Klint in “The Keeper” at New Museum, 2016. Photo by Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio. Courtesy New Museum, New York.
There are still institutions, though, specifically dedicated to the appraisal and scholarship surrounding art made by extraordinary individuals in uncommon circumstances. But these institutions, focused on folk or outsider art, aren’t organizing exhibitions for didactic purposes; the goal isn’t to lamely exemplify, yet again, what schizophrenia or bipolar disorder looks like in visual terms. And so they’re in a difficult position: making a case for the artistic merit of the work itself, while also deciding what amount of background information is necessary to fully appreciate or comprehend it.
Context Is Key
To get a better handle on this dilemma, I met with Valérie Rousseau, the curator of 20th-century and contemporary art at the American Folk Art Museum in New York. At the time of my visit, two exhibitions were on view, showcasing the work of Carlo Zinelli and Eugen Gabritschevsky. Wall texts for both shows seem to perform a familiar elision, hinting at unavoidable biographical facts while refusing concrete details.
Carlo Zinelli, Untitled, San Giacomo Hospital, Verona, Italy 1960. Collection of Audrey B. Heckler. Photo by Visko Hatfield © Fondazione Culturale Carlo Zinelli. Courtesy of the American Folk Art Museum.
“We always caricature our fields by saying that we’re all about biographies, and the market builds mythologies around the artist,” she explains, sitting in a gallery full of Gabritschevsky’s fantastical gouache paintings. In the case of these dual exhibitions, Rousseau says, “I didn’t [include] anything specific about their mental illnesses, and everybody is asking me: ‘Oh, by the way, I know it’s not written on the walls—but can you tell me? What exactly was the diagnosis of Gabritschevsky?’ People are savvy and curious about this connection, and they want to know. But I question the validity of giving them the answer.”
Would a different sort of institution, she wonders, feel inclined to share wall-text information about an artist’s struggles with “addiction, hallucinations, social issues, or anorexia,” she wonders? “You have to be careful about what’s relevant. I’m driven by showing great artworks—fascinating artists, complex lives—and you do want to be verbal, and bring the visitors into something that is an exhibition experience.”
At the same time, she notes, what would providing diagnostic or clinical information really add to that exhibition experience? Audiences, weaned on Hollywood and pop-psychology, might fancy themselves experts—but what comprehension does the casual viewer actually have of bipolar disorder or schizophrenia?
Audiences might fancy themselves experts—but what comprehension does the casual viewer actually have of bipolar disorder or schizophrenia?
That’s not to say that curators should sweep mental health context under the carpet entirely. Rather, it’s one thread of a larger narrative.
In the case of Zinelli, who was a patient at the San Giacomo del Tomba hospital beginning in the middle of the last century, his physical surroundings—the jam-packed institution, the pioneering series of studio classes he took part in there—are important, but so are other things, Rousseau stresses. His upbringing on a farm, appreciation of nature, and fond feelings for a beloved dog are also salient details. Likewise, with Gabritschevsky, the artist’s background as an esteemed biologist provides arguably much more context than the knowledge of the mental health struggles that derailed his career.
“I found it interesting,” Rousseau says, “to show the full range of influences that an artist, a creator, could have had.”
Rousseau brings up another vital point: The way we conceive of mental health and categorize patients has evolved drastically over the centuries. The foundational definitions of sanity and normalcy are constantly shifting. “Timeframe is important,” she says. “If you were in a Swiss hospital in 1945, that’s different than being in one here in New York in 2013. Mental illness has changed, along with its diagnostics and treatments.”
Eugen Gabritschevsky, Untitled, Haar, Germany 1947. Collection Chave, Vence, France, no. 1647. Photo by Galerie Chave © Estate of Eugen Gabritschevsky. Courtesy of the American Folk Art Museum.
Carlo Zinelli, Untitled, San Giacomo Hospital, Verona, Italy 1967. Collection of Gordon W. Bailey. Photo by Adam Reich © American Folk Art Museum © Fondazione Culturale Carlo Zinelli. Courtesy of the American Folk Art Museum.
As a result, a curator who decides to play armchair psychiatrist, at great historical remove, would run the risk of being both inaccurate and unethical.
“I hope my shows refuse the pathologizing of the artist,” says Gioni, whose recent curatorial work has been instrumental in mingling mainstream and outsider practices. In his mind, part of our thrall to the latter has to do with “a certain romanticism, a desire for sincerity” that is lacking in the larger art world.
Take Hilma af Klint, a recently lauded artist from the early 20th century who was influenced by spiritualist movements of the times. Catalog copy on the artist casually suggests that she had “visions”—but what does that even mean?
“These objects and stories help us understand that the rules and notions of conformity and eccentricity are historical, and relative,” Gioni says. “Af Klint had visions or hallucinations—I don’t know if they were pathological or not, but we have enough history under our belts to understand that the definition of pathology is relative, and historical, and cultural. And to be reminded of that might help us also have a healthier relationship with our fellow humans.”
Despite the fact that boundaries between these types of artmaking are slowly dissolving, prejudices and anxieties remain—tied to both artistic legacies and markets.
Rousseau points to the case of Frank Walter, the subject of the Antigua and Barbuda Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. Walter is an artist whose work I encountered there, and later wrote about, focusing on the more colorful and anecdotal elements of his backstory (and doing my own part to dance around mental health issues by including the problematic word “visionary” in my headline).
Installation view of “Frank Walter: The Last Universal Man 1926-2009” on view at the Pavilion of Antigua and Barbuda at the Venice Biennale, 2017.
The Pavilion, and its hefty accompanying catalogue, is a fascinating case study regarding the choices curators can make in dealing with complicated artists. In Rousseau’s reckoning, the Pavilion organizers “really dig into all the possible biographical facts they could—they don’t have an art-historical approach for that publication, which surprised me.” At the same time, she says, “I think the tone was right. I think it was a point of view that was risky.”
But what’s next for an artist like Walter, after the Biennale? Will it be the Serpentine or the American Folk Art Museum? Rousseau somewhat wistfully notes that, once an artist’s work has been received in a particularly high-profile manner, it’s difficult to change course.
“It’s impossible or often misperceived to send them back, to associate them again to a niche, specialized presentation like in our museum,” she says. “It’s [as if]: ‘Oh, no, he doesn’t belong anymore in this category.’ I’ve seen that so many times. It’s interesting how this whole process of recognition in the art world is more like an irreversible path, from one step to another. And I think outsider or self-taught artists do not escape that program.”
In other words, the biographical drama of Walter’s life might act as a wedge to generate (justifiable) interest and intrigue. Meanwhile, the paintings themselves—divorced from those details—are indeed fascinating and adept. If we fast-forward three decades, perhaps Walter’s oeuvre might be assimilated into a larger art-historical narrative that doesn’t dwell too much on his personal eccentricities or mental health. That might all depend on the steps his estate takes, institutionally, as well as the decisions it makes in terms of how his work is packaged, exhibited, and contextualized.
It’s a process that Rousseau and Gioni both allude to, in the case of canonized artists from Vincent van Gogh to Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, or even Yayoi Kusama: At first, the details of the individual life are tantalizing. But after we’re generally familiar with those details, we can somehow move on and appreciate the art on its own terms.
The Challenge of Living Artists
As if this conversation wasn’t complex enough, there’s another wrinkle: the considerations at play with living artists who may have mental health issues or, more specifically, developmental disabilities. Perhaps no New Yorker has been more involved in promoting work from such artists than Matthew Higgs, the director of White Columns, who has created a thriving network between his non-profit institutions and centers around the country, like Creative Growth in Oakland and and Visionaries + Voices in Cincinnati. For these practitioners, he stresses, one thing swiftly trumps the viewer’s curiosity about an artist’s background: the right to privacy.
“Certainly, with historical work, it now seems pretty accepted that the biographical narrative is part of the work of self-taught, outsider, and folk artists,” Higgs says. “But it’s much more complicated when showing the work of living artists with disabilities.”
Here, the balance is twofold: Not encroaching on an artist’s privacy rights—especially in the case of those who are “not in the position to articulate” them directly—while also highlighting the positive work being done by non-profit organizations. “When you go to the desk at White Columns,” Higgs says, “the press text will explain that this is an artist who is affiliated with a center that supports artists with disabilities. But we wouldn’t then go beyond that into establishing a narrative around their medical circumstances or mental health issues.”
What Do We Talk about When We Talk about Mental Health?
Eccentric. Visionary. Prophetic. It often seems like institutions, galleries, and the media have developed a series of lightly coded terminology with which to tip-toe around issues that can’t, or shouldn’t, be fully unpacked in the case of a wall text or short catalog essay.
Is the vocabulary we have, I wondered, lagging behind the rest of the field itself? If so, Gioni sees a silver lining, that “these artists, artworks, and objects are still putting our system in crisis to such an extent that there’s not yet a word for it. That’s the hopeful aspect.”
It often seems like there is a lightly coded terminology used to tip-toe around issues that can’t, or shouldn’t, be fully unpacked in the case of a wall text or short catalog essay.
Andrew Edlin, who runs an eponymous New York gallery and also helms the Outsider Art Fair, is less optimistic when I bring up the handful of phrases that seem to resurface so often within the field. “I don’t particularly like any of these words,” he says. “Visionary can be appropriate at times, but I tend to think of William Blake. Eccentric seems like a euphemism to describe someone who’s a bit weird. There’s that well-known line: The difference between someone who is eccentric and crazy is how much money they have!”
And perhaps, he suggests, the repetition of rote or cliched phrases is simply the byproduct of a certain laziness. “I don’t think we are lacking in vocabulary at all,” Edlin says. “If a writer sticks to the idiosyncratic qualities of each artist, there shouldn’t be any problem in finding the right words to accurately talk about his or her work.”
What Difference Does It Make?
We generally want to know more about all the artists we love—whether or not those facts actually enhance our understanding of the work they make. We crave gossip and insider dirt, or at least a broader picture of a life. “That’s one of the reasons why the Calvin Tomkins [profiles] in the New Yorker are so fascinating,” Higgs says. “It’s one of the rare opportunities to get a glimpse into an artist’s background, what their parents did, how they grew up, what their circumstances are—all of which is useful information.”
But with outsider artists, it’s important not to indulge in sensationalism under the guise of scholarship. Rousseau does admit that, in certain cases, a deeper understanding of someone’s mental health or related background can be fruitful. She points to George Widener, an artist who has Asperger’s Syndrome. “Because of his love for inventories and numbers, it’s not an un-useful fact to know,” she says. “He also has a photographic memory. It helps you understand a cause and effect. But that’s not often the case.”
In other instances, seeing beyond biographies and categorical distinctions seems to be a way out of the morass. “I’m led to believe that there is no difference between the ‘eccentric’ artist and the professional artist, when they’re dealing with matter and materials,” Gioni says. “In the moment they sit down to make, I ultimately don’t think there’s any difference in the knowledge they have of their hands meeting the material.”
Susanne Zander of Cologne-based Delmes & Zander echoes that sentiment. Her gallery represents the likes of Eugene von Bruenchenhein and Prophet Royal Robertson. “Essentially, we are not that interested in the mental history of the artist,” she says. “The selection of the artists in our program is based mainly on the quality of their work, irrespective of whether or not it was produced specifically for the art market. It’s important for us that the quality is on a par with established art production, and that the artists are judged not for any of their psychological problems—but rather for the quality, individuality, and autonomy of their artistic work.”
As for the basic phrase “outsider art,” Zander feels that it has lost its usefulness. “We feel that the term ‘outsider’ focuses too strongly on the personal situation of the artist and misleads the public, who neglect the actual work itself. We see each work not in reference to a classification or terminology, but for what it really is.”
“The most respectful way to talk about an artist with any condition or pathologies is to stick to the facts,” Edlin says. “If there are things that are unknown—but evidence that suggests certain possibilities—than that’s exactly how it should be put across. Focus on the work, and use the biographical info to help interpret the artmaking process.”
At the same time, Edlin recognizes that an exceptional background can add another dimension to the appreciation of the work. “One of the most interesting and exciting results of accurately explaining the details of the lives of outsider artists—or any artists who have overcome incredibly challenging circumstances—is that their art becomes even more transcendent and uplifting for the viewer,” he continues. “It’s important to remember that figures like Henry Darger, Adolf Wölfli, and Martín Ramírez were some of the most downtrodden artists we’ve ever known. Genius resides in some of the most unlikely of places.”
When Ignorance Is Bliss
Disko Girls (Anonymous), untitled, 1970s-1980s (archive-# 1). Courtesy Delmes & Zander, Cologne.
Disko Girls (Anonymous), untitled, 1970s-1980s (archive-# 32). Courtesy Delmes & Zander, Cologne.
“Despite thorough research it has not been possible to identify the artist behind these drawings, found in Germany in the late 1990s,” read the press statement for a group of 50 stunningly idiosyncratic colored-pencil drawings that Delmes & Zander showed at this year’s Independent art fair in New York. Based on its content, the series had been dubbed “Disko Girls,” a title that was “attributed to the work out of respect for the unnamed and unknown author.”
Here, finally, is a case study that happily short-circuits everything we’ve just discussed. For the moment, it’s possible to stand in front of these strange portraits—titillating, disturbing, campy, playful, raw—with absolutely zero baggage.
Perhaps art-historical sleuthing will turn up the artist’s identity in the next few years. Perhaps we’ll find out that he was an orthodontist in Cologne who drew on the weekends, or that she was a university student who copied designs from advertisements and pornographic magazines. Biography will become a magnifying glass used to zoom in on what was once peculiar, elusive, and magnificently foreign about the artist. With any luck, that day will never come.
Header image by Corey Olsen for Artsy.