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.
Breaking Down Boundaries
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
collection organized by the French painter
, now housed in Lausanne, Switzerland.
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.
Context Is Key
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.
Audiences might fancy themselves experts—but what comprehension does the casual viewer actually have of bipolar disorder or schizophrenia?
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.
, 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?
, 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.
, or even
: 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
What Do We Talk about When We Talk about Mental Health?
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.
. 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!”
What Difference Does It Make?
, 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.”
. “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.”
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.