New York

Adolf Wölfli

Grey Art Gallery

In 1895, Adolf Wölfli, a Swiss farmhand, was sentenced to life in a mental asylum for trying to rape a three-year-old girl. He was 31. Shortly thereafter he began making elaborate narrative drawings in lead and colored pencil. They were executed on large sheets of newsprint and later handstitched together into books. The project occupied him off and on until his death, in 1930. The drawings were hailed by the European intellectual community late in Wölfli’s life, thanks mostly to a groundbreaking monograph by his psychiatrist, Walter Morgenthaler: Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler (A mentally ill person as artist) was read and championed by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, among others. Subsequently WölfIi’s art has been acknowledged as an influence by artists such as Jean Dubuffet, Hermann Nitsch, and Paul Klee. Frequently exhibited, studied, and used as the basis for documentary films in Europe, Wölfli has become a more familiar name here since the inclusion of his work in Kassel’s Documenta 5 exhibition of 1972.

Wölfli managed to complete five epic narrative works, each composed of five or more separately bound books of varying lengths. The earliest work is called, in his own idiosyncratic spelling, Von der Wiege Bif zum Graab (From the cradle to the grave, 1908–1912) and the last, Traner-marsch (The funeral march, 1928–30). Wölfli’s art consists of an almost indecipherable visual melange of poetic phrases, lists of numbers, musical notes (sometimes organized into what seem to be actual compositions), graphics, and figurative drawings. These components, mostly executed in browns, blacks, yellows, and reds, are locked together into densely and irregularly patterned designs that sometimes echo the tapestries of various Native American tribes. Some of the most affecting pieces include images scissored from popular magazines of the day. Here the foreignness of the crabbed doodling can be seen in sharpest relief. These are the only instances in which Wölfli’s imaginary worlds conjoin with the rest of the world. The latter throws light on the former without dispelling its phantoms.

Both the show at Grey Art Gallery and the smaller one at Phyllis Kind Gallery are more than a little fantastical. Still there’s a problem or two, namely that the works on display are not individual items. Each is reliant, either formally or in terms of narrative flow, on its preceding and succeeding pages. Even with the healthy selection afforded by this two-gallery format, the work is not well-served by such a conventional manner of presentation. Wölfli’s books deserve to be seen in their original form. Strangely, this exhibition’s otherwise exhaustive catalogue fails to provide an English-language translation for most of the text. As a result, it’s an intriguing show, but an opaque one.

Dennis Cooper