New York

Eugene von Bruenchenhein

Incised on a plaque above the kitchen door of his modest Milwaukee home, the artist’s description of himself reads: “Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, Free-lance Artist, Poet and Sculptor, Inovator [sic], Arrow maker and Plant man, Bone artifacts constructor, Photographer and Architect, Philosopher.” A full-time baker by profession, Von Bruenchenhein (1910–1983) was a secretive, self-taught artist whose entire oeuvre (paintings, sculptures, photographs, music, ceramics, and poetry) was dedicated to one person, his wife Marie. Shortly after he married Marie in 1943, he began taking erotic photographs of her, and during his lifetime he developed hundreds of them. Von Bruenchenhein always painted sporadically in a naive academic style, but in 1954, confronted by the news of America’s testing of the H-Bomb, he began painting on a more full-time basis, and between the mid ’50s and the late ’60s, he produced a vast body of work. Although he received no recognition during his lifetime, Von Bruenchenhein worked as a man possessed.

This exhibition, his first in New York, consisted of paintings and photographs. All the photographs are of Marie; Von Bruenchenhein obviously idolized her. For all the works’ frankly erotic content, there is a charming innocence to her expression and an asexual sense of her own body as she poses for him, nude or half-dressed, covered by gauze or wearing strings of pearls or even a crown. For Eugene and Marie, these photographs were a form of play. There is her obvious pleasure in being photographed and it is immediately evident that he not only believed that she was his muse and queen, but that she conspired happily. The photographs are the result of a partnership and in this regard they recall Alfred Stieglitz’s views of Georgia O’Keeffe. However, unlike O’Keeffe, Marie neither dramatized herself nor tried to remain distant and cool. These photographs depict a fairy-tale world that combines something of ’40s pinup poses and (though Von Bruenchenhein was probably not familiar with the work) Lewis Carroll’s photographs of young girls on the verge of sexual awakening.

Although Von Bruenchenhein seems to have had no knowledge of Surrealism, a number of his photographs parallel and echo experiments of André Kertész, Man Ray, and others. His superimposition of one image over another or his conscious use of double exposure echoes their celebrated experiments.

The paintings are small and numbered, as if they are pages from a novel or diary. Typically, Von Bruenchenhein laid down a thin layer of oil paint on Masonite or cardboard and then used his fingers, baking tools such as cake combs, and homemade brushes incorporating strands of his wife’s hair, to realize vast landscapes that simultaneously evoke outer space and ocean depths. Lines and forms are made by scratching away as well as by adding other colors and marks. The scratches create transparent light-filled lines and forms, while the colors (turquoise greens and blues, and deep reds) suggest early color prints of ’50s movies. Through his use of unconventional tools, he was able to develop a repertoire of abstract marks capable of creating highly specific effects. As in classical Chinese painting, the images are the result of an imaginative configuration of essentially abstract marks. Cherry blossoms become fantastic monsters whose scale seems simultaneously immense and intimate: “If you looked at a drop of water through a microscope, you’d see what I paint,” was Von Bruenchenhein’s apt characterization of his own work.

There is a constant tension between the emerging light-filled “things” (underwater plant life and imaginary crustaceans) and the ground in which they have been “incised.” Von Bruenchenhein’s vision is of a watery universe on the brink of dissolution and in this tension the viewer feels the artist’s apprehensions and dreads; in these paintings air and water threaten to absorb life into their unchartable dimensions.

Beginning in the ’50s, when most artists were shunning the social, political, and moral consequences of America’s testing of atomic weapons, two “outsiders”—Eugene Von Bruenchenhein and Forrest Bess—were moved to respond with paint in ways that we might call “abstract.” Both horrified and fascinated by the destruction that humanity was capable of unleashing upon the world, they wanted to look at what was before them, to be witnesses. Unable to avert their gaze, they went right on looking. Like Bess, Von Bruenchenhein wasn’t a professional artist; he was an amateur in the best sense, particularly if we remember that the word comes from the Latin amare, to love.

John Yau