New York

Adolph Wölfli

Adolph Wölfli (1864–1930), who was admitted to the Waldau hospital for the mentally ill in 1895, where he was eventually diagnosed as schizophrenic, devoted 31 years of his life to producing an array of art works in different media, including drawings, musical compositions, poetry, and prose. This show of 30 drawings represented the range of his production, from his multifaceted autobiographical opus to the drawings he made to earn money.

In 1908 Wölfli began his “narrative work,” an encyclopedic series that by his death numbered some 45 volumes with over 25,000 pages. In the opening segment, From the Cradle to the Graave, 1908–12, Wölfli re-presented the first eight years of his life through the world travels of the magical child “Doufi.” Kaiser Barbarossa, ca. 1908, is typical of the fantastically ornamented, obsessively detailed colored-pencil drawings of the first segment of this series. The borders are filled in with decorative bands that frame a central, symmetrically conceived image of royalty, while to the right, Doufi is engaged in a sexual encounter with a woman. These unabashedly grandiose scenes, with their emphasis on personal and sexual freedom, contrast dramatically with the restricted nature of Wölfli’s life.

Wölfli’s adventures turn cosmic in his Geographic and Algebraic Books, 1912–16. In the course of interplanetary travels with his companions—outrageous beasts, and gods—Wölfli ends by reinventing himself as St. Adolph II. In this work musical composition becomes both a narrative and a formal device in these swirling, overdetermined pieces. On the front of the large, double-sided Der Grund=Riesen=Fonttaine=Strahl (The ground=giant=fountain=spray; 1913), St. Adolph II makes love to a goddess; both figures are encircled by concentric rings filled with musical notation and imaginary animals.

In 1917, Wölfli began composing music by means of solmization, replacing traditional notation with an obscure code of words and symbols. In the obsessively numbered Books with Songs and Dances, 1917–22, Wölfli continues to narrate his story, albeit in an increasingly veiled shorthand. Bschuttipumpper=Polka, 1917, presents one such “composition” in flowing, rhythmical text accompanied by drawings. Shortly before this period, Wölfli began to use collage, incorporating pictures from popular journals into his private symbology. His musical and collage compositions continued in 1924 with the Album-Books with Dances and Marches, 1924–28, culminating in the extremely pared-down language of his vast but barely finished The Funeral March, 1928–30, done in the last years of his life.

Wölfli’s oeuvre spans one of the richest periods in the history of Modern art. Yet, though he experimented with abstraction, multiple viewpoints, and the use of both collage and text, he remained radically isolated from European Modernists. This show, which offered some rare works never before exhibited, was a significant contribution to the rediscovery of Wölfli that began in earnest in the ’70s, and which is gaining momentum in our current rush to embrace the artistic Other. It remains to be seen whether the current reevaluation of his work will eventually lead to a more sophisticated consideration of other “outsider” artists—one that seeks to emphasize the continuity rather than the difference between their work and that of the “mainstream.”

Jenifer P. Borum