New York

Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, Naczka Expanse, 1978, oil on cardboard, 35 3/4 × 22 1/2".

Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, Naczka Expanse, 1978, oil on cardboard, 35 3/4 × 22 1/2".

Eugene Von Bruenchenhein

Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, Naczka Expanse, 1978, oil on cardboard, 35 3/4 × 22 1/2".

The world-in-a-grain-of-sand quality of Eugene Von Bruenchenhein’s work comes not from the work itself—it is expansive to the point of interstellar—but from our sense of the contrast between his art and his life. Born in 1910, he lived with his wife—Evelyn, but he called her Marie—in a small house in Milwaukee; had a job making doughnuts in a bakery; retired at the age of forty-nine, with a health problem contracted through years of working with flour (a baker’s equivalent of the miner’s black lung); lived into his early seventies, on very little money; and meanwhile filled his home with art, self-made, never less than ingenious, and often gorgeous. The catalogue accompanying this show includes a photo of that little house: But for the fact that Von Bruenchenhein had painted the outside walls in several different colors, it’s modest and undistinguished, and Eugene’s and Marie’s lives there were apparently straitened—but the imaginative life inside was both large and intense.

Joanne Cubbs, one of the first curators to study Von Bruenchenhein and the author of a valuable essay in the catalogue, has a nice list of the varieties of his work: “visionary paintings, chicken-bone constructions, ceramic vessels and sculptures, photographs and color slides of his wife, Marie, handmade books of poetry, reams of theoretical writings, reel-to-reel tape recordings that chronicled his thoughts on art and life, geometric ballpoint-pen drawings, make-believe musical instruments, and colorful arrowheads chipped from old glass bottles.” Examples of a good number of these were included in the recent show, including some works never seen before in New York. (Von Bruenchenhein died, in 1983, before any of his work was exhibited—though he wanted a public and tried unsuccessfully to attract dealers’ interest—but it has been shown regularly since then.) Certainly most dramatic were the paintings, striking for their clarity, color, and fine-filigreed detail. Included here were examples of several different bodies of work: imaginary cities and architectures, such as a Chrysler Building–like tower from 1978; botanical works, or works ambiguously botanical or animal, such as the marine Sea Fringe (no. 882), 1960, in which supple yellow stalks, topped by anemone-like heads and standing out brilliantly against a dark ground, reach upward to intertwine with paler tendrils that might be vegetal or cephalopod; a sprinkling of cosmic abstractions; and a single portrait. There were also sculptures—some of the small chicken-bone works mentioned by Cubbs, as well as some large concrete masks that Von Bruenchenhein apparently kept leaning against the outside of his house—and ceramics: clay leaves, flowers, and crowns.

Simultaneously most odd and most endearing, perhaps, was a group of Von Bruenchenhein’s photographs of Marie, often nude or nearly so. Far more thematically and emotionally focused than simple snapshots, these images sometimes recall the soft-core cheesecake genre of the 1940s and ’50s (all those in the show were dated to the ’40s) but also run to formally posed portraits and the frequent use of costumes and textile backdrops, producing a certain theatricality. At a time when art audiences can be expected to have thought about Cindy Sherman, Claude Cahun, and the like, performative readings of these works are inviting, but what is crucial about them is that they are a form of collaboration between a husband and wife, and that the warmth of the relationship everywhere shows through.

Von Bruenchenhein was inventive and resourceful. Doughnut work is not high salary, and the couple had even less to live on after the artist was forced to retire: He dug clay for his ceramics out of construction sites and fired them in the parlor stove, made brushes out of clippings of Marie’s hair, made a crown for her out of Christmas-tree ornaments and a coffee can. DIY skills are invaluable for studio artists, but the question of course is what they do with them; Von Bruenchenhein had visions and obsessions to spare. The artist he most reminds me of is Charles Burchfield, but unlike Burchfield he was self-taught; he had no training. Evidently he didn’t need it.

David Frankel