Thursday, May 1st, 2003

St. Adolf-Giant-Creation: The Art of Adolf Wölfli

February 25 – May 18, 2003
The American Folk Art Museum
45 West 53rd St, New York
Tuesday to Sunday 10-6 (Friday til 8)

Adolf Wölfli (1864-1930) The Herdsman/Rose of Australia 1911 Pencil and colored pencil on newsprint, 19½ x 14 7/8 inches Museum of Fine Arts, Bern, Switzerland
Adolf Wölfli (1864-1930) The Herdsman/Rose of Australia 1911 Pencil and colored pencil on newsprint, 19½ x 14 7/8 inches Museum of Fine Arts, Bern, Switzerland

The products of Adolf Wolfli’s horror vacui are daunting. His maniacal doodles are imaginative but his need to fill the entire page limited the impact of many of his compositions. With each drawing he created an entire world from scratch. His drawings are incredibly busy. They are a combination of private symbols, pure design elements, words and numbers. They can be compared to the doodles people make on notepads when they are on the phone, medieval illuminated manuscripts, Persian rugs, and Tibetan sand mandalas.

Wolfli spent over thirty years of his life in the Waldau Mental Asylum and was accused on three separate occasions of molesting children. It is hard to avoid psychological necrophilia when considering Wolfli’s huge corpus of work. One wonders how many people living out their adult lives in prisons or psychiatric wards would make interesting art if the televisions were removed from the institutions and they were provided with art supplies. Wolfli emptied his entire being through the tip of a pencil.

Wolfli couldn’t draw the human figure to save his life, and the only way to differentiate between his male and female figures is to look for the dress and high heels. He places perfectly round heads amid Byzantine patterning; usually surrounded by a tear drop or archway, or at the center of the composition. These heads are round as marbles, have penis-like noses and raccoon eyes, and remind me of Uncle Fester from the Addams Family. Sometimes they serve as a strange stand-in for Wolfli and at other times they are just part of the design.

Repetition and subtle variation are at the heart of Wolfli’s artwork. The rhythmic patterns that predominate each of his drawings, include musical notations for nonexistent scores, brickwork, words and numbers, dots and dashes, leaf shapes, and a variety of geometric forms. The flowing patterns create dissonance and his compositions tend to vacillate between order and confusion. After staring at them for a while internal rhythms are fleshed out. Although the trained eye could differentiate between the early and late work, Wolfli’s subject matter and drawing style changed very little, and it is pointless to break his work up into periods. His drawings are busy, there are many layers. One is overwhelmed by the intricacy of the design. Text and image are inextricably entwined. The viewer’s eyes tend to focus in on separate sections. Every square inch demands close scrutiny. There are really only two types of pictures in this exhibit: the drawings which are essentially intricate patterns studded with private symbols, and sheets covered in Wolfli’s handwriting or rows of numbers, with collage elements and drawing added to some of them.

One marvels at Wolfli’s ability to draw straight and curved lines freehand with such precision. My favorite pieces in this extensive exhibit are on the fourth floor of the museum. They were done by Wolfli before 1910. There is a rich variety of gray tones in these pictures, and black and white are used very effectively. Since Wolfli had no formal training he used, stippling, cross hatching, and outlining to create coherency and variation. I find these early works to be more clearly articulated and balanced than most of the later drawings. The bars of white with crisp ruled lines drawn within them in such drawings as Assizes of the Middle-Land, 1904, Juno, Goddess of the Negroes, 1904, and The Divine Almighty and Wisdom at the Zenith, 1905, are a welcome relief for the eyes, and energize the composition by creating a strong push and pull effect. These drawings hold together when viewed close up and at a distance. The inventiveness of Wolfli’s designs in Sunring, 1905 are mind-blowing.
Felsenau, Bern, 1907, the closest Wolfli ever came to drawing a specific locale, is a visionary landscape. A road and a fence run through the center of the composition, and there are brick walls and houses spread about. There is an interesting tension between the flatness of the forms and the suggestion of depth. There is a beautifully shaded smokestack in the foreground, which mars the landscape the same way a real smokestack would. Forms are clearly articulated and there is a dynamic interplay of straight lines and curved forms (which you will find in a number of other works).

Wolfli was a weak colorist but this might be due to the fact that he had limited supplies at his disposal. His approach to color often does not go beyond coloring book techniques. He filled in outlined forms. He definitely got better at blending colors in the later work. His drawings are so meticulous that you can sense the tremendous amount of energy Wolfli was suppressing. The San Salvador, 1926, is perhaps the largest drawing in the exhibit and I think it is the only one that indicates Wolfli had any talent as a colorist. The subtle gradations of color call to mind the work of Wilfredo Lam. After looking at this fanciful exploration of the oval and the right angle I tried to imagine what Wolfli would have done if he had used oils and brushes, if he had incorporated more empty spaces into his work. The interlocking shapes resonate and do not cancel each other out in a wall of busyness. There is a frame within a frame and concentric oval shapes in the inner frame. The layers of detail are contained in simple geometric shapes and the whole composition resonates towards the center and back to the edges of the frame in a mesmerizing way, without becoming a confused mass of disparate parts.

I don’t think the pages and pages of Wolfli’s handwriting and rows of numbers, some of which have magazine clippings added to them, have much artistic value. The fact that Wolfli generated thousands of pages of this nonsense, instead of just hundreds, doesn’t make it more meaningful. I think we are being asked to buy into a false myth. Unlike Breton and Dubuffet, who romanticized mental illness, I don’t think every utterance from a mentally ill person is profound. Wolfli’s writing definitely reveals his obsessions and fantasies in raw form, but not much else is communicated. Would anyone really enjoy reading thousands of pages of Wolfli’s writing? I doubt it. Like Van Gogh, Wolfli transcended his limitations. But unlike the Dutch master, Wolfli’s art is an acquired taste. His drawings are explorations of psychic facts rather than physical facts, a melding of rational impulse, clarity of purpose, and a perpetual longing for real and unreal places outside the asylum walls.