Invitations to Dream, Souvenirs of Madness

The exhibition St. Adolf-Giant-Creation: The Art of Adolf Wölfli takes up more than half of the American Folk Art Museum, occupying three of its five floors. It’s on the museum’s third floor, however, where the promise of Wölfli’s art and, for that matter, “outsider” art itself is fulfilled. Because he is, in so many ways, the prototypical outsider-that is to say, not only unschooled as an artist but living on the margins of society-it’s worth going over Wölfli’s biographical particulars in order to clarify how, why and when his art succeeds.

Born in Bern, Switzerland, in 1864, Wölfli grew up in poverty. Abandoned at age 5 by his father and subsequently separated from his mother, Wölfli excelled in school, but led an itinerant life, shuttling around working as a farmhand, handyman and gravedigger. Snubbed by the parents of a woman he intended to marry, Wölfli became erratic and dangerous. After repeatedly attempting to molest young girls, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and committed to the Waldau Mental Asylum in 1895, where he would remain until his death in 1930. It wasn’t until 1899 that Wölfli began to draw.

“His drawings are very stupid stuff, a chaotic jumble of notes, words [and] figures,” observed one of Wölfli’s caretakers, an opinion that couldn’t be more wrong-the drawings are orderly, if not exactly rational . Teeming with intricate, maze-like patterns, the pieces are populated by dancing couples, numbers, “Negroes” and women baring their genitalia. Wölfli’s first extant drawings, zooming funnels of kaleidoscopic incident, approach the psychedelic.

In 1910 or so, color entered Wölfli’s art and, at the same time-perhaps not coincidentally-psychological barriers appear to break down. The work’s intensity takes on a different character: It’s less like a nightmare, more like a fairy tale. There seems to be, at least in these works, a way into Wölfli’s which-way-is-up? realm. His pictorial inventiveness fascinates: Musical notes coalesce into birds, roadways form faces, and tunnels lead us into a hellscape worthy of Dante. Religion weighed heavily on Wölfli’s shoulders-as did, one feels, the impulse to get out from under it.

After 1915, Wölfli’s work becomes increasingly wound up in itself. By the time he begins adding collage elements-advertisements for Campbell’s Soup, reproductions of kitschy Alpine landscapes-Wölfli the visionary is lost to us: The drawings, no longer invitations to dream, are souvenirs of madness. This is where the outsider differs from the typical folk artist and, indeed, the rest of us: in his remove from the world. Compare Wölfli’s Untitled (Divers/Eskimo) (1929) to Ammi Phillips’ Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog (1830-35)-a supernal painting, a keystone of the museum’s collection-and one immediately sees the difference between art as impenetrable obsession and art as a conduit to shared experience. For five years, Wölfli created mesmerizing images. It’s that achievement, along with the opportunity to place it in the context of his troubled life, that makes this a memorable and often unsettling exhibition.

St. Adolf-Giant-Creation: The Art of Adolf Wölfli is at the American Folk Art Museum, 45 West 53rd Street, until May 18.

Lace Doilies

A lot of artists-particularly, though not exclusively, younger artists-aren’t worth bothering with because they don’t bother with the making of art; it is, for them, merely a means of giving theories or grievances material form. Reed Anderson’s art-the subject of an exhibition at Clementine Gallery- is worth bothering with, but just barely. Looking at his perforated drawings, I couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d be happier doing something else-going to the movies, say, or balancing his checkbook.

When this glib character finds himself engaged, however reluctantly, that’s when the work generates tension. Punching decorative designs into paper, using them as stencils through which to paint, and then discreetly re-applying cut-out portions to the page, Mr. Anderson creates pictures that recall Rorschach blots, the furthest reaches of the cosmos and Grandma’s lace doilies. The precision of the craft is impressive, though not as impressive as when Mr. Anderson loses himself in technique and discovers unexpected juxtapositions of space, surface and-less successfully-color. Smaller formats- Money Jungle and Hard Times (2003)-do much to focus Mr. Anderson’s talent. Yet it all seems so arbitrary. This time around, Mr. Anderson predicated his designs on the animal kingdom; in the past it’s been superheroes; next time, he’ll grab something else out of the hat. Whatever . That, in the end, is the problem: Not until he cares will he make art deserving of the name.

Reed Anderson is at the Clementine Gallery, 526 26th Street, second floor, until March 15.

Indomitable Appetite

How deep is the good stuff in the inventory of paintings by the German-born American painter Hans Hofmann (1880-1966)? My guess is: to the last storage rack. Not that the Hofmann paintings on exhibit at Ameringer & Yohe Fine Art have been languishing in a warehouse: The majority of them are from the U.C. Berkeley Art Museum. (The rest are from the Hofmann estate.) The exhibition makes sense of Hofmann’s prodigious output and shows how it’s inseparable from the spirit of the man. In everything he put his hand to, he was propelled by an indomitable appetite for color and space. Brash, vulgar and head-over-heels in love with painting, Hofmann was never less than committed, though often in a rush to get to the next canvas. Concomitantly, Hofmann masterpieces are few and far between; indeed, the idea of a “masterpiece” seems almost beside the point when you’re confronted with an artist as protean as he is.

Delirious Pink (1961) is basically scribble-scrabble; Agrigento (1961) and Gray Monolith (1963) not much more than washes of pigment awaiting augmentation; Maiden Dance (1964), with its abrupt globs of blue, could almost qualify as lobby art-it doesn’t, though, and neither do the others. What redeems even the slightest of Hofmann’s efforts is a careening sense of optimism. Hope is his great virtue-so great, in fact, that many of us are still trying to get a measure of it. This show is as good a place to start as any.

Hans Hofmann: Selected Paintings from the U.C. Berkeley Art Museum and the Estate of the Artist is at Ameringer & Yohe Fine Art, 20 West 57th Street, until March 15.