Maurizio Cattelan is on a mission to make this Wisconsin artist a household name
To most people who saw him around Milwaukee, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein (1910-1983) made his living working at a flower shop and then at a bakery. After developing a respiratory problem, probably due to exposure to flour dust, he stopped working at the age of 49 and lived on social security.
Yet Von Bruenchenhein had a very different life behind closed doors: he was a prolific, self-taught multimedia artist. In addition to taking racy photographs of his wife Marie, he produced vibrant, spooky paintings fusing ideas about nature, geopolitics, science fiction, and the apocalypse. He also built small sculptures from chicken bones.
Von Bruenchenhein’s work went unrecognized during his lifetime, and repeated attempts to attract the attention of local dealers were met with silence. It was not until after his death, when a family friend introduced his work to a curator at the Milwaukee Museum of Art, that his vast body of work began to attract attention.
Now Von Bruenchenhein has found another unlikely champion: Maurizio Cattelan. The Italian artist has teamed up with Marta Papini, artistic organizer of Cecilia Alemani’s Venice Biennale “The Milk of Dreams” exhibition, to organize a presentation of Von Bruenchenhein’s work at the stand of the Andrew Edlin Gallery at the Outsider Art Fair in Paris. Held at the Atelier Richelieu, a short walk from the Louvre, this is the tenth edition of the fair, which runs from September 16-18.
Cattelan has been fascinated by Von Bruenchenhein’s work since discovering it at a group exhibition in Chelsea many years ago. “His paintings impressed my memory in the same way that light does with the film of an old camera.”Cattelan told Artnet News. “I couldn’t stop thinking about them.”
Meanwhile, Edlin, who is also CEO of Outsider Art Fair, said, “Maurizio loves this area and has been at our fair for as long as I can remember. His enthusiasm for Eugene Von Bruenchenhein was unmistakable when he came to see our last solo exhibition of his work at the gallery” in December 2020.
On display at Edlin’s stand are nine paintings that Von Bruenchenhein produced between 1956 and 1960. Although at the time his audience was limited to his immediate family and friends, the artist numbered and dated all of them. canvases, recording the exact day in oblique, looping writing. through the picture. He painted frantically, often completing a work in a single day. This inspired Cattelan to bring historical context to the presentation by displaying each work below the first page of The New York Times from that same date.
“Recently, I saw an exhibition of conceptual art from the 1960s which made me think that Von Bruenchenhein’s work could be read in this sense; he dated each painting to the exact day, as On Kawara had done all his life,” Cattelan explained. “When I spoke to Andrew Edlin about it, he suggested that we put on a show that would suggest that interpretation.”
Cattelan’s idea of associating paintings with New York Times allows us to see what issues preoccupied Von Bruenchenhein at the time. For instance, Genius Wand, November 5, 1956 depicts concentric circles in rippling pink, green, yellow and cream exploding into the night sky above the arcades of arches. The headlines of The New York Times November 5, 1956, report on Britain and France invading Egypt “by air” during the Suez Crisis. Von Bruenchenhein’s disturbing painting could be read as a meditation on the threat of the airstrike to Egyptian heritage.
This painting is also the only one on sale in the exhibition. Priced at €65,000, it is one of the most expensive pieces at the fair, where many works are in the four-figure range. Edlin sourced Von Bruenchenhein’s other paintings from private collections; five of them belong to the artist KAWS.
Sometimes the link to the first pages of The New York Times must. No. 535, January 1, 1957– a dynamic painting with dragon-like creatures amid swirling abstract elements – does not seem tied to any specific current event. Meanwhile, atomic age (No. 887, December 4, 1960)which represents a flaming mushroom, seems to recall the first French nuclear test, whose code name Blue Jerboafrom February 1960.
Also on offer are several drawings, priced at €12,000 each, and photographs, including a black and white portrait of Marie shirtless and gazing lovingly at the lens, priced at €6,000. A self-portrait on loan from the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, is displayed alongside a similarly styled portrait of Mary. “I don’t think Von Bruenchenhein would have been so prolific without Marie”said Cattelan.
Indeed, Von Bruenchenhein is perhaps best known for his pin-up photographs of Marie. A selection of these images appeared in the exhibition “Alternate Guide to the Universe” at Hayward Gallery in 2013. That same year, several of the artist’s futuristic paintings appeared in the Venice Biennale’s central exhibition, “The Encyclopedic Palace,” curated by Massimiliano Gioni. Von Bruenchenhein’s work was the subject of a solo exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum in New York, which opened in 2010.
It is the coherence of Von Bruenchenhein’s visual language that appeals to Papini. “What I find fascinating about his practice is the visual consistency despite the diversity of media he has adopted”, she said. “Whether it is paintings or bone sculptures, photographs or clay vessels, one can always see a Red string that connects one room to another, as if they were designed to live together.
Nevertheless, Von Bruenchenhein is still considered a foreign artist, which Cattelan is extremely keen to address. “I believe he was an outsider only because no one let his job be in the art world” official “before his death, even though he strove for this kind of recognition all his life”said Cattelan. “It’s so sad that I feel like we have to fix it. I wish he could see how much his work is loved now.
The market has also warmed up. Although Von Bruechenhein’s work is still relatively rarely sold at auction – only 31 of his works have ever sold, according to the Artnet price database – his prices are climbing. His auction record of $47,500 was set in February at Christie’s New York for a small 1958 oil painting, which far exceeded the high estimate of $30,000.
On a personal note, Cattelan added: “I wish I had half his determination and his self-confidence. He was so convinced of what he was doing that he didn’t stop and give up. I’m very insecure all the time, and looking at my work, I see a lot of mistakes and things I’d like to change. I don’t think my work has anything to do with his and that’s probably what fascinates me the most.
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