Primal Time


It is said that through some sort of mystic cabalistic jujitsu, when all 666 names of God are spoken, the world will end. Over the millennia, artists, writers, philosophers, and musicians have revealed some of these names. Certainly, the mighty Swiss “outsider artist” Adolf Wölfli enunciated a handful of them in his fulminating, mandala-like illuminations, drawings, and collages—105 of which are on view in the American Folk Art Museum’s enthralling survey, “St. Adolf-Giant-Creation: The Art of Adolf Wölfli.” These powerhouses of energy are as magical as they are aesthetic. Two-dimensional passageways for metaphysical travel, they are visual magic carpets capable of transporting viewers to varied psychic dimensions. The best of them are ecstatic shamanic devices. Perhaps sensing this, surrealist potentate André Breton grouped Wölfli with Picasso and Gurdjieff as among the era’s most inspirational figures, pronouncing him “one of the three or four most important artists of the 20th century.” As with most things Breton, the claims are overblown. But not by much. And springing Wölfli from the outsider ghetto was prescient.

Still, no doubt about it, Wölfli was deranged. Born in 1864 in Bern, he was abandoned by his alcoholic father at five. Three years later, his mother died and Adolf became a hireling. In 1882, in a heartbreaking incident that “haunted him for the rest of his life” (according to Elka Spoerri, the late, great Wölfli scholar who co-curated this show), 18-year-old Adolf fell in love with a farm girl whose parents forbade her ever to see him for “social reasons.” In his autobiography, he lamented, “I became downcast, even melancholy, and was at my wit’s end. That same evening I rolled in the snow and wept for the happiness so cruelly snatched from me . . . my heart had suffered too much.” Then he unraveled.

In 1890, Wölfli was convicted of attempting to molest a seven-year-old girl and sentenced to two years in prison. Five years later, he was arrested before he could molest a three-year-old girl, and was sent to an asylum in Bern, where, diagnosed as a schizophrenic, he spent the remainder of his life, dying there in 1930. The decisive moment in Wölfli’s artistic life occurred in 1899, when, after four years of “extreme agitation,” he started drawing.

He never stopped. By the time he died, he had produced a massively fantastical body of work consisting of 25,000 pages of richly illustrated text, 1,620 graphite and colored-pencil drawings (many of himself and his lost love), and 1,640 collages. All were preserved by his extraordinary doctor and biographer, Walter Morgenthaler. Stacked in a pile, this Blakean, biblical ur-work towers 10 feet high.

Wölfli’s masterpiece is divided into five books. Every page is carefully numbered; drawings are folded, tipped in, and can be as large as four-by-four feet. The narrative brims with cataclysm, pandemonium, and redemption (not unlike Henry Darger’s “Vivian Girls” epic). The first book is titled From the Cradle to the Grave, and is Wölfli’s imaginary, grandiose autobiography. Many of his basic forms and motifs are already in place: masked faces, bells, birds, buildings, snakes, snails, and musical notation; curlicues, cross-hatching, dots, and spirals. In the next volume, Geographic and Algebraic Books, he takes off into the realm of myth, recounting his travels through the universe, and his own transmutation into what he dubbed the St. Adolf-Giant-Creation. In this book, Wölfli calculates his vast accumulating wealth in cascading columns of numbers. He then celebrates his almighty status in drawings, songs, polkas, and marches in the next three books, including the 16-part, 8,404-page Funeral March.

Wölfli is often compared to Darger. But Wölfli is a more dogged and abstract artist than Darger. He’s more primal, less pictorial, less winsome. Early on, Morgenthaler noted the horror vacui, or fear of open space, in Wölfli’s work. Indeed, there are no panoramas or large-scale figures in his art. There’s also almost no space, light, or graspable narrative—only undulating, churning surfaces, which are often so jam-packed they can be difficult to look at. Everything is stylized, divided, and small; images oscillate and seem unstable. Yet in many of these drawings, everything whirls together in a rapturous, madly lyrical visual fever dream.

Wölfli has long been a favorite of the art world. Starting in 1921, he’s had museum retrospectives in Germany, Great Britain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the U.S., and is often referred to as “one of the greatest outsider artists.” If forced to judge him by this designation, I’d place Wölfli behind only Martin Ramirez and Bill Traylor, and just ahead of Darger. But it’s time to get rid of this term, along with whatever labels we use to keep certain artists in their place. Regardless of his mental condition, Wölfli’s art is universal. By now, almost everyone would agree that the work of Agnes Martin or Donald Judd is no more “inside” than Wölfli’s or Darger’s. In fact, painting grids or making boxes for a lifetime is as out-there as drawing the cosmos.