Outsider artists honored in Wisconsin


Certain exhibitions have a way of staying with you for years, either through the sheer strength of the work, its interaction with your own life or psyche, or some confluence of the two.

A handful of shows have resonated with me so much that they have literally changed the course of my life.  One of those was in 1988 at the Milwaukee Art Museum.  I no longer recall the exact title, but it was a show of work by Milwaukee outsider artist Eugene von Bruenchenhein (1910-1983) that had been organized by the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wis.  It was deeply weird, visually provocative, and psychologically indelible.

At the time, I was a teenager from a small Michigan city who treasured sporadic visits to the museum while visiting my grandparents in Milwaukee.  As corny as it sounds, looking at this work helped me know that I wanted to look at, think about, and write about art in some way for the rest of my life, whether I did so professionally or informally.

It's hard to believe that Milwaukee show was 23 years ago.  Since that time, the standing of von Bruenchenhein (often referred to simply as "EVB") and outsider art have come a long way.  (In fact, as Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel art critic Mary Louise Schumacher astutely points out in her 2010 piece on EVB's changing fortunes, the term "outsider art" may no longer be the best moniker, since it overemphasizes biography at the expense of formal qualities.  "More than ever," wrote Schumacher, "his work stands on its own.")  A major exhibition of EVB's work remains on view at the American Folk Art Museum in New York through Oct. 9, 2011.

I've had occasion to think of EVB again since he was posthumously awarded a Wisconsin Visual Art Lifetime Achievement Award (WVALAA) this month.  The awards program is a joint venture of the Museum of Wisconsin Art, Wisconsin Visual Artists, and the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters.

Aside from EVB, two more of the eight honorees were outsider artists (the late Fred Smith, whose "Concrete Park" is in Phillips, Wis.) and Tom Every, better known as Dr. Evermor, who still regales visitors at his fantastical, scrap-metal "Forevertron" near Baraboo.

I don't know what it is about Wisconsin, but the legacy of outsider and self-taught artists runs deep here.  That legacy continues to be a source of delight and wonder to Wisconsin residents, and it's one for which I, quite personally, will always be grateful.  Von Bruenchenhein's art bore into my imagination at a time when I was most receptive to it, and it helped ignite a wider-ranging, lifelong interest in art and visual culture.

May 25, 2011 3:12 PM | | Comments (1)



Wonderful article! I too was very pleasantly surprised by my first trip to the Milwaukee Art Museum. They seemed decades ahead of many other institutions in embracing edgy and unconventional art. The museum visit was the highlight of my trip.
Beverly Kaye

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